By Mark E. Smith
Is your life a train or a boat? It’s an important question because the answer makes a huge difference. A train takes you exactly where you wish to go – it’s on rails, it’s smooth, it’s steady, it’s totally predictable. A boat, on the other hand, heads out on a meandering course, where its voyage is uncertain – it can get off of its bearing, it can encounter rough water, it can be unpredictable. I’ll ask again, is your life a train or a boat?
Of course, it’s a trick question, as no one’s life is an ever-steady course on rails. At points in our lives – it happens to all of us! – we can feel genuinely dissatisfied with the direction of our lives, where all hasn’t headed where we wish. Maybe our dream job didn’t prove as rewarding as we thought, or hasn’t materialized at all. Maybe the all-fulfilling relationship that we wanted never panned out. Or, maybe our financial goals were never achieved. The list goes on and on, but it all leads to a universal truth: When our lives haven’t met our expectations, we find ourselves discontent and dissatisfied at best, and depressed and feeling hopeless at worst.
Yet, when we find ourselves at such discouraging crossroads in life, all is not lost. Rather, we have three distinct ways to address discouraging periods, and the tact that we chose makes the difference between merely surviving and truly thriving, between feeling adrift and being on course. Therefore, when we feel like our life’s not going in the directions we wish, what approaches can we take, and what are their typical results?
I’ve been fascinated with this subject since I was 17. It’s a time I’ve spoken a lot about, where my family was a mess; a girl whom I adored went as my date to the prom, then refused to dance with me based on my disability (how could I ever find a woman to love me if one wouldn’t even dance with me?); my grades in school were mediocre at best; and, I was still in the throes of learning to physically care for myself, where every day was physically draining. With everything around me seeming so bleak – that is, life not living up to my expectations – I fell into a deep depression that summer, just thinking, If this is life, is it really worth living?
It was a heavy question for a 17-year-old, just as it is for adults who struggle with questioning the direction of their life at any age. However, as I pondered the question for days, weeks, then months, I had a realization that ultimately changed my life, a simple question that popped into my head: What could I do about any of it?
Although I couldn’t have verbally articulated it so well at 17, I realized that I had three distinct solutions to my dissatisfaction with my life:
Firstly, I could do nothing. It was that simple – do nothing, stay unsatisfied, depressed, distraught, whatever, and nothing would change. How’s that for an easy out? Do nothing, and just keep feeling as bad as you’re feeling! The problem with this approach – or, lack thereof – is that we’re merely allowing ourselves to drift in the sea of life, where without our fight or struggle, the next wave has every ability to push us under. Complacency is emotionally the most risky way to live, usually escalating dissatisfaction with our lives in the long run to destructive levels.
The second choice I had was to lower my expectations. If we feel life isn’t meeting our expectations, we can always lower them, and rationalize ourselves into a more comfortable place (clinically tying into the dreaded D-word, “denial”). I could just accept that I was a loser destined to lose, and be OK with all of the dysfunction in my life, lucky to just be alive, as my mother often told me. We see people take this approach all of the time – that is, if life’s not meeting their expectations, they simply lower their expectations. I’m not finding reward in my career, but at least I have a job. My relationship isn’t totally fulfilling, but at least I found companionship on some level. And, this approach of addressing life’s dissatisfaction by lowering expectations – as in finding ways to justify accepting less than you truly wish! – actually works. After all, if we lower our expectations, even bad aspects of our lives seem justifiably acceptable at some point. He’s a good man when he’s not drinking (how many times have we heard that one, where we just want to scream, No, you’re married to an abusive alcoholic – cut the denial!). However, here’s the problem: When we lower our expectations, we not only accept less than we deserve, but we compromise our core values within ourselves, we give away parts of who we really are and who we’re capable of being. And, of course, this lesser sense of self is hard to live with, usually catching up with us, crushing our spirit.
But, then, I realized that I had a third option to address life not meeting my expectations: I could change my life by taking responsibility for it. If no one cared about me, I at least had to care about myself. It didn’t matter what my parents did or didn’t do. It didn’t matter whether a girl would ever accept me. It didn’t matter that I had cerebral palsy. The only aspect that mattered was that I took full control over whatever I could control, and if that only made my life 50% better in the immediate, that would be a huge improvement in my life.
A few months later, I was called into the Principal’s office the first quarter of my senior year. He explained that in going through the honor roll, he saw that I was on it for the first time in my high school years, that he was wondering how I went from Cs to As over one summer? I wasn’t sure how to articulate what to say, and was intimidated by the situation, preferring to keep my challenges to myself, and simply replied, “It’s a long story….”
I had the good fortune of figuring out the life lesson at 17 that if we don’t like the direction of our life, change it. But, it’s not rocket science, and successful people practice it every day, where if you’re dissatisfied with your life, don’t just keep going down that road, or lower your expectations and accept it – but actually pursue paths to improve it. Is it easy? No. Is it scary at times? Yes. Does it take time and dedication? Sure. But, does it work every time? Absolutely.
See, life is a convoluted synergy of factors that drive our lives, but we’re ultimately the ones behind the steering wheel. There’s a lot that we can’t change, especially our pasts. But, there’s a lot that we can change, and most of it is based on decisions that we make today. Don’t settle or lower your expectations based on dissatisfaction; rather, raise the bar in pursuit of a satisfying, purpose-filled life.