I was watching a TV hospital drama the other night. One of the patients came into the emergency room after being hit by a car. He said that he was texting and walked right into the street without even noticing the car that subsequently struck him. Luckily, the man sustained only minor injuries to his lower leg. But over the course of treatment, the head of psychiatry noticed the man’s underlying depression. He asked the man if he stepped intentionally in front of the car. After some prodding, the man admitted that he had. He said, “I have the perfect life, the perfect marriage, the perfect job. I have nothing to be sad about. And yet, I am sad all the time. Nothing makes me happy.”
I continue to think about this episode because it made me wonder how many of us are silently struggling with fears and insecurities and doubts that we do not discuss. How does our notion of “perfect” put pressure on us? Moreover, how does what others call perfect guilt us into thinking that we should be happy and make us feel inadequate when we are not? Are we even able to define happiness for ourselves anymore? And most importantly, do we think we deserve to be happy?
I believe that there are very few people in the world who live a joyous life. Maybe I’m wrong. But my opinion is that people settle, and in that settlement they find comfort. Comfort and joy, however, are two very different things. One can live a comfortable life – and become comfortably numb in the process – without ever knowing joy. I would argue, however, that the greatest life is one that is both comfortable and joyous. And joy comes from living life as your authentic self.
Many years ago, I read a book by Dr. Phil called “Self Matters.” In that book, Dr. Phil defines the authentic self as “who you were created to be.” He also refers to the fictional self, which is “who the world has told you to be.” He explains that when people are asked who they are, they often answer with a role they play or a place they come from (mom, husband, lawyer, Penn Stater, etc.). Different from these answers, however, is a deeper response to the question, “Who are you?”. He states that this deeper response is found in the authentic self; it is found at your core and is not defined by your job, function or role. “It is all of the things that are uniquely yours and need expression, rather than what you believe you are supposed to be and do.”
I think the world is really good at helping us to create our fictional selves. It is easy to listen to outside influences, pay attention to everyone else’s expectations, and fall victim to someone else’s definition of what happy looks like. It is much harder to think beyond convention and listen to our inner self. After all, what if that little voice inside of me is wrong? What if I step off the beaten path and end up lost and alone in the woods? Then what?
Last August, I posted “Walking the Path.” It was then that I wrote: “The path forward can sometimes become unclear, possibly grown over with brush, or disrupted by broken cobblestones. When this break in the path happens, it is easy for us to retreat; to turn and go back from where we came. And I guess that’s sometimes ok. The places we have already been are known to us; even when they are not exactly pleasant, we know we can survive these places because we’ve already lived in them. We know what the expectations in those places are; we know how people will treat us and what will be the norm.”
As I reread that now, I am thinking about the path in a different way. Perhaps the breaks in our path are opportunities for us to consider the life we are living; to evaluate whether or not we are honoring our authentic selves. And perhaps if the path feels broken or challenging, it is not because we are being called to retreat, but that our authentic self is pushing us forward and calling us to break from the fictional self we’ve allowed the path to create for us in the first place. We might sacrifice comfort for a short time as we grow and evolve, but the resulting joy? I bet that’s worth it.