“Health is the greatest possession. Contentment is the greatest treasure. Confidence is the greatest friend.” –Lao Tzu
I should’ve known better. I can’t count how many times I’ve read the Lao Tzu. I can’t even remember how old I was the first time I read it. I must’ve been in middle school or early high school, comprehending nothing, because even by 14, I was already a typical American. I believed in “right” and “wrong” and felt that I was right and everyone else was wrong. I believed that to accomplish anything took stress and effort. I believed in politics and in the idea of good and evil. Even though there were few things as pleasurable a bout of pure laziness, I felt unmitigated shame and guilt around my desire to sit around not doing shit for a whole day.
My journey on the Tao (or at least my conscious journey–as the Tao is not something one has ever or can ever deviate from) began with Bruce Lee’s intonation to be “like water, my friend.”
Fourteen-year-old me would wonder aloud, “What does that even mean? Be wet?”
My old man was a person of superior intelligence. I would say such thoughts out loud and he would gaze at me, a haze of abject disappointment clouding his face, and shake his head dejectedly.
“Be formless. Pour water in a cup and it becomes the cup. Pour water in a teapot and it becomes the teapot,” Bruce Lee would say. “Water can flow. Or it can crash.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” I would ask again. “How can I become a cup? Water doesn’t become a cup. It just sits there in the cup, and it gets dirty if you don’t drink it quickly enough.”
Old Man Furious would sit somewhere in the background, fiddling with some rope, examining the finer points of tying a noose.
Meanwhile, in the intervening 19 years, I convinced myself that my understanding of the Tao had grown exponentially. I even wrote a series of essays for disinfo.com that were treatises on thinly-veiled Taoist ideas filtered through a modern idiot-asshole’s (i.e. my) lens.
Life was not perfect, but I had been mostly content. Life was not perfect, but I realized how much worse it could’ve been. I had taken Lao Tzu’s appeal to be content with contentment to heart. Life was not perfect, but it was good.
But slowly that had changed.
Like an inception, an idea had been planted somewhere in the depths of my psyche, and over the course of a couple of years, that idea grew, and festered, and churned until what had been a vague, weightless, transparent idea had become a chunky, gooey vision that had adhered itself to every free space of my mindspace. It had gone from a whimsical joke of sorts, to an outright obsession. And my life, which had been simple and content, became convoluted and contentious.
The ghost of Old Man Furious– who had died and been cremated a decade prior– rolled over several times in its ashes, though it couldn’t have been all that surprised at my obtuseness.
Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.
What was that idea that had flipped my life so? Simply this: that I deserved more.
More of what?
Well, now, that was the hard part. There was simply this inarticulate yearning for something more. But I felt trapped. I felt trapped by my life. Every effort I had ever made to accomplish something that I wanted to accomplish had ended in total failure. We won’t go all the way back, because that would only belabor what is an already laborious point of this essay. Instead, let’s just start in high school. I had tried to be a successful wrestler and sprinter. Did I succeed? No. I then went off to a faraway land to go to college, thinking I might finally be successful in fitting in and finding others who thought as I did. Did that work out? No it didn’t. If anything, my time in college was the loneliest, longest, most frustrating time of my life. Every woman I had legitimately wanted, literally since as long as I could remember, never wanted me in return. After college, I had spent nearly ten years attempting to be a “successful” writer, but with basically no luck.
Nothing I ever wanted ever came into reality. I could see all these pictures and images and movies in my head and not a single one ever came true. Not one. Never. And, at this point, I doubt any of those images ever will. I even wrote a book based in large part on this idea, and, of course, nobody read it.
That’s not to say I never accomplished anything. But everything I ever accomplished was by total accident. Everything I ever accomplished was accomplished in the most Taoist of ways–by blind, dumbshit luck.
Although I didn’t enjoy my time in college, I ended up being pretty good at it. I graduated with an English degree, which I never expected, and I ended up working as a teacher for a couple of years, which I never expected. That experience as a teacher somehow led me to enrolling in graduate school to be a Clinical Mental Health counselor. So I have a masters degree in a field of study I never really wanted to pursue, and I ended up in a career I had no desire to be in, and, for the most part, I’ve been rather successful in that field and am fairly well respected by my peers. Although none of the women I was ever interested in were ever interested in me, I did meet a lovely woman who I would accidentally fall in love with and who I would accidentally marry.
And so on.
So, on the one hand, it’s silly for me to complain about how things turned out. I have a solidly middle-class career. I have a beautiful woman and some beautiful kids. I’m talented and competent and I’ll probably always live a comfortable life.
Not bad for a dude who grew up in such poverty that he never slept in a bed until he got to college and who can remember times he would be sleeping on a couch, feeling mice nibbling on his fingertips and toes.
