For better and for worse, human beings end up asking a lot of questions pertaining to who we are and what we’re doing with ourselves. Questioning is a good thing, maybe the most important thing we do as humans, but in this process of questioning we often find ourselves confronted with more questions than answers.
As we get older and move through this process of self-analysis, it can begin to feel like something of a rabbit hole. What began as something fun and strange and maybe a little bit thrilling (even to the point of being frightening, but in a good way) gradually turns into this outlandish circus in which we feel dashed about by the performers and circumstances around us without any control over the situation.
We ask ourselves, “How did things end up like this?” And, “Why didn’t things turn out the way I’d planned?” And, “Do I really what to find out where this rabbit hole is taking me?”
And before we know it, we become afraid. The nonsense and chaos and lack of any discernible ringmaster (who we’ve been taught from an early age is supposed to be us, that each of us is supposed to be at the helm of his own ship) has become too much to bear. Suddenly we realize that we are “out of control”, and that the existence we grew up imagining we’d one day achieve is far from where we’ve ended up.
So we panic. And we get angry. We want to shout out at the world, “Hey! This isn’t what I signed on for!” We want to point our finger at the world and blame it, someone, something, everything, ourselves, our parents, society, whatever we can, as long as we get a chance to express our outrage. Some people have a mid-life crisis and buy the same car they had when they were sixteen, much to the chagrin of their spouse who knows where the bank balance stands. Others steep themselves in drink, choosing to sit out their protest in a stewy silence that drowns out the questions. And there are others who turn to violence, whether it be against themselves, their loved ones, or strangers. It’s all because we feel out of control. Because the questions didn’t have any answers, or at the very least the answers we received didn’t live up to our expectations.
Bees and Trees Expect Nothing but Accomplish a Great Deal
To use a much worn phrase: Consider the lilies. And it doesn’t have to be lilies. Consider the birds, consider the bees, consider the trees, consider the dung beetle. What do they worry over? Nothing, they’re too busy living out their lives, too busy playing their role. A tree never considers that it could have chosen a different career. It is never disappointed in itself, never lashes out at the world around it, and never lays blame no matter what befalls it.
And the funny thing is that through all of its not worrying, through all of its lack of consideration and of planning, and of hopes and dreams, it still lives out its function perfectly, accomplishing a great deal over the course of its existence. This is all completely incongruous with the human line of thinking, in which great deeds are only accomplished by meticulous planning, through exhaustive mental efforts, and perhaps more than anything, through stress. We hate stress, yet we place a great deal of value on it, imagining that he who has the most stress must be accomplishing the most, and that he must be responsible for a great many things, giving him importance.
But look at how many responsibilities the tree has. It converts sunlight into energy so that our planet has food. It provides homes to creatures of every type. It provides shade, turns carbon-dioxide into oxygen, holds the soil firm against erosion and flashflood. And it’s beautiful to look at, to boot. Even once it dies, it provides homes to a host of different organisms before finally composing back into the earth to provide sustenance to future generations.
And it accomplishes all of these responsibilities without a thought, a plan, or a worry. It is never disappointed, never receives accolades or recognition, and never becomes angry, either with itself or the world around it.
Before I run the risk of venturing too far into the realm of the hippie-dippie (if I haven’t already done so), let’s sum things up: our expectations and plans do not result in accomplishment or contentedness. Quite the opposite: disappointment is the offspring of expectation.
If we were better able to live like a tree, to perform our talents and functions to the best of our abilities without concern over our plans, our expectations, and where the rabbit hole will take us, the bewilderment, anger, and fear that accompanies disappointment would become obsolete.
This is difficult, because our greatest strength as a species is a double edged sword: our questioning makes us human, but it inevitably leads us to dead ends and false answers.
So, as creatures who must ask questions, what should we be asking that will lead us away from expectations instead of toward them? Here are just a couple, but I warn you—they will only lead to more questions.
Ask the Simple Things—at Least in the Beginning
When people ask themselves existential questions, they tend to think too broadly. It’s too big a question to ask, “Where did things go wrong?” There is no single answer to it, and you could spend the rest of your life going over this and that point, questioning decisions, and pointing fingers.
Try to ask questions that are pertinent, but focused. Questions that can lead to actionable answers rather than rabbit hole plunges.
- “What aspects of my life make me happy? Which could be improved?”
- “When I do X action, does it improve my life and the lives of those around me, or detract?”
- “What simple action can I take the next time I have 20 minutes free that will further my goals?”
Simple questions can lead to simple answers. There is a time and place for asking the big, complex questions, but for the purpose of starting down a path away from crisis and toward contentment, start with the basics.
I’d like to close with a clip of the great comedian Bill Hicks in which he reminds us that life is just a ride, and that although its ups and downs may seem very real, it’s still just a ride.
We might as well make it one that we can enjoy.