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Answering the Question, ‘Is This All There Is?’

A number of affirmations hang on the wall of my office. I remember watching Al Franken play Stuart Smalley sketch on SNL and howling with laughter at the absurdity of a grown man looking into a mirror and saying, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

It’s still a funny sketch, but now I kinda get it. In fact, I embody it.

The past decade has been marked by a slow but steady process of disillusionment, or to put it less pejoratively, the deconstruction of beautiful lies. For me, that process began in my early 20s, when I began to realize that adult life wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Eventually, that led me to the question almost all of us will ask ourselves at some point.

“Is this all there is?”

It’s an important question. Never asking it can only mean one of two things: Either you never had outsized expectations of life (or at least weren’t very attached to them), or you’re simply not wired to ponder such existential dilemmas. I’d wager most of us think it at some point, though, and I’m starting to believe that the best and most useful answer to internalize and accept as soon as possible is that yes, it is.

Young me thought chiefly about the future. I enjoyed the present, but I got more excited about what came next and how much better it would be. The next grade, for example, or the next family trip, or the next sleepover at my friend’s house. Growing up in a microscopic rural town, I felt so limited by my circumstances. I wanted to grow up, leave, and move on to something bigger and better.

But then you realize, to your dismay, that the world widens for you in some ways but narrows in others. For example, you can apply for thousands of jobs but only have a realistic shot at a couple. Social guardrails, processes, and bureaucratic dogma await you at every turn. Victories and achievements are harder won but less celebrated. Your expanded world takes you from being one in a few to one of many.

For me, this was all rather jarring. By age 21, I was in the grip of a deep depression. I didn’t realize it then, but I didn’t know myself at all. Everything that had propped me up as a kid was gone, and everything that could knock me down, did. I stared into the abyss and asked, “Is this all there is?”

But as anyone who struggles with depression knows, when you stare into the abyss, it only stares back. No matter. I already knew the answer. I just didn’t know what to do with it.

Looking back, what I felt was a form of grief. The First Big Illusion died in my arms. The next thing wasn’t always better. Sometimes there wasn’t a next thing at all. The future could, and often did, look an awful lot like the present.

I knew I’d someday travel and have exciting and novel experiences once again, but they would be fewer and farther between. And as a young assistant golf pro making $1,100 a month, even those weren’t in my reach.

I wish I could tell you that I processed my grief in healthy ways, adjusted my expectations, and moved on. Instead, I attended the funerals of countless dozens more illusions, and each one only added to my sense of hopelessness. Was nothing I believed about the world true? Why did I believe these things to begin with? Who were the architects of the beautiful lies behind my unrealistic expectations? How was I supposed to muster enthusiasm for life when nothing felt new anymore?

Thoughts of that ilk set up camp in my brain and stayed there, “rent-free” as my friend and stoicism author Andrew McConnell might say, for the next 25 years.

Lest you think I was miserable for that long, I wasn’t. I married a wonderful girl, had a nice career, befriended many incredible people, saw cool places and did cool shit. I experienced many disappointments but few real hardships and more than a few pleasant surprises. However, moments of joy become more and more elusive, because for me, joy had to come wrapped in novelty or I couldn’t see it as the gift it was.

One of the affirmations on my wall reads, “Joy hides in plain sight.” I don’t know if I invented that or saw it somewhere, but I’ve thought about it a lot lately. How do you find joy in the ordinary?

For me, it comes back to our question: Is this all there is?

Once you’re solidly in the second half of your life, I think it’s important to see that the answer to that question is basically yes. Most of what’s possible for YOU to see, feel, or experience, you’ve already seen, felt, or experienced. Maybe you haven’t been to some exotic foreign country, but you’ve been out of your element and had to adapt to new circumstances. Maybe you haven’t seen Mt. Chimborazo, but you’ve seen a majestic mountain of some sort. That’s what I’m saying.

Does novelty still await you no matter how old you are or what you’ve done in life? Probably, but not necessarily. Failing that, we must learn to see the world through a different lens. Ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Do I want life to be as joyful as possible?
  2. Have I already experienced most of what I am likely to experience, at least in some form?

#1 is easy enough. #2 requires some consideration. If you answer no, then you need to decide if accumulating new experiences truly is a priority, what you’ll sacrifice to get them, and what will happen if they don’t bring the joy you desire.

But if you answer yes, then you need to begin finding joy in the ordinary. I say “find” because joy doesn’t find you. It hides in plain sight. Just because your cynical, jaded eyes pass over it doesn’t mean it’s not there. This is the point of mindfulness. Don’t just drink your coffee; pause to consider its long journey to your cup. Don’t just shower; delight in its sensations while appreciating that the water is hot and clean.

When I realized that this is pretty much all there is, I wish someone could’ve told me that that’s okay. That I should stop being obsessed with what’s to come and take delight in what is. Inspirational speaker Kerwin Rae said, “Stress is resistance to what is.” I think that’s spot-on. If joy is elusive for you, then maybe it’s time to accept that this might be all there is. Because if you only look ahead, you never look around.

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