Don’t Stop Living When No One’s Watching

A story about college, dumplings, and the wisdom of 90-somethings

Photo by Some Tale on Unsplash

One cold December night, I was sitting alone in my apartment. It was too late to be productive, too early to sleep, and I was too hungry to do either. The solution? Dumplings. Oh, how I longed for some delicious dough bags.

I messaged a few friends to see if anyone wanted to go. “I’m not in town.” “I have a date.” “Sorry, I already ate.” Quickly, discouragement set in. “Maybe, I should just stay in,” I thought. “I still have food at home. It’s cold anyway.”

I shook it off. I got dressed, walked to the restaurant, sat down, ordered, and within a few minutes, I was munching on a dozen Asian delicacies. I even got a free mango pudding for dessert. Score!

This may seem like an innocuous everyday occurrence, a non-event, really, but in hindsight, I realized: This was one of the many encounters we all have with a dire, devastating force called “potential regret.” I had won this round but made a shocking discovery:

Sometimes, I’m afraid of doing what I want because I am alone.

The Story That Never Stops

If you sit with emptiness for a while, you’ll notice that, at first, your mind continues to tell the story it always tells. It could be the one about work or the one about a friend or the one about what you should eat. You might even flick through all of them and then some.

Eventually, however, you’ll realize that you are telling yourself a story. Most of your time is spent fighting your inner silence.

We’re discussing whether technology fosters a culture of escapism, but if we’re honest, that’s not something we needed devices for. A desire to escape our psyche is built into the human experience. It’s a feature we can’t turn off.

We like to say we “think,” but, mostly, we’re just letting whatever thoughts happen to appear wash over us. To some extent, this too is human. You can’t constantly squeeze your gray matter with existential questions. “Who am I? Why am I? What is the meaning of life?” Too many rounds on the Ferris wheel of purpose will drive you insane. At the same time, if we immediately shut these questions down every time they creep up, we stand to lose our minds just the same.

Faced with these two, equally terrifying ends of the thinking-escaping spectrum, our brains do something fascinating: They stop dead in the middle — and then collapse upon themselves.

And the Winner Is…Misery!

When a friend of mine had to pick her thesis topic, she researched many angles and talked to several faculty members. After a few weeks of work, it came down to two choices. When only one chair accepted her application, I congratulated her. A decision had been made. I was wrong. In her eyes, an option had been lost.

Having had no clear preference before, she was now sad about one door being closed instead of celebrating, and walking through, the one that was open. What did she do? Go back to brainstorming more options.

This may sound silly, but it’s a real struggle for a real group of people, especially career starters in their 20s. We know we have a wealth of options, so we try to look at them all. Without ever deciding, we then feel bad about the ones we miss, the ones we might have missed, and the perfect ones we think should exist somewhere, even though they never do. That’s what abundance does to us.

In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz explained that the more choice we have, the harder it gets to choose well, and the easier it becomes to make mistakes. “Perfect” remains as impossible as ever, and yet, despite knowing it, we’re still disappointed if we don’t find it.

What my friend is doing — what most of us are doing — isn’t distracting ourselves with meaningless entertainment or existential problems — we do it with a myriad of good solutions to reasonable problems that don’t reflect who we truly are.

For many of us today, life is fairly easy. We know we’ll get dinner. A date is just a swipe away. Our work may be boring, but it pays. At worst, we’ll cancel Spotify and move back in with our parents for a while.

We could use all this time and freedom to create ourselves. We could try something, or with someone, that feels like us and then run with it until life proves us wrong. Instead, we pick the wrong things to begin with and then fret about what might have, could have, should have been.

We choose whatever outcome we end up with to be the one that makes us feel miserable, and so it’s no surprise that misery is always part of the deal. That’s not a good way to live.

What 90-Year-Olds Know About Failing to Be Happy

Happiness is built on great relationships. Our social connections are one of, if not the biggest contributing — or detracting — factor to our well-being.

When minister Lydia Sohn interviewed the 90-something members of her congregation about their regrets, they corroborated this fact:

“Their joys and regrets have nothing to do with their careers, but with their parents, children, spouses, and friends.”

