By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index
Do you work like a dog?
We might hear or even use common terms like this, even though the term might have little relevance or even might hold almost exactly the opposite meaning intended.
Did you know, for example, that the average dog sleeps 17 hours a day? (1*) I don’t know about anyone else, but I could be super-productive if I could sleep (or rest) 17 hours a day – at least for those seven hours I was awake and active.
Maybe I’m a literalist, but I’m just not a fan of contradictory – if not nonsensical – statements that many of us take as truth or wisdom.
How many times have you heard (or used) terms like this and just let them wash over you or nod in agreement. Here are some of my (not) favorite terms that, with a micro-second of thought, are preposterous, even though our first response is to consider them profound and insightful.
“It is, what it is.” For just five words, this short phrase packs in a lot of nonsense and nothingness. What, after all, “isn’t what it is”? I’m not sure what this term was ever supposed to mean, but when I hear it, (and yes, I have been known to use it, but extremely rarely) it is almost always a statement of resignation, if not surrender. It is not a rallying cry of courage or determination. It is in fact a declaration of giving up. I’m not sure what to think of what that says about our culture the past several years, but giving up does seem to be our near universal response to pressing social problems like homelessness, income inequality or political inertia or incompetence.
How about “Everything happens for a reason”? Most of us want to believe that “everything happens for a reason” – we want our lives to have purpose and direction, we want to believe that what we do, and what happens to us matters and was “supposed to happen.”
The magazine Psychology Today has an interesting exploration of our love for this term (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hot-thought/201002/does-everything-happen-reason-0)
One of the ironies of this one is that people of faith often embrace it as a keystone of their faith in divine guidance, protection or preparation. It can also, perhaps more than the others, be more than an article of faith, it can be a cornerstone of a fatalistic or destructive view of life. It can easily be the premise of ultimate victim-shaming or obsessive guilt and paralysis. Have cancer? You were supposed to get that to “teach you a life lesson.” Did your house burn down or your child die or have a life-impacting disability, do you have a health crisis? If I tell you that it was “supposed to happen” does that make you feel any better?
For whatever reason, we want to believe that if we have the right attitude, life will work out for us – we will have good relationships, productive careers and good health. You could call this the American gospel – if we have good intentions, and smile, life will work out for us.
Like every American, I like this philosophy – but that doesn’t make it true. I still have flat tires, disastrous interactions, financial hardships, and health crises.
Do they “make me a better person”? Maybe it’s just me, but if I don’t agree that a seriously sick or injured child, a broken bone or a flat tire makes me a better person, does that mean there is something wrong with me or with a bland, fatalistic and limp philosophy of life?
If we are sick, injured or going through financial challenges, do you really want us to feel worse because we can’t “appreciate” what life is “teaching” us?
Kate Bowler’s book, Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, explores our love, and perhaps dependence on sayings and belief systems that paralyze and demoralize us even as they promise to equip us for life’s uncertainties and difficulties. We want to believe in order, purpose and ever more solid meaning and accomplishment. In short, we as Americans in particular, have an abiding belief in progress – as individuals and as a society. But there is nothing inevitable about “progress” however we might define it.
A popular bumper sticker states “Freedom isn’t free.” No it isn’t, but neither is courage or success. Or friendship. Or respect, or a sense of accomplishment. Or anything, when you think about it.
C.S. Lewis used the term ‘chronological snobbery” to describe our natural human tendency to believe that one era is (or was) greater (or worse) than any other.
Do we really believe that we are smarter or more sophisticated than previous generations? We’re not. (https://www.sciencealert.com/iq-scores-falling-in-worrying-reversal-20th-century-intelligence-boom-flynn-effect-intelligence)
Do we really believe that in any previous generation people were more honest or ambitious than people now? A glance at headlines or news stories of that era should cure you of that delusion immediately.
“I’m a greater believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.”
– Thomas Jefferson
Does the good guy always win? Is honest work always recognized and rewarded? Do riches and fame always go to those who “deserve” them? Do poor people “deserve” to be poor?
When we “lean on” these phrases, even if we “want’ to believe them, they are likely to let us down – and not gracefully. We may be a ‘better person” after that negative experience or failure, but does that mean those who “fail” or have difficult experiences continually are “better” people? If so, “losers” would be our best teachers and leaders.
We can all learn from our mistakes, and no one does it right the first time. My bias is that learning, and perhaps curiosity should be rewarded and no one should be afraid of failure. We all learn different ways, some things matter more to us than to others, “success” is subjective and always subject to change.
Success can be measured in all kinds of ways, and how we all get there may keep changing as well – what matters to us in one season of life may not matter that much in another.
Our American core belief is that positive thinking will save us, the good guy always wins, life is inevitably improving and people get what they deserve. I don’t know about anyone else, but my life experience tells me that none of that is true.
As much as we might love formulas or slogans, they can never live up to the demands and complexities of actual, daily life.
This is not just my opinion, here is what the Bible says –
The race is not (2*) to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Ecclesiastes 9:11 (NIV)
Consider how much of life depends on choices not made by us – where we were born, our race, ethnicity, parentage or skin color, our family, and in most cases our citizenship.
We are forever defined by where we were born. Some arbitrary line, some man-made border, marks us for life. Our circumstances of birth cast their shadow over the totality of our lives.
Many of the opportunities open (or closed) to us have little, or even nothing, to do with our aptitude, diligence or attitude.
Even Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, concedes that success has little to do with diligence, it’s all luck – it’s not a matter of positive affirmations, power postures or near-magical acumen – it is primarily about being in the right place at the right time -(https://www.inc.com/john-koetsier/amazons-jeff-bezos-just-proved-that-all-those-rich-famous-do-what-i-do-stories-are-nonsense.html).
Bezos earned an average of 107 million dollars a day in 2017 (http://www.businessinsider.com/how-much-jeff-bezos-richest-billionaires-make-every-day-2018-3) and even more, so far in 2018. (3*)
“Stuff happens” to paraphrase a common bumper sticker, and how we respond to difficulty – or opportunity makes us who we are.
Some of us, like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos, catch and ride an unstoppable wave – at least until the next one comes along.
We never know what challenge, threat or promise awaits us at the next intersection of life, but the immensity and mystery of life is all part of the indescribable adventure.
Life is all about catching the next wave.
(1*) Those who have had cats know that they sleep even more than dogs – up to 20 hours a day.
(2*) Most translation of this verse have “always” tucked in there. It is not in the original
(3*) That’s about $4,500,000 an hour, assuming he works 24 hours a day – which , of course, Amazon does.