Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The myth of the perfect life

Many people suffer because they compare their lives to some idealized image of how life is supposed to be. Cobbled together from childhood conditioning, media messages, and personal desires, this image lurks in the shadows and becomes the standard to which every success or failure, every circumstance or turn of events, is compared and judged. Take a moment to check out yours.

Perhaps you’ve spent your life struggling to build the American dream — two kids, house in the suburbs, brilliant career, what Zorba the Greek called the “full catastrophe.” After all, that’s what your parents had (or didn’t have), and you decided that you owed it to them and to yourself to succeed. Only now you’re juggling two jobs to save the money for a down payment, the marriage is falling apart, and you feel guilty because you don’t have enough time to spend with the kids.

Or maybe you believe that ultimate happiness would come your way if you could only achieve the perfect figure (or physique). The problem is, diets don’t work, you can’t make yourself adhere to exercise regimens, and every time you look in the mirror, you feel like passing out. Or perhaps your idea of earthly nirvana is the perfect relationship. Unfortunately, you’re approaching 40, you still haven’t met Mr. or Ms. Right, and you scour the personals while secretly fearing that you must have some horrible social disease. Whatever your version of the perfect life — perfect vacations, perfect sex, perfect health, even perfect peace of mind or total freedom from all tension and stress — you pay a high price for holding such high expectations.

When life fails to live up to those expectations, as it inevitably does, you end up suffering and blaming yourself. (Take it from me — I’ve fallen into this trap myself again and again!) If only you had made more money, spent more time at home, been a better lover, gone back to school, lost those extra pounds . . . the list is endless. No matter how you slice it, you just don’t measure up. Or perhaps you’re among the elite few who manage to get everything you want. The problem is, you eventually find yourself becoming bored and wanting more — or you spend every spare moment struggling to protect or control what you have.

The great meditative traditions have a more humane message to impart. They teach that the ideal earthly life is a myth. As an old Christian saying puts it, “Man proposes, God disposes.” Or, in the words of a popular joke, “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.” These traditions remind us that far more powerful forces are at work in the universe than you and I. You can envision and intend and strive and attempt to control all you want — and ultimately even achieve some modicum of success. But the truth is, in the long run, you and I have only the most limited control over the circumstances of our lives.

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