Sohn found that, counterintuitively, people hadn’t been happiest when they were young, nor when they were retired, but when they were busy husbands and mothers, busy working, providing, connecting. Being the glue holding together their own social microcosmos felt more satisfying than any material achievement. At the same time, failing to be said glue — missed soccer games, ugly divorces, estranged father-son-relationships — amounted to more hurt and sorrow than any failure in their jobs.

Bronnie Ware is a palliative nurse and author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. She too investigated the woes of the elderly. One of her clients, a woman named Grace, taught her what would turn out to be the most common regret of all: Living a shadow life.

Grace remained healthy into her eighties and had been married for over 50 years. She had raised healthy children and grandchildren, but it had come at the expense of her dreams. As a wife, she had done what was expected of her, not what she wanted. Her husband had been somewhat of a dictator, and she had deferred her dreams of traveling and living simply to the time when he eventually went to a nursing home.

Unfortunately, only a few weeks after first experiencing the relief and freedom she had longed for all these years, Grace became terminally ill — her husband had also been a smoker. It was at this time that Bronnie was assigned to care for her and, for a few weeks , they became friends as they prepared for Grace’s passing.

The more Bronnie learned about Grace’s story and the more she shared of her own, the more apparent it became that when our relationships turn from support system to stumbling block, they become our number one source of remorse:

“Of all of the regrets and lessons shared with me as I sat beside their beds, the regret of not having lived a life true to themselves was the most common one of all. It was also the one that caused the most frustration, as the client’s realization came too late. ‘It’s not like I wanted to live a grand life,’ Grace explained in one of many conversations from her bed. ‘But I wanted to do things for me too and I just didn’t have the courage.’”

When we piece together Sohn and Ware’s lessons, this seems to be the message: Your relationships are crucial to your happiness, but they require a delicate balance.

Our best self comes to light when we don’t focus on ourselves too much at all. We must be of service to others, and there is no greater joy than doing good for the people we love.

Simultaneously, in order to feel like our best self, we need to decide some things on our own. We can’t let our relationships override our dreams. We mustn’t dissolve ourselves in our connections.

It is normal to compromise in a partnership, and it is normal for a partnership to take the back seat when you start a family — but if either one of the two ends up suppressing your desires completely, a busy life will become an estranged one, and that’s not something we’ll smile at as we look back in old age.

Now, I’m really glad I ate those dumplings.

Live Boldly in Silence to Prepare for the Noise

Like everything, staying true to yourself starts small. It’s not about graduating summa cum laude or choosing the perfect partner. It’s about listening to your gut when you want to eat dumplings.

Authenticity can be as simple as eating the first food that comes to mind, but, often, even these tiny acts of originality can be uncomfortable — especially if we must see them through on our own.

It’s okay to feel lonely, to want support, and to desire people you can share awesome experiences with. What’s not okay is to stay at home and let these things defeat your dreams, particularly if they’re as small as trying a new ice cream shop.

When your support goes down the tube, don’t throw your life right after. Don’t stop living when no one’s watching. Have pride. Get dressed. Show up. Not for others but for yourself.

Don’t feel sorry for yourself instead of doing what you want when no one’s stopping you. Don’t let solitude paralyze you. Don’t pressure yourself to optimize a sea of options when you know most of them are irrelevant. Most of all, don’t worry about what people will think; what they’ll say if they catch you being happy on your own.

As we can learn from those senior to us, being happy is not about choosing the best — it’s about loving what you have chosen. How much you dictate the outcome won’t matter as much as having had a say. Whatever agency you have, as long as you use it and don’t second-guess yourself, you’ll likely be content.

Don’t be scared to be the lone fighter for the right cause. Never let the discomfort of authenticity prevent you from being who you truly are, because it starts with frozen pizza but ends with groveling at your ex-boss’s feet to get back the job you hate.

Learn to live true to yourself in small ways and when no one’s around so you can also do it in the face of ever-growing responsibilities. A partner, a family, a team or group of fans — live authentically in silence so you’ll be able to do it when they’re watching.

The person who should be most excited about everything you do in life is you.

Never forget that, and never apologize for being who you were born to be, even if it means that, sometimes, you’ll have to have dinner by yourself.

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. For free articles & previews of my upcoming book Self-Love To Go, go here: https://niklasgoeke.com/

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