(TW: Description of Torture)
Although there’s no denying that life can be hard and people can be saddled with more problems than they can bear, the truth is that most of us are nowhere near to living up to our potential. We know, in some private recess of our consciousness, that if push came to shove, if our lives depended on it, we would be able to dig in and find more strength than we usually tap into in our everyday lives.
I’m sure in your own family, you have examples of people living through terrible shit, and somehow finding the inner strength to go on.
For example, my grandparents lived in Holland during World War 2. My grandfather was a member of the resistance movement. He was incarcerated twice in German work/concentration camps. Luckily for him, he was highly skilled as a machinist, and thus, was useful to the Nazi military. He could fix pretty much anything, so while incarcerated, he was put to work, fixing tanks and personnel carriers and such for the Nazi army (and when possible, sabotaging the equipment). Both prisons, he managed to escape.
After his second escape, he spent several months walking from Belgium back to his hometown in Holland. During the day, he would sleep in ditches and culverts, only daring to travel under the cover of darkness. He ate whatever he could find, keeping starvation at bay by rummaging through garbage cans, eating weeds, and God knows what else. After the war, he never talked about his experiences; we know what we do through the scant information provided by my grandmother.
My grandmother was at home, with a young child (my Uncle Joe), trying to survive in occupied Holland, while half a dozen soldiers lived in her home, forcing her to be their slave; she never talked about this in detail.
My grandfather, after his long journey back to Holland, hid inside a haystack at one of his cousin’s farms. He lived there for about a year. Sometimes, he was able to come out, while the children of the family spent their time in trees on the edge of the property, watching for the tell-tale signs of dust that indicated that soldiers were coming in their jeeps to inspect the farm. When that happened, they would jump onto their bicycles, and haul ass back to the farmhouse, yelling that the soldiers were coming, whereupon my grandfather would burrow back into his little cave in the middle of the haystack, praying not to be discovered, knowing that, as an escaped prisoner, he would probably be executed, and potentially the rest of the family as well.
Meanwhile, my grandma, serving her soldier-masters at home, while breastfeeding her infant and trying to keep her sanity, was subject to intense questioning, and on at least one occasion, torture. Most of this, she never discussed, except one time when she described to me the experience of having her fingernails pulled off with pliers, one by one, while they asked repeatedly where my grandfather was hiding.
But she never broke and told them he was just a few kilometers away, living in a haystack. If she did, if she hadn’t been able to endure the torture, my father would never have been born, and thus, I would never have been born. My entire existence is possible because of the unimaginable strength, ingenuity, and love, of my grandmother, my grandfather, and their families. They risked everything to hide my grandfather, and to smuggle bread and other food to my frequently-starving grandmother. Because of this love and courage, they survived, and I am here today, able to tell this story.
It is almost impossible to imagine living in such circumstances. But all of us have ancestors who, at one time or another, survived the most terrible conditions, the most horrendous violence, and suffering that pushed them to the brink of human endurance.
But they did endure. And we know that, because we are here, enjoying the gift of Life. Their legacy is every breath we take.
So, we are strong. YOU are strong. Our collective inheritance is Strength and Courage and Love.
But, on a day-to-day basis, most of us live in ways that barely even scratch the surface of our potential. I don’t have to spell this out for you; I’m sure a bit of introspection, considering just how you spend the 24 hours of each day, will do the trick. How else would it be possible for Netflix, and Pornhub, and Steam, to exist?
Frittering and Wasting your Hours in an Offhand Way
But hey, don’t think for a second that I’m positioning myself as some Wise Guru who has spent my life living optimally. Hells no. Let’s dispel that right here and now.
I can play Asteroids flawlessly, shooting those space-rocks for so long that (on a good day) I can keep my spaceship going until I get tired and fall asleep at the keyboard. And according to Steam (online video gaming system), I have spent more than 1200 hours playing Civilization (mostly in gigantic campaigns where I play 12 different Empires and have a 6000 year war against….er, myself). Not only that, I’ve racked up close to 1000 more hours tending to my farm in Stardew Valley. I once spent three years “growing” a giant wax mountain from candle drippings that, at its peak, measured 7 feet high, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet long, as well as spreading tendrils of wax-rivers all over the livingroom floor, and partly consuming the couch and armchair. (It was beautiful, to be honest.)
If I added up the sheer number of hours I’ve “invested” in near-mindlessly scrolling through social media and reading random shit on the internet, I could probably have gotten at least one, maybe two more Ph.Ds. Or learned an instrument, or three. Or another language, or three. Or built a business. Or volunteered more in my community. Or spent more time with my friends. Or, had more friends. Or at least gotten better at chess! By no means have I lived an optimal life.
I’m deeply grateful that I also chose to do some more worthwhile shit with at least some of my time. I did manage to expose myself to a small fraction of great literature; I’ve deeply studied complex systems dynamics, and immersed myself in the literatures of Psychology and Ecology; I’ve learned to forage for wild food, and I’ve being fully present and deeply engaged with my kids. That, at least, was time well spent.
The rest? Well, if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t erase all my frittering away of hours, cuz, you know, it was pretty fun (and the wax mountain! maaaan, that was cool.). But I’d have cut out, say, 80% of it, and devoted it to activities that would engage me more fully, and point me towards life outcomes that I could be proud of. (Although, I am an absolute beast in Asteroids, and in year 7 of Stardew Valley, I did make $19 million in one year of running my immense starfruit distillery, so….that’s something….)
So yes, no judgement, wherever you are at, and however you’ve spent your time. The world offers no shortage of immediate gratification possibilities, for those who aren’t motivated by a deep sense of Purpose. From social media to video games, marijuana to masturbation, Netflix to YouTube to TikTok to Facebook, shopping to stroking your ego by judging other people, escape fantasy to the daily news cycle, and sex to the emotional enmeshment of poorly-boundaried relationships, it’s pretty easy to find SOMETHING to do with your time that will, in the moment, be at least somewhat interesting, titillating, fun, or self-gratifying in some way.
But, what a half-awake, sub-optimal way to live! Especially when compared to your potential to flourish and live a fully engaged, thriving, passionate life.
Because, as the days, weeks, months and years pass, while you “fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way”, your life stays in neutral. Your skills stagnate. Your body slowly degrades. Your mind dulls, and your belief in What You Can Be gets smaller and smaller, until you convince yourself that you’re happy being far less than you ever hoped for when you were young.
And the WORST experience, which is inevitable sooner or later, is when you encounter somebody who IS vibrantly, energetically passionate about their lives, who spends their time joyfully absorbed in interesting challenges, who is genuinely grateful and proud of their lives. And far more often than not, such a person, as they get older, is able to enjoy the rewards – material, relational, mental, emotional, and physical – that come from A Life Well Lived. When you spend time with a person like this, it’s “nice” in a sense, but it also hurts. It holds up an uncompromising mirror that you cannot help but look into, and when you do, you see your own mediocrity. And fuck man, I feel your pain.
Sooner or later, you can’t deny to yourself any longer that you are not Living The Dream. You’re just getting older.
But by that point, change may seem impossible; your belief that You Can Do It gets easily overwhelmed by your shame, and exhaustion, and the deep hole you’ve dug for yourself. The problems facing you pile up higher and higher, until you can’t see past them anymore, and you sink into regret, and worse, resentment. Your lack of confidence holds you back. Your poor habits hold you back. Life crises hold you back. Health problems hold you back. $$$ problems hold you back. Addictions hold you back. Loneliness, depression, and regret hold you back.
If it’s been hard to read this, I’m sorry. But if it’s the truth, then it’s the truth.
This can change. You are strong enough. Your ancestors made sure of that.