Although some people are ‘successful’, those whose lives are frequently the envy of others often feel, on the inside, totally different to what they portray on the outside. They have achieved what they have striven for (in my case even more than they had dreamed possible) and yet, in the quiet moments they feel empty; that their life is pointless – is this all there is? There must be more to life and yet what could this possibly be? Didn’t they have everything?
In my work over a period of 40 years, with thousands of course participants and personal clients I have watched people struggle with feelings of internal emptiness – that sense of the pointlessness of life. The issues they present with are many and varied; married the wrong person; in the wrong job; boss doesn’t like me and is a bully; not appreciated; never feel good enough; striving to be perfect. What all this implies is that once having found the right person; a better job; get appreciation; do things perfectly – then their lives will be full – fulfilling.
Sadly, this is often not the case. Their ladder to fulfilment (as Covey says) is leaning against the wrong wall and when they get to the top of that particular ladder and look over the top what they may see is more emptiness. So where do they go from there?
In this article I will outline some key themes and issues that people need to consider and the change in thinking that is needed to start getting more from life.
How culture limits our possibilities
We are led to believe from a very early age that if we ‘achieve’, or succeed in life we will be happy.
Well we only have to look at some of those who have clearly ‘achieved’ in life to know that this is not always the case. There are numerous examples of people who have achieved fame and fortune and ended up killing themselves:
There are many others. Many of them suffered from ‘depression’, but perhaps the basis of their depression was hopelessness – not seeing a way out of that within which they were trapped. Conspiracy theories suggest that Marilyn Monroe may, in fact, have been murdered, but she was certainly not a happy or contented person by all accounts.
There are others who killed themselves through the misuse of drugs or alcohol. George Best comes to mind – a brilliantly talented soccer player who was lauded as one of the most talented footballers and most successful players in the World who drank himself to death. Even after a liver transplant he still continued to drink.
So, what is it that human beings are looking for, which proves so elusive – the absence of which can drive them to such extreme measures?
Hunting the Woozle (or how my story shows how hard it is to find more to life)
In AA Milne’s stories he describes a situation where Pooh and Piglet find some mysterious tracks. They follow these tracks with trepidation, thinking they must belong to a ferocious animal. The tracks go round and round in circles. They eventually realise that the tracks belong to them – they are looking for themselves and the Woozle is a figment of their imagination. That is what my life felt like. I was hunting the Woozle in my attempts to fill that emptiness that I took such pains to hide from people.
Brought up on a Council Estate with little or no encouragement from my parents the height of my ambition when I left school (suggested by the Careers Officer) was to be a bank clerk.
I applied to Barclays and was required to write an essay in support of my application. The essay was entitled something like ‘What I think about Communism’. I wrote that I was in favour of it, seemed a fairer system to me than the one we had. Clearly the bank thought I was not suited to a career in a capitalist venture and turned me down. Honesty did not pay!
However, Williams Deacon’s Bank (no longer with us) were more accommodating and I became the worst bank clerk ever! I made careless mistakes because my heart wasn’t in it – the worst one being to spill a pint bottle of ink all over the manager’s new carpet which he had been requesting for years. ‘Not suited to bank work’ was the verdict when I was dismissed. The ignominy of being sacked was dreadful. There followed a succession of dead-end jobs and multiple dismissals. My self-esteem hit rock bottom and my mother was furious.
So, what now? Was there nothing I could do successfully?
Since the age of 11 I had dreamt of being a teacher, but this was ‘not for the likes of us’ as my mother frequently reminded me. When I eventually applied to a College of Education and was accepted on a 3 year course she informed me that I would not ‘stick at it’ as I never ‘stuck at anything. Well I did give up the Brownies and the Girl Guides not to mention the Maia Choir in Stockport, so that was her justification. But I so wanted to be a teacher having been inspired by Miss Gorton my PT (Physical Training as it was in those days) and English teacher whom I adored. She actually took an interest in me.
I qualified as a teacher. I had made it! Well not quite. Encouraged by my then husband I set my sights on being a lecturer in a College of Education. I made that too. Who’d a thowt it? as they say in Hyde. Then by a quirk of fate – or economy, the College merged with the University of Warwick and I became a University Lecturer.
What dizzy heights I had attained – and all with only 7 GCE O levels to my name. Surely now my life would be complete. I had a wonderful husband, owned a car, a house and had two step-children and had a ‘perfect life’. Sadly not, or even, in retrospect, gladly not. I was still looking.
