I realize with the timing of this post, it being a new year and all, it may appear that this is something like a New Year's Resolution or some such reflection, but indeed, it isn't. For several years now, I've had a number of rules of thumb that I think enhance my life, and now that that list has grown to ten (or so), I thought it might be fun to share it, rather like a completely new take on the Ten Commandments. Since I don't go in for commandments and don't think anyone else should either, I refer to them as "rules," but the context on that is rules of thumb for a better life. I'll present them and then elaborate briefly on each.
- Let whatever comes up be okay.
- Remember that everyone sucks at everything at first.
- Never feel that you are wrong for loving someone.
- Stop feeling sorry for yourself, now.
- Never claim ownership of another person, explicitly or implicitly.
- See life as a series of opportunities.
- Go according to the situation.
- Smallness is sufficient.
- The more you give, the more you have.
- Anytime it is possible, choose kindness.
Rule #1: Let whatever comes up be okay.
The rule speaks for itself, and of the rules, it's the only one that's placed intentionally where it is on the list: first. This rule is likely to bother people because there are obviously things that come up that are heinous, traumatic, awful, and heinous, and many of those things demand and deserve remedies, which are sometimes available. That seems to be the immediate problem falsifying the rule, but that's an immature understanding of the rule. What comes up cannot be changed in that instant, and adding internal turmoil to it not only rarely helps, it often stands in the way of effecting a change when it is needed. This rule is something of an extension of "be calm in the face of adversity" in spirit, then. It's also very difficult in that it requires surprising honesty, presence of mind, selflessