“Everything has been figured out, except how to live.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
This quote struck a chord during my training to become a therapist and coach. I was working with my first few clients, mainly expats, and it hit home that none of us has sussed out the best way to live. As adults, doubt and insecurity gnaw at our ideals and perhaps the more freedom of choice we have, the more paralysed we become for fear of taking a wrong turn. As kids we unconsciously pick up lots of ideas at home and at school. These ideas meld to form an approximate lifestyle template.
While parents are our main role models and have blanket influence on our child selves, they don’t necessarily know or pass on the best way to live. They live life their way and right, wrong or indifferent, it sticks to us as we stick to it. Unfortunately, adhering to a life model that is custom-made for or by someone else, whoever they may be, doesn’t fit or suit a separate person. It can take a lifetime to shake off a parent’s voice, belief system or habits and become your own person. If you’re not satisfied with how your parents raised you, remembering that they are flawed human beings like the rest of us will yield a better chance of you living well than blaming them forever.
In early education we’re shouted at to sit down, shut up, share stuff and not crayon-stab the annoying kid in the eye. As teenagers we may encounter teachers who get through to us emotionally and intellectually, teachers we like for qualities we admire, adults who listen to us in a way our parents don’t. School days stay in our psyches. So do these special teachers but while they might sway our tastes in literature or teach us critical thinking, they do not teach us how to live. As young adults, we tend to latch on to other people’s ways and adopt them as our own. The rejection or adoption of observed habits and (life) styles gradually shapes our own identity. I’m not sure we’re born instinctively knowing wrong from right. In normal childhood, socialization at home and school teaches us what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour and later we are able to form our own judgements.
That said, in some situations it takes substantial effort for adults to do the right thing. I often note that it’s easier to take care of others than of our selves. For instance, knowing you should engage in regular exercise, have a healthy diet, drink moderately, not smoke and stop chasing a love interest that couldn’t be less interested is obvious in theory but actually altering your behaviour for your own good is a different kettle of fish altogether. We know we’ll feel better after eating the fresh spring salad than the stodgy chocolate cake but it takes thousands of cake-regretting occasions before we consistently choose the salad. We make up all sorts of excuses disguised as sound logic. You don’t necessarily have to avoid the cake. It’s only an example – yours to replace with whatever’s applicable to you. It’s the noxious feelings that come after the cake; the knowing you’ve done it again, that it’s bad for you, that you have to get over the guilt and self-loathing of making the same wrong decision for the hundredth time and privately bear the wretchedness of having all the best intentions, knowledge and equipment to do what’s right yet lacking the capacity to employ them.
There’s no fail-safe formula. Live in a way that’s pleasing to you and compatible with those around you. What works for me is being as authentic as I can whenever I can, being around genuine people and a daily solitary walk around arresting Amsterdam for at least an hour. Walking settles my thoughts and puts my faculties on autopilot. It’s the best part of my day. My mind clears itself of clients, friends and other inhabitants and I come home mentally energized and physically loosened. Discover what works for you and do it. Be good to yourself but do remain conscious of how your actions affect others; you can’t get along with everybody but an uncluttered conscience goes a long way towards feeling and living well. As its name bespeaks: life is a lifelong process. Human beings are exasperating yet wondrous works in progress that will never be perfect or completely free of love or pain. Damage limitation might be as safe as it gets. That doesn’t mean hiding in your room, it means going out there with as much self-knowledge, courage and open-mindedness as you can muster, making sure you have decent people around for when the going gets tough and choosing how you pick up the pieces haphazard adversity leaves in its wake.