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what we are told, and what i should do.

June 1, 2014

Some things we are told..

We are told that all lives have a purpose. We are all part of the tapestry of life. We all have a part to play. We all have talents. We might not know what those talents are, but we have them, need to find them, and develop them. We are told that developing these talents and using them to help not only ourselves and others is our purpose.

We are told that life or the universe or God (whoever the god of your choice may be) will lead us to our talents. Sometimes we might know from a young age. Sometimes we might only find our talents through trial and error, or careful seeking, observation, contemplation and introspection, but nonetheless, we have talents, and if we listen to the universe, god, etc., we will find and know these talents.

The Hero’s Journey.. 

I recently watched a poorly titled documentary called, “Finding Joe.” I thought it was going to be a biographical account of the great writer and expert on mythology, Joseph Campbell. Campbell was probably one of the wisest men of the 20th century. I’ve watched his series of interviews with veteran journalist Bill Moyers, I’ve read a little of Campbell’s works, and am somewhat familiar with his teachings.

I was hoping to learn more about the man, but instead, the video was full of talking heads discussing a few of Campbell’s wisest teachings on the lessons of world myths, and how we can apply those lessons to our lives. I think the documentary should have been called something like, “Learning from Joe,” or “Joe’s Teachings,” instead of “Finding Joe,” but anyway.

The teachings that were discussed focused on finding one’s own purpose and path, and persevering through adversity to develop those talents to get to know ourselves, and to help others.

A big focus of the documentary was on what Campbell called “the hero’s journey.” The hero receives a call (from a divine agent or a king for example) or experiences a stirring in his heart, knows he has to accomplish a certain task, leaves his home, faces many trials, gains skills and insights, develops as a person through triumphing over adversity, then returns home a changed person. After the hero has become changed, and developed himself, and returned home, he can use his new skills to help the community he came from.

Nice story.

But while watching the film, I kept thinking to myself.. millions upon millions of people in this world are far too busy scrounging together enough resources to buy or grow enough food for one meal a day, and walking many miles just to get to a source of clean water. Millions upon millions are facing imminent danger from starvation, severe environmental conditions, poverty, disease, or genocide. These people are not exactly concerned with reaching their full potential, becoming who they are truly supposed to be, and going on a hero’s journey. Their heroism is simply daring to continue to try and survive through each day.  They are not, for the most part, trying to develop themselves and reach their full potential. They are simply trying to continue to survive.

I’m thinking being concerned about finding one’s true self, developing one’s talents, becoming self-actualized.. these are things that only some can afford to work on. Yes, it’s true, certain primitive tribes, such the aborigines of Australia, and groups found in the Amazon basin of South American (like the Yanomami people), or in sub-Saharan Africa, such as the Masai,  are beyond dirt poor and still have hero’s journeys, but many of these people probably are able to effectively feed themselves and are not facing sectarian warfare and genocide, impending starvation, and things like that.

The other people concerning themselves with teachings related to the hero’s journey, and other spiritual self-help sorts of things? It’s probably, for the most part, not the working poor. People working in the fields, in dingy hotels, greasy and dangerous fast food restaurants, or late-night janitorial jobs might have a very hard time reaching their true potential. They are too busy and tired out from working terribly low-paying, often very high stress jobs, so that they can feed their families. Some of the working poor do find themselves, do reach their true potential. It does happen, but doing so, for the working poor, is, I think, quite difficult.

It’s more likely to be middle-class and upper-class Westerners who are into trying to find their true selves, reach their true potential, learn about such things as the hero’s journey, and how they can go on their own journey, and become their own version of a hero. Who do you think watches documentaries like “Finding Joe?” Who do you think has money for seminars and self-help books? Who can afford to sit around and think deeply about becoming self-actualized? It’s likely to be people of industrialized nations with a certain socioeconomic status.

The hero’s journey is possible to attempt and complete, but it seems it is possible only for some, and not for others. And for those for whom it is possible, for some it is far more difficult than for others.

What about me..

I don’t know if all that hero’s journey stuff applies to me. At least some people in the documentary were wise enough to say that some people don’t know what their purpose is. These people don’t know what talents they should develop. Part of the journey is finding the truth about one’s self. I can relate to this part, at least.

Maybe that is what my journey is.. finding the truth about myself. Maybe one of the obstacles I need to overcome is telling myself the truth. And the truth might not be at all what I’ve been told.

A big lie..

“Work hard enough and you will accomplish what you dreamed of accomplishing. You can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it and work hard enough.”

