There now follows a brief philosophical interlude

In a fortunate bit of serendipity, today’s Zen Pencils touches on an issue that I have been mentally kicking around for a while. The cartoon is well worth a look, but if you’re feeling a bit clickphobic, the quote illustrated comes from an interview Dean Karnazes gave to Outside magazine in December 2006. It reads as follows:

Western culture has things a little backwards right now. We think that if we had every comfort available to us, we’d be happy. We equate comfort with happiness. And now we’re so comfortable we’re miserable. There’s no struggle in our lives. No sense of adventure. We get in a car, we get in an elevator, it all comes easy. What I’ve found is that I’m never more alive than when I’m pushing and I’m in pain, and I’m struggling for high achievement, and in that struggle I think there’s a magic.

While this quote resonates with me, I can’t say I entirely agree with it. Trying to fisk an out of context quote strikes me as being both pointless and a bit self-defeating. So here is my own rewording of it instead:

Western culture has become far too focused on outward expression. We assume that if we have every comfort available to us, we’ll be happy. We equate what we have (both in terms of possession and status) with happiness. And now, when we can own more stuff than we will ever use, we’re still miserable.

The problem is that we struggle for the wrong things. As a species, as individuals, we need a sense of achievement and that is not something that we can achieve by buying a nicer car or being awarded a more impressive sounding job-title.

That sense of achievement requires two parts. Firstly, and obviously, we need to achieve something. We need to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones and attempt something without knowing whether we can do it – we need to risk failure for success to be meaningful. As important as this though is the part that is often forgotten – what we achieve needs to matter to us.

It is far too easy to allow our lives to become cluttered with stuff we don’t really care about. We do things as a favour to people, or because they have become a habit, or because our jobs demand it, and all of these tasks start to suck time from our lives – time that could be better spent on the things we really care about.

Struggling for the sake of struggling is not satisfying and all of the superficial signs of success are a waste if we only succeed at the things we don’t care about.

Of course, words are easy. Removing the clutter and freeing time to focus on what matters is not a quick or easy process – but it is a task worth trying.

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