The problem is/was that all the success that occurred was, as mentioned, by accident. Just once I wanted to accomplish something on purpose. Just once I wanted to take one of those pictures/images/movies in my head and make them real. Just one time.
I suppose that was the “more” I was seeking.
As I said, however, I felt trapped. I had tried for many years to become a popular-enough writer, and that didn’t happen, and it wouldn’t happen. I had wanted to move out of my shithole hometown, but circumstances had conspired to render that desire impossible for the time being. I wanted a $10,000 raise so I could stop driving my 20-year-old 4-runner and maybe take an actual vacation someplace warm. But there was no conceivable way to make that happen. I was working 50 hours per week. My father was dead. My relationship with my mom had deteriorated. I saw my brother once every six months or so. My marriage had become defined by incessant bouts of bickering and unyielding compromise. Not even at home could I get what I actually wanted. It had become as if–
That was it. That’s where I wasn’t trapped. I didn’t have to be married. I could find someone who wanted me as much as I wanted them. I could find someone who understood better the idea of autonomy within marriage. That we didn’t belong to each other. That we were together because we wanted to be together, and we would respect each other’s need for space and independence. Although every other such image in my head had proven impossible to replicate in reality, certainly that kind of relationship was possible, right?
In my defense, I didn’t jump directly out of my marriage. I spent a year or so trying to get Missus Furious to understand my needs and abide by them a little more often. I wasn’t demanding. I was even willing to settle for a little less than what I truly wanted, as long as I could get some of it. From my perspective, I continued to get none of it.
So looking for it outside of my marriage seemed like a decent idea.
Now, let’s cut to the chase here. I never actually cheated on Missus Furious. Not physically, at least. And, to some extent, it wasn’t from a lack of trying, although sex wasn’t really what I was looking for. I’m not proud of any of it. I make no excuses. I’m a bit of an asshole. Or at least I acted like one. Anyhow, I separated from my wife for a few months and I… and I…
And I accomplished nothing. Well, I accomplished making a bunch of people miserable, myself included. My wife was miserable. My kids were miserable. Our families didn’t know what to make of the whole experiment. And I found that there weren’t exactly a shit-ton of women kicking down my door to reciprocate my desire for TRUE ROMANCE. In fact, they all seemed rather intent on staying as far away from my door as mathematically possible.
I should’ve known better. I had every reason to know better. I did know better. I knew that the pictures in my head never become reality. And I knew I should’ve just been content with what I had.
…The palm and forehead of the ghost of Old Man Furious must’ve been brick red from all the times he smacked his damn head as he watched his son make a mess of his life for no good reason.
Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.
I apologize for this essay turning into nothing but an extended personal essay about a time in my life nobody has any reason to give any of a shit about. It is what it is. I didn’t intend to write an essay like this. Like most things in my life, it happened by accident. I had set out to write a treatise on the power of of simple life lived with contentment. However, perhaps one of the problems is we don’t learn this lesson until after we have complicated our lives unnecessarily. Or, if you’re me, you’re too dumb to recognize when you have a perfectly simple and content life. If you’re me, maybe you reach a point where you still want more.
Marcus Aurelius–a very Taoist-like thinker at times–wrote, “Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”
Zhuangzi–himself an actual Taoist– writes: “There are people who seem to have committed a crime but were not guilty. There are some who seem innocent of a crime but are guilty. To realize that certain things can’t be changed and quietly accept destiny—only a person with a clear heart can do that.”
Therefore it seems to me that a major component of living a simple and content life is acceptance, particularly of one’s fate or destiny.
Again, this line of thinking is abhorrent to the typical American. We accept nothing. We strive for victory and achievement above all else. It’s why we hate participation trophies so.
But for as long as I can remember, fate was very clear with me about what it had in store for me. From the very beginning it was clear that I did not have the ability, talent or means to make the pictures in my head come to fruition in reality. There was never any mixed signals there. From day one my destiny was laid out in front of me, in quite clear and concrete terms. But there have been times in my life when I have been unable or unwilling to accept it. That’s not Fate’s fault. Fate has been nothing by honest and forthcoming. It’s my fault for not listening or being in denial.
And it is when I am failing to listen or when I’m in denial about (i.e. not accepting) my destiny, it is when I am miserable. It is those times when I am discontent and flailing clumsily about life with no grace or elegance.
So I stumble. And I trip. And I flail. But all I can do is try to learn, simplify, and be content. Listen to the message fate insists on sending to me, and accept what is in store. While I cannot control my ability to make my dreams a reality, I can control how I accept that reality, that fate.
If I can do that much, maybe the ghost of Old Man Furious can finally rest in some sort of peace.
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