Clearly, I thought, the marriage was the problem. So, I got out of that, spent a year in America and came back to my job at the University. I bought my own house, owned a car had a perfect job and a busy social life. I was popular, respected (outside of my work) and had enough money to travel etc. This must be it! Again – not so. I would go home at night to my home and feel empty, hollow and so alone.
So, What Was the Problem?
My ex told me at one point that I would never be happy because if I didn’t have a problem I would create one. There might have been some truth in that, but if there was why would anyone need to do that? Perhaps it gave me something to focus on; still look outside myself rather than at myself. Perhaps, I thought I was just an ungrateful person who would never be satisfied no matter how much she had or how good her life was. No matter how many friends; how prestigious a job; how easy it was to get into a relationship (who knows why) What was I looking for? What would fill that emptiness? Why couldn’t I be grateful and satisfied with what I had?
I began to look for answers to those questions. Maybe I was just the person my mother always told me I was – an ungrateful little bitch. It could be low-self-esteem – but why? Perhaps there was something I need to learn – but what? I have since met many people who are looking for the answer to this conundrum. They see the answer in a change of job, a change of spouse or partner, a change of Country and even, perhaps a change of some aspect of my body. These rarely provide the solution. They give a temporary lift and then all is back to ‘normal’. I eventually worked out, after hitting on the answer quite by chance, that what was missing was ME, but what did that mean? Who was this ‘me’?
Who am I? (an exercise)
Here is a little exercise you can do. Sit down with a pen and paper and ask yourself this question: Who am I ? Ask and answer this at least 10 times, writing down your answers. There are no right or wrong answers. Just see what comes up.
What if you are none of those things you have written down? Who are you then?
Try another exercise.
Record the following instructions:
Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
- Imagine you have a huge eraser and begin to rub yourself out starting with your toes and working up through your body
- feet and legs,
- hands and arms,
- finally your head.
- What is left?
- Are you still there?
- Who or what is still there?
- Just stay with that experience for a moment or two.
What answers came to mind? I know you just rubbed your head out but you can contemplate the questions. Write down your responses.
There is another exercise you can do which addresses this question in rather more depth but you would have to enrol on a course to take that one.
How do you ‘fill the hole’?
Maybe what you have left when you erase your body is not a hole, but a space; the space of opportunity and possibility; the space to expand and explore.
If we stop accumulating knowledge, possessions etc and identifying with our bodies, our status, our relationships etc. We will start to look elsewhere for the nourishment to satisfy our craving. As George Bernard Shaw says
‘I want to be thoroughly used up when I die’
I must be closer to dying than many of you and writing this is one way I ensure that I will be ‘used up’ when the time comes.
What, you may ask, will I use up? My talents, my potential, my capacity for engaging with life . I will have used up the contribution I can make to this world we inhabit in any way I can.
Are you a ‘force of nature’? What will your legacy be? And finally, what have these questions got to do with ‘Is there more to life’?
There is so much more to life than most of us imagine, but in order to grasp it we must be bold, explore our true limitations by being willing to falter, make mistakes and fail and then start again. So many people live by the adage ‘If at first you don’t succeed – give up!’ We allow fear to set our limitations and narrow our horizons.
Fear is our prison. The saying ‘stone walls do not a prison make, or iron bars a cage’ is so profound. The iron bars and the stone walls are our fears and within them we stay safe and small. We have no space to explore our capabilities – our true limitations
Susan Jeffers’ book is entitled ‘Feel The Fear and Do it Anyway. It is a great title. Take one small step after another to that which inspires or calls to you. Do not stay stuck in fear; take your fear with you into the unknown, untasted wonders of this life.
You can do anything if you want it enough and are not stopped by your fear and anxiety. I say, ‘you can do anything ‘– I do not say you can have anything because having might be meaningless once you have it .
Look at how you can impact the lives of others positively and life on the planet and when you embark on that journey then you will discover the answer to ‘Who am I?’ and that emptiness will be gone – the hole will be filled. You will just have to trust me on this one.
To sum up
It is imperative that human beings step outside of their conditioned consumerism if this planet is to overcome the problems that it is currently experiencing and if humanity is to overcome their neuroses and sense of soullessness. Truly there is no point in life other than the one we create that has meaning for us. Human Beings create the meaning of everything believe it or not so create one that is worthwhile for you.
This article does not have ‘the answers’. It challenges you to operate out of a different construct of what gives life meaning and creates fulfilment. I end with a quote from Dan Millman:
There are three types of people; those who make things happen; those who watch what happens; and those who wonder what happened. Take charge of your life, or someone else will.
Please do not end your life wondering what happened – that would be very sad indeed.
There is More to Life than this – you are just looking in the wrong place . Don’t just smell the flowers – plant the flowers.