This blog has been discontinued. See Adam Gonnerman for all future posts.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Three Conditions of the Secret of Life

As I currently see it, there are three fundamental conditions to unlock the secret of life. Not the meaning of life, mind you. I believe that we make our own meaning for our lives, or else borrow it from something pre-established, like a formal religious belief. This goes beyond meaning to what makes a life satisfying, whatever the conditions. It doesn’t deny or neglect the reality of psychological pathologies, but rather considers them part of the human condition to be managed through the course of life.

These three conditions are as follows:
  • Work at getting really good at something.
  • Be part of something bigger than yourself.
  • Matter to people you care about.
There was a time in my life that lasted far longer than I care to admit that would have denied these conditions, at least in part or with modification. To me, none of it mattered if there wasn’t some ‘ultimate purpose.’ It wasn’t enough for me if the end result was a life well-lived, or even a world left a little bit better. Once you’re dead, that’s it for you and the world moves on, eventually forgetting about you. Even if you’re remembered, that does nothing for you personally, as a dead person.

And so, I sought solace in religion, finding it for a good while within Christianity. I figured that if I devoted my life and everything I did to God in Christ, then it didn’t matter whether I was remembered by anyone but God. This eventually broke down when I couldn’t hold together the core commitment to theism due to cognitive dissonance. Frankly, I had come to know too much.

The three conditions I listed are not new. Psychologists, philosophers, and theologians have been discussing them and other, similar ideas for many centuries. And yet, for me, they seem pretty powerful, likely because viewed in this way, they contradict some of my core prejudices.

Growing up, I observed that generations had come and gone in the place where I lived. In the depression I experienced from my adolescence onward, I interpreted the pattern of growing up, going to school, getting married, and working until at least retirement before dying as utterly futile. I had a classmates in high school who strove to achieve the honor role and who immersed themselves in ‘extracurriculars.’ This was all senseless to me, because it would only lead to college, work, marriage, and death.

Here’s the thing: with my faith, I went on to go to college, get married, and work. Death will come soon enough. I’ve raised children and changed careers along the way. I’ve experienced betrayal a few times before the one closest to my heart, which ended my marriage. Life has happened, whether I wanted it to or not. And, of course, I’ve come to understand that there is no known life beyond this one, and that if there is any omnipotent God, that God is not benevolent. I’ve set aside such supernatural beliefs in favor of beginning and ending with informed, empathetic reason.

So, instead of fighting against the pattern of life, I think it better to approach it with the three conditions in mind. They really aren’t in any particular order, but I’ll go through each one as listed below.

First, work at being really good at something. There’s nothing like watching a master at work. I’ve watched a woodworker make sculptures that didn’t seem possible. My late father planted gardens that flourished and produced more than we could eat as a family, so that we gave away produce to friends. In Brazil I saw people playing soccer with grace and ease that could only come through devotion to the game and a great deal of practice. When I first started learning Portuguese in 1997, while in Brazil, I couldn’t see the day in 2012 I would be interpreting for American religious scholars at a conference in that country. It started small, with flash cards, a dictionary, and many halting conversations, but with time came fluency.

We can be good at more than one thing. I don’t accept the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ cliche. A person can develop admirably in more than one area. Sometimes, it’s not even about the individual areas of expertise, so that even if someone doesn’t have mastery in any one area, the sum of their skillset is something greater that focus would have provided for them. It is important though, I believe, to try to find some harmony or sense in the skills that one develops, so that they can be put into practice usefully.

Whether in a single concentration or a broader selection of skills, doing what one knows well is deeply rewarding. It’s possible to ‘enter the zone’ while at work, losing track of time and all else. This is a profound and, I find, satisfying feeling. Further, there’s that incidental ego boost when someone else notices your skill. While this isn’t about doing something to draw attention, but rather satisfying oneself, the admiration of others can be a rich part of the human experience, making what we do seem all the more meaningful.

Second, be part of something bigger than yourself. It can be a cause, a religion, an industry, a political ideology, or any number of other possibilities. Betty White, who passed away not long ago as I write this, had her cause in animal rights and protection, but also referred frequently to her joy at being in ‘show biz.’ She felt part of things bigger than herself, while also demonstrating the first condition above, that of being really good at something. More negatively, QAnon believers find their part in a movement that deals in misinformation and delusion. Being with others of similar fears and hatreds, even if mostly or only online, gives them a sense that they are involved in something that transcends themselves.

This isn’t always about something grand and showy. A person who runs a shop in a small town, participating in local events and organizations, will find that role in something greater in precisely the circles of community in which they find themselves. My late grandfather McAnulty was quite a socializer, very active in his local Methodist church, and known for his skill as an auto mechanic (again, we see the first condition with the second). That had to be satisfying for him.

Third, matter to people you are about. Note that this is not about fame. That’s already been covered, in that well-earned admiration from others can be a joyful, life-affirming experience. No, this is about having people in your life who would miss you if you were gone. Friends who want to see you, family who wants to spend time with you. These are the ones with whom you have been yourself, and have had that self embraced by them. When my aforementioned grandfather passed away, the funeral home was full to overflowing. That wasn’t mere fame. Many people loved him, and no one better than his family.

This might seem a condition beyond one’s control, and sometimes it will be. Someone who is lonely right now might find that unfair, and I’m sorry for that. Why is there loneliness? In my teens it was depression and anxiety that kept me from connecting with others, as well as the practical limitation of living out in the country before I had a driver license. I had no one I wanted to see specifically, and no easy way to go see them if I’d wanted to do so. In none of that I had blame, but I would have had my circumstances changed but I’d remained lonely. Instead, first a driver license, then church, then college and beyond opened up a world of worthwhile relationships to me. Now, there are people who matter to me, and for whom I am an important person in their lives. It’s no concern if it’s 5 or 25 people. The fact that I had any number of people in my life with whom this affection is shared is what matters.

This all calls us not to give up. We should keep developing our skills, in whatever we enjoy. We should look for what we each find to be a noble cause, and join others in moving it forward. We should show genuine love, patience, and forgiveness in our relationships so that we can enjoy the same in return. At times life will give us setbacks. No one lives long without experiencing some hardship and loss. Still, we keep going, and with these three conditions being met as much as possible, we can uncover the secret of life.