The lofty expectations that modern culture seemingly affords often only ends in disappointment, but a slight change in thinking can lead to a more pleasant experience.
Expectations make life significantly more difficult than it needs to be. We set standards for ourselves and feel disappointed when we don’t meet them, even if they are highly unrealistic. We set similarly unattainable standards for others and do not extend to them the empathy and understanding we wish upon ourselves, causing further misery and difficulty. Part of this is human nature; we used to have to struggle to survive, but now we find various proxies through which to experience this natural struggle. We invent problems and conflicts sometimes just to solve them. We experience life as a perpetual struggle to change even when things are perfectly alright as they are.
Human beings are highly adaptable but also somehow never satisfied with their lot. On top of these natural conditions, culture often encourages people to remain active seekers, chasing dollars, novelty, sex, power and fame, or at the very least, things that connote these modern progressive values. Culture rewards the shallow seeker with little breadcrumbs to keep him looped in. A raise, a new gadget, a novel sexual experience, a social power play. We trade bits of our souls for these vapid victories. The force that makes us chase these things is the same force that makes these values inherently anti-spiritual and vacant.
This relies on the perpetuation of images, and it’s no coincidence that modern culture has become progressively more insane and chaotic alongside the mass proliferation and streamlined replication of images. When people have more fictional reference points for life than they do real experiences, they behave in bizarre ways. They behave against nature and against life. They act in opposition to their best interests despite remaining fully convinced that they are behaving naturally. Psychological life becomes a series of fantasies and projections, none of which necessarily have any basis in reality. When virtual life is catered to with more care than real life, real life suffers greatly. Real life becomes the fiction, and everyone remains eternally confused about what’s what.
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The ultimate irony is that the more chasing we do and the more expectations we set for ourselves and others, the less happy we are. We are chasing a million things at once, yet the more we chase, the less we find. You cannot chase abstract concepts like “happiness”, “love” or “fulfilment”. You have to live mindfully in each moment and let them come to you. Thoreau likened this to sitting quietly and letting a butterfly settle on your shoulder rather than rabidly chasing the butterfly and never catching it, or worse, killing it. Whether you’re fighting for a million dollars or fighting for world peace, you won’t find what you’re looking for precisely because you are fighting against the natural current of life in order to achieve these ideals. If you are looking at life through the lens or screen of culture, you are failing to connect with this natural current. This is why meditation has resurged in the post-Internet era as such a valuable and transformative practice; it simply connects us back to ourselves. It reorients us back towards direct experience rather than pseudo-experience.
Through meditation and mindful action we learn to curb our countless fantastical expectations. We also learn this process through countless mistakes. Older people typically understand these pitfalls better than younger people. Young people are idealistic, zealous and thirsty. They want success, they want the world to be a better place, and they want to be happy. They often want these things so idealistically that they become too overwhelmed to produce the conditions that might lead to the desired results. They don’t recognise the more nuanced forces at work. The more we focus and obsess on results and fantasies, the less energy we have to dive into the process and actually act with diligence. Once we fail miserably a few times, we are stronger and more rooted in reality.
Older people learn this eventually; they end up either looking back with regret and confusion or pride for not denying themselves the joy of actually living. Dreaming is not living. We often dream all through the day to narcotise ourselves against our perpetual inability to cope with the present. When people do not want to work in the moment to make life more tolerable, they force themselves to blame their problems on others, or to invent abstract conceptual theories for why things are the way they are.
The way to live is simply to live.