When I was 21 I had a disagreement with my dad. It was just a small thing, but it was indicative, I think, of something larger in scope, something more than just the discord of the moment between a father and a son. I had recently purchased my first car and my father, understandably worried that his reckless son might not be able to handle the responsibility, suggested I should only use the car to get to work. The car should remain parked the rest of the time, or so my dad reasoned. I considered this prospect, but something about it didn’t sound right, something felt off in ways that went beyond youthful rebellion. I went to my dad and said, “You want me to use the car only to get to work, right? But that means I’m only at work to pay for the car. So, what you’re telling me is that I should use the car to go to work, so I can get a paycheck to pay for the car, so I can use the car to go to work, so I can get a paycheck to pay for the car, so I can use the car to go…”
The classic hamster wheel scenario, in other words.
I don’t recall my dad’s exact reply, but I believe it had something to do with the ignorance of youth and how kids never listen to their parents.
Well, I’m 41 now, and I still think my dad’s suggestion was wrong. I mean, I know now what he meant. He wanted me to take things easy and not bite off more than I could chew. Nevertheless, despite his good intentions, I still believe his logic was faulty.
In fact, I think it was more than faulty. I think it was diseased.
I recently ran into a larger version of this erroneous scenario when a friend remarked to me that my wife and I are at a loss because we’ve chosen not to have children. “What you don’t understand,” he said, “is that living for a child is the ultimate form of meaning in life.”
I’d heard this before; sentiments like that are nothing if not endemic to the ears of baby abstainers like us. I swatted away the temptation to be irritated with my friend and instead tried to refute his assertions with some cold, hard logic, something that often upsets residents of the moral high ground.
“What meaning is that?” I asked him, to which he replied, “Well… it means something to raise up another human being and ready them for the world.”
“You mean so they can start their own families?”
“I see. So, you’re raising kids so they can grow up to raise kids, who can then grow up to raise kids, who can then grow up to…”
While this may be a noble and worthy use of one’s time on Earth, is that really the ultimate form of meaning in life? Isn’t this notion really just another hamster wheel, but on a much larger scale? If all we’re doing is living for our kids, who will grow up and live for their kids, what’s really the point to any of this? It’s just perpetuation for perpetuation’s sake.
I really think true meaning in life, assuming there even is such a thing, should have more to do with the nature of existence… reckoning with it… and coming out of that struggle with some kind of personal satisfaction and contentment and an appreciation for the joys of life, both big and small. I think living for other people is all well and good, but I also believe it can become as unhealthy as living solely for yourself. I suspect meaning in life exists somewhere in a balance between pleasing others and pleasing self.
The point (not that I really have one) is that we—all of us—should find time in the day for the little things that put smiles on our faces for our sake, things that resonate within us solely for our own satisfaction. There is nothing selfish in this, for even Jesus (whom I’m loath to quote) instructed his followers to love others as they loved themselves. This must imply, therefore, that they first loved themselves, for how can you love another if you can’t even approve of the person in the mirror? Likewise, the Buddha (someone I’m much more comfortable quoting) said peace comes from within, that we shouldn’t seek it outside of ourselves. I personally think that is sound advice. Smashing advice, even.
So, be good to yourself. Get out of the hamster wheel and do something for yourself today. Who knows, it might be the best thing you can do for those around you.