In the poignant and touching novel Replay by Ken Grimwood, the main characters die again and again only to repeat a portion of their adulthood. The main characters discover over the course of many “replayed” lifetimes that all of their attempts to “improve” their lives fail. Their core belief, which endures for many “lifetimes,” is that the key to a happy life is creating a perfect set of circumstances. But in every case, their lives never turn out the way they envision them. They are able to change some of the details of their lives—but the more they try and manipulate the outcome, the less happiness they have. They finally discover that life is not about manipulating the future, but rather, living fully in the present in an uncertain world. What the characters in Replay discover is a hard concept for individuals to understand.
Our vision of what perfect circumstances will make us happy always comes from our ego and bears little resemblance to what we truly need in order to grow at this time. This is not to say that we need to reject inspirational visions, but the shortest route to reach those visions is wholehearted engagement in the present. When we need to change our circumstances, it can be accomplished out of a quiet knowing. This action, based on quiet knowing and surrender, is the alternative to futile, fear-based attempts to control. That quiet sense of knowing is easily drowned out by our frenetic mental activity aimed at control. This mental activity is generated by the false belief that although we are uncommitted and unhappy now, if we change our circumstances, our commitment will magically change.
Tom McMakin, formerly the chief operating officer of Great Harvest Bread Company, tells the story of his own struggle to commit. He places his story in the larger context of the myriad of choices facing us all:
The curse of living today is not the absence of opportunity; it is that of having too many choices. There is so much we can do; it is hard to decide sometimes. How many times have you heard a friend say, “I don’t know what I want to do!” They’re not worried about whether there is anything they can do. They are freaking out because there are lots of things they could do and they don’t know which one will make them happy.
McMakin goes on to share the experience of one of Great Harvest’s franchisees whose owner realized that he “was one of those guys who likes to keep his options open and it was making (him) miserable.” The store had become a burden to him and business was suffering. His wife provided the simple cure when she advised him, “Get in there with all you heart and Spirit or get out.”
My wife reminds me that I sometimes suffer from the same disease; I try to keep all my options open when it comes to my work. I’ve gotten much better; and when I look back at the times that I didn’t understand this point, I can only smile and wonder why it took me so long. In past days I would wake up each day with everything in play: work on my book project, work on my PowerPoint slides for class, develop exercises for a client’s leadership development program, write a blog post, etc. When I approached the day in this way, the morning would frequently go by in spasms of work but more frustration than anything else. He who is distracted by anything, will quickly be distracted by everything.
There is no perfect set of circumstances to create, there is just the moment in front us to live wholeheartedly. This moment will soon pass. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Dan Baker, in his book What Happy People Know, shares this wisdom that inspired one of his clients: “Every moment that’s ever been, or ever will be, is gone the instant it’s begun. So life is loss. And the secret of happiness is to learn to love the moment more than you mourn the loss.”