Its really just a recapitulation of the old Puritan myth that you’ve got to suffer to be saved. Do you?
I know plenty of people, especially young people, who’ve worked themselves to the bone. Educationally, professionally, personally. And guess what? There’s no pot at the end of the rainbow anymore. They’re not very successful. That’s not a judgment. Just an observation about society these days, and it’s lack of opportunity.
Hard work doesn’t equal success anymore. Maybe it never did, but that’s another topic.So what does? Doing something that matters.
Changing human lives in some small but significant way. Really giving, affirming, improving life. That’s not to say billions of dollars will shower down on you from the sky if you do.
But: a) your skills will be in demand because you’ve created a demand for them; b) you’ll have a decent life; and c) it won’t kill you inside to live it. You’ll have sense of abiding meaning, a reason for being here. That’s worth much, much more than money.
Success doesn’t equal relentlessly pointless hard work, or even smart work. There’s no need to crucify yourself for it. You won’t be saved that way. Mattering, which is a freer, truer thing than success, comes from “doing stuff” with a point. Breakthroughs. How do you have them? First, be human. Be open, humble, vulnerable, here. Then you’ll begin to be inspired, driven, touched, pulled, called to do something that matters a lot, even in a tiny way.
Polish the Mirror, Don’t Break It
So where do life affirming breakthroughs come from? Not from hard work in yesterday’s sense. You can work on an excel spreadsheet forever and hello, mediocrity. Breakthroughs that matter really come from the very skills that we (massively) undervalue today. Let me gift you a pointed example.
You’re at a job interview. The recruiter says: so what are your skills? You say: empathy, courage, grace, rebellion, imagination. The recruiter says: “next!”. We undervalue those skills. That’s why you shouldn’t. Those are the ones you really need to build a life that matters.
Don’t give up on them no matter what, no matter what recruiters, bosses, counselors, mentors tell you. They’re wrong. They are the skills you really need to create life affirming breakthroughs, not just the capacity to robotically suffer deep in your soul because what you’re spending your days doing doesn’t matter at all.
So go rebel. Cultivate them. Forget about this comfort zone nonsense. Read great books, see great art, have big ideas, ignore the cynics. Will that make you uncomfortable? Probably. But it will also make you whole, true, really here. More human. A little more every day. Not just more broken. I can break a mirror in many ways. But the real question is whether I’m polishing it. Both are a little uncomfortable for the mirror. But only one makes it clearer. Truer. Wiser.
Go Up. Not Through
You can go further and further past the discomfort zone. You can hit the agony zone. Beyond that is the numbness zone. And after that lies the zone of self destruction. That’s the “get out of your comfort zone” thinking taken to its logical limit, right? Just keep going.
You’re going the wrong way. Each step you take in this direction makes you sadder, angrier, more bitter, desperate, alone, afraid. Slowly, you’ll begin to reject people, ideas, human possibility itself. You’ll end up saying: “hey! Everyone should suffer just as I had to suffer!!”. That’s more or less the story of now. Don’t just go in the direction of more suffering. What should you do? The answer’s more subtle than that. Go up. Here’s what I mean.
Do what the wordless voice inside you says. That’s your intuition, your “gut feel”, your moral compass. It’s really your spirit, your inner ocean, the true you. It’s leading in the way of a natural, effortless way of being, acting. The whole blind swordsman thing. But there’s a lot of discomfort getting there.
Sometimes, your inner voice, your ocean, tells you things that require your little mind, your fragile and needy ego, to suffer. That’s good suffering. It says: “this person, place, idea, way of life isn’t right for you. Let’s find a better way”. Listen.
Now you’re going up. Towards a higher level of being. Your mind is suffering. It’s wondering, asking, maybe a little anxious. That’s OK. Because m deep in you, there is peace, stillness, opening a sense of rightness, not tightness.
Now you can feel gratitude, compassion, justice, beauty, right? That’s where breakthroughs come from. Most of us do the opposite. We dent our needy, fragile egos with more pain, because that’s what we’ve been told to do. Just take the pain of the pointless job, the abusive relationship, the dead end career. Grin and bear it. It’s good for you. That’s bad suffering. It just makes us hurt, and hurt without purpose leads to self destruction.
The ego telling itself to suffer for no reason just because “suffering is good”, and the spirit telling the ego to suffer for a transcendent reason are two vastly different things. Two very different ways of moving in this world. That’s what the little drawing above says.
When the needy ego leads you into the zone of pain, you’ll end up in the wilderness. Lost, alone, maybe numb with the cold. It doesn’t know how to go anywhere. When your inner ocean leads you towards doing what matters, yes, you'll suffer along the way. But that suffering has a real and mighty purpose. Have you guessed it?
It is teaching you how to love. And why. And so giving you the greatest gift of all: letting you know what this little life really is. Not just suffering without a point. But the pain of the seed breaking open, so the tree that holds the forest that holds the sky can be born. All that. Is in you. Suffer well.
Umair, Philadelphia, August 2016
umair haque, coach, lover, vampire.