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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 4-8-22 – Something Bigger Than Myself

“We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don't know.” - W. H. Auden

The human condition is an odd one. I suspect I think about such things more than the average person. The questions of why we are here and what this is all about are things I think about a lot. Humans have pondered our very existence for at least the last 73,000 years. The San Rock Art depicts things important for existence in those prehistoric times. What a good hunt was and conceptions of life and the afterworld. Not that different from what we find important now.

I also often think of the paradox of hedonism. Does devoting one’s life to finding more and more comfort and experiences of great pleasure make a perfect life? There is actually a fair amount written on the topic. If one is denied all pleasurable activities, it does not make for a happy life. Toiling in the mines seven days a week is not the recipe for happiness. But the pursuit of short term pleasures over the long term does not work either. What we see in commercials and advertisements is probably not that rewarding and may not be a pathway to a well lived life. People can have everything and feel empty. Maybe this is why we in live abundance and yet are not the happiest of people.

In our era, we can go through our lives without having to strive a great deal. The kinds of struggles depicted on those cave walls eons ago are long gone for most of us. The heroes’ quest as Campbell called it. We can be comfortable without a lot of the kinds of challenges that can be experienced as rewarding. Yes, we work very hard, but life is fairly predictable. Boredom is commonplace. A comfortable existence may feel the opposite of rewarding. What a paradox.

I was looking for a quest early in life. The big hunt. I needed something bigger myself. Recently I read a fascinating article by Dr Judith Grisel, the addiction trap. As Dr. Grisel notes in her piece, “both explorers and teenagers, for the same reasons, advance humanity’s interests as they risk themselves like hungry sheep searching for greener grass that might lead the way to a new field – or get them picked off by a wolf. These biases are by evolutionary design, because a group of young people emphasizing potential over punishment living alongside more conservative folks helps to ensure an overall balance between change and stability.” This makes sense. I was young, dumb, and not afraid of wolves.

Dr. Grisel notes that roughly 90% of addiction starts in adolescence when we are wired to try new things. In ancient times, that may have meant striking out on adventure in search of better hunting grounds for the tribe. In my little suburban world, it meant exploring drugs. The reward in the brain was the same. Eureka, I have found it! Yet, unlike dragging home a huge bison for my people, the reward was both easier to obtain and fleeting. Tolerance developed, I needed more and more for less of a payoff. In a relatively short period of time, use was needed to even feel normal. For readers seeking an animated example of this, I recommend Nuggets. I feel that clip every time I watch it.

Like that little being in the video, when life got dark near the end, the big question came up again. What is this all about? I had no clue. The harsh reality I saw as I looked over the course of my short life was that I had not really bothered to try very hard to find out. I can tell you that there is something much worse than failing. What is much worse is failing to try. What looked back at me in the mirror was failure to try and I really did not like its visage on me. Truth be told, I don’t claim to have all the answer to life now. However, I have learned that seeking short bursts of dopamine is not it.

These days I try very hard yet and often fail. I have learned that in failure are often the seeds to success: if one just keeps trying. Particularly if what one is looking for is meaning and purpose. I see people with significant material wealth who are really unhappy. I also see people who don’t have a whole lot in respect to name brand goods who are having a pretty rewarding ride through this thing called life. This life lesson was a hidden gift of recovery for me.

I just had a birthday mid-week. Grateful for another year. I do not pretend to have the secret to life at age 57. But for me, I suspect it still involves something bigger than myself. In my youth, I thought that thing came from drugs and the massive dopamine rush that comes with those drugs, but I learned that led to misery. I know now that the way that drugs work in the brain mean that there is always a piper to pay in the brain through homeostasis and allostasis. Not something I could change, like gravity. There was no eutopia where I was looking, I am grateful I found a way out early.

The Auden quote is a favorite. It captures our plight and the sometimes-seeming absurdity of it all with humor. But still, I am grateful to have found some meaningful things along the way, like learning, being productive, having empathy, and service to others. Auden was right. I don’t know what those others are here for, but I am here to help them. It is a better than being stuck in my own shell pursing small pleasures with my stint here. I am grateful for the others; they provide me purpose. Grateful I survived my early years despite the wolves. I have no idea what they are doing here. Trying to figure that out for myself is more than enough.

What are you grateful for today?

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