Friday, 10 July 2009

Project Eudemonia: Accept Your Limitations and Appreciate Your Strengths

“A mans gots to know his limitations”

- Harry Callahan, Magnum Force

On of they key commandments that Gretchen Rubin has on her happiness blog, is - to be Gretchen -

But being Gretchen, and accepting my true likes and dislikes, also means that I have to face the fact that I will never visit a jazz club at midnight, or hang out in artists’ studios, or jet off to Paris for the weekend, or pack up to go fly-fishing on a spring dawn. I won’t be admired for my chic wardrobe or be appointed to a high government office. I love fortune cookies and refuse to try foie gras.”

Coming to terms with our lives, coming to terms with our fundamental dissatisfaction, our sense of dis-ease, our limitations and disappointments is, I believe, absolutely essential if we are to have clear picture, and a sound purpose of our lives. Gretchen Rubin asks herself why she is sad when she admits to herself that life will be as it is, not, necessarily as she wants it to be -

It makes me sad for two reasons. First, it makes me sad to realize my limitations. The world offers so much!--and I am too small to appreciate it. The joke in law school was: "The curse of Yale Law School is to try to die with your options open." Which means -- at some point, you have to pursue one option, which means foreclosing other options, and to try to avoid that is crazy. Similarly, to be Gretchen means to let go of all the things that I am not -- to acknowledge what I don't encompass.”

“die with your options open”. I like that quip, it is very revealing. Living with doubt and uncertainty is a hard thing to do; likewise, having to make a decision and hence being indecisive is also hard. As my recounting of the story of Buridan's ass shows, we agonise over decisions, because we fear making mistakes, in losing out, in failing. In many ways, our lives aspire to the ideal of NPD - Non Binding Decisions. If something goes wrong we can just press the reset button, we can change ourselves, we can reverse mistakes we made in the past. We can endlessly self improve. We can change, we can attain perfection. Our lives are not perfect and we want them to be perfect. All this, I believe, is a mistake. A corrective, or a way out of this mire is to come to terms: with a sound and realistic understanding of our strengths and weaknesses - our limitations, our lives.

But it also makes me sad because, in many ways, I wish I were different. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” I have a lot of notions about what I wish I liked to do, of the subjects and occupations that I wish interested me. But it doesn’t matter what I wish I were like. I am Gretchen.

Once I realized this, I saw that this problem is quite more widespread. A person wants to teach high school, but wishes he wanted to be a banker. Or vice versa. A person has a service heart but doesn’t want to put it to use. Someone wants to be a stay-at-home mother but wishes she wanted to work; another person wants to work but wishes she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. And it’s possible -- in fact quite easy -- to construct a life quite unrelated to our nature.”

The philosopher AC Grayling notes that human life is less than a thousand months long - so it is imperative that we live life as wisely, and as productively as possible. Productively, as in the cultivation of our strengths, skilfully pursuing our ends, enjoying life and helping other people to enjoy theirs. In many ways, this is intimately tied to my third principle: living with purpose. As Gretchen points out - a life were one does what one loves and doing what one is good at - is going to be a life more likely to be happy. “Rejoice in what you are” she advises. There is only one life, and it is the only one you are living, so live it.

There is one further proposition I wish to offer. Both Aristotle and the Buddha thought that for a happy life a person needs to cultivate excellence in what he or she does. The Buddha prescribed this for lay people wishing to lead the good life, thinking that it was important for a person to cultivate excellence in whatever his living was, both as means to feeding himself, but also for the intrinsic enjoyment of his efforts and skill. Aristotle wrote about arete or excellence. That cultivating our, and especially, harmonising our various abilities, virtues, and excellences, are central to achieving eudemonia.

I think it is, then, important to have a certain pride. Not a pride in the sense of being better than others, but a pride of overcoming weakness and acquiring skill and excellence in one or more of our endeavours. A undertaking of this kind is something that will encompass our entire lives. So I guess we should be more easier on our selves, we are only human after all - we cant do everything, and we cant get everything overnight.

So perhaps then, we should have a “downsized self”. We should be prepared to reject our delusions, our fantasies, even - many of our hopes. Coming to a clear and realistic understanding of ourselves is one of the necessary conditions for appreciating the life that we have, for we are not lost in mental thought, either cursing the present state of affairs, or engaged in some fantasy of what the future might hopefully be. This, no doubt, is not easy, living mindfully is something I try to do, not always successfully, but I try, and I’m getting better at it - and that is the main thing. Gretchen Rubin captures this sentiment well - accepting who we are in this present moment yet striving to improve - “That’s another paradox of happiness: I want to “Be Gretchen,” yet I also want to change myself for the better.”

Quotes from Gretchen at -



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