Yeah.. we get told that a lot. Ever watch awards shows such as the Grammys or the Oscars? At least one person each show who has won a major award will gushingly put forth this lie.

I know it’s a lie.. this teaching that if we put our minds to something and work hard enough, we will accomplish our most important goals, and make our dreams come true.

I know from experience that this is a lie.

Here’s an example..

My dream, most of my life, was to be an accomplished, expert guitarist. At first I was only interested in playing hard rock on electric guitar. However, as I got older, I began appreciating other genres. Eventually, it became my goal to mainly play classical guitar very well. (not just play classical music, but a bit of blues, Celtic, Americana, and other genres too).

I practiced guitar for many many many years. I should have reached my dreams over a decade ago, I should have been an expert by then. But, even now, I am not. I even now cannot play through a whole song, even a basic one.

All I can do is make some interesting improvisational music for a short time, and, when playing an electric guitar and using tons of different effects, I can make some really strange noises. That’s pretty much it.

I took lessons, I took classes, I tried to learn from books, and practiced for more hours than I’d care to count, but I still never got remotely close to my goal.

I finally was able to get past my guitar-related obsessions and compulsions and see the truth.. that I would never ever become nor could ever become an accomplished guitarist.

My dream did not come true, no matter how much effort I put in.

Very actively pursuing dreams that end up not coming true.. other people have experienced this. We have been putting effort into the wrong things. The teaching that if we put our effort into anything, we will succeed.. this is a lie.

Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

If we don’t want to waste our lives putting effort into the wrong things, we had better figure out what the right things are! Even Joseph Campbell warned about not putting our ladder up against the wrong wall. We could spend almost all our days, and all the energy we have climbing to the top of a wall, only to find we’ve been trying to reach the top of the wrong wall.

So how do we figure out what is right to do? 

When people say that life, the universe, or God is telling them something, what they mean is this..  sometimes things don’t work out, no matter what we do, and we need to do other things. Sometimes we quite clearly succeed at what we attempt. Sometimes it becomes clear what we should do. We learn this be trying various things, and by paying attention to our thoughts, what we do, and what happens to us along our way through life.

It really doesn’t matter if you are into New Age spirituality, are a Christian, or an atheist as far as this goes. What matters is paying attention to yourself and your life. If you do not pay attention you cannot learn what to do.

The trouble is..

It can be difficult or even impossible to pay adequate attention, and learn what life tells us. Some of us are stuck with obsessive tendencies or delusional thoughts. Some of us are compelled by others to walk paths that are not right for us. Some of us face so much adversity everyday that we are overwhelmed, and have neither the ability to think clearly nor the stamina to put in the effort, even if we find the right things to devote ourselves.

I’ve suffered mental illness in various forms all of my life. My obsession with trying to play guitar, my incredibly strong compulsions to play that instrument, and my powerful delusional thinking about having the necessary ability and talent and potential.. these things kept me bound most of my life.. devoted to the wrong thing.. and torturing myself along the way as I continued to pursue what I thought was the right thing for me to do.. my purpose.

I was wrong.

What should I do?

My head is still not free from compulsions and obsessions on most days. I get a strange double-edged compulsion that can be terribly distressing. I’ll get a compulsion to, for example, attempt teaching myself how to play piano, and at the same time, I’ll get an even stronger compulsion to avoid sitting down at the piano. This gets so severe I get headaches and muscle aches, and have to take some over-the-counter pain medicine, and a prescription sedative, and go watch TV or read a book to take my mind off this craziness.

I don’t think I have the right stuff to even get close to mastering any instrument. The kind of instrument doesn’t matter. Because of my disabilities, including the terrible and obtrusive OCD symptoms and serious attention deficit problems, I can’t get myself to regularly practice the same scales and chord changes over and over and get better at these things. I used to be able to force myself to do this on guitar, but I never made much progress at all. I’ve attempted piano in the past, and have had the same problems.

Should I abandon learning an instrument? Yes. Even though I get obsessive about playing the piano. The only instrument I made good progress on was the tin whistle – also called a pennywhistle. They come in various sizes and keys. Some years back, I was making noticeable progress. But, I had to stop, because, due to great amounts of chronic anxiety, I developed a condition called tinnitus – painful ringing in my ears – which I still have. Even when wearing ear plugs especially designed for musicians, I still experience some pain while practicing the whistles. Also, my mind wanders off a lot, and I am unable to concentrate while practicing.

So.. if I want to do something musical, I need to do something unusual.

A computer as musical instrument.

Two years ago, I started experimenting with some music software, which includes tons of short, pre-recorded, royalty-free sound samples. I made close to twenty short, experimental music projects just by using those samples. I would change how the sound loops sounded by using the software creatively, and would put many samples together in odd combinations.

I can still do this. I can also make weird noises with my guitar, which I plug into the computer, and two miniature keyboards I have, which are designed to work with the sound software.

I can speak (not rap) over these beats and noises, and come up with some really interesting material. Maybe even create audio productions of strange stories with even stranger background music and sounds.

This is something I can do.

Is this worth devoting my time to? I don’t know.

I can also try to force myself to write fiction. That may or may not work. I’ve had very limited success so far forcing myself to attempt writing fiction. I feel terribly awkward and foolish doing it. I sometimes get so stressed doing it that the muscles in my neck and shoulders begin to cramp up. It does not come naturally to me like blog writing does (when I’m in the mood to write an entry). But, compared to my (woeful lack of) musical ability for playing musical interments in a conventional fashion, my writing ability is.. well.. not all that bad, I suppose.

Just maybe I could force myself to write fiction. I’ve heard it only takes two weeks to develop a habit, if one works on a certain behaviour everyday (I do not know if this is true). Maybe if I work at it awhile.. set aside an hour or so to write fiction each day, maybe I will feel better about it, and getting myself to write fiction will be easier.

Should I put effort into writing fiction? Maybe.

Drawing.. I have some skill at drawing. Trouble is, because of my anxieties, my right hand shakes a little sometimes when I draw. After I’ve been drawing for 10 or 15 minutes, I eventually get even more anxious, my mind wanders. And then, after drawing for less than an hour, my hand gets even more shaky, cramps up, and I have to stop. Back in the ’90’s it wasn’t like this. But for many years now, I’ve had this problem, and have not been able to draw regularly. Which is too bad. I do have some talent.

I could try drawing using a computer. Back in 2007, I learned to do very basic things with a computer graphics program. I could try to learn this software. I’d still be using my right hand, but hopefully moving a mouse around, clicking a lot here and there, and scrolling through different screens will not be as rough on my drawing hand as drawing. Maybe this could work.

Exercise? I suppose I could at least try to use hand weights at home, and do a bit of yoga and a few push-ups and so forth here and there. I can do some tai chi out on the lawn, and work out using a small punching bag I just bought – unless of course I hurt my hands and wrists hitting the bag, and unless of course I don’t stretch myself too much on the yoga mat. I already temporarily messed up my knees by doing some basic qi gong exercises and had to stop those. But I suppose I could do something.

Cooking.. I still haven’t been functional enough to plan, shop for, and cook gluten-free, low carb, healthy meals. This is of course worth the effort. But if I’m not functional enough, I’m not functional enough. I’ll work on this a bit later. I am starting to tire of eating the same things almost every day, and really don’t like having this gut hanging on me.. so change is.. possible.

I wonder.. will I have success with any of these things? Because of my almost countless setbacks and difficulties and failures all these years, I feel very foolish about attempting practically anything at all. I get really depressed too. I so often find myself sitting for many many hours, watching the same few TV programs over and over again.

There is more to me.

I feel I have to create, even if I feel conflicted about this. I feel I have to do something.

Also, I can’t hold down a regular job, and least none that I can get. I want to make money somehow. It may seem absurd to believe that I can make money selling my experimental music online, or that I could earn a living as an author, but … maybe I could?

I don’t want to just sit and watch TV. There’s a lot more to me than that.

Can I get over my intense discomfort when I try or even think about trying to do things? Can I really get past my very strong resistance?

I’m not sure. I wish I could give a resounding “yes,” but I don’t feel that is honest.

Maybe, for now, I should just relax, and try to get through the external challenges of my life, which have increased these past two months. Maybe I should try to relax and not worry about or attempt self-development.

Maybe I should really really try to accept that I am disabled, and not worry about the future. Maybe I really can’t do much at all, and need to accept that this is ok.

But I remember a statement I once heard from an actor. I forget his name, but I remember what he said: Trying risks failure. Not trying assures it.

So far, for me, trying has assured failure too.. with almost everything.

But I have not tried everything.

Maybe failing at so many things is just narrowing down what I should do.. pointing me in the right direction. Or not. I might be doomed, I might not.

Maybe I should put effort into writing fiction, creating experimental music, making some sort of visual art, getting some exercise, and cooking. And see how it goes.  I don’t feel well about this, but I was once told by someone, “motion before emotion, you have to do things before you feel like doing them.”

Ok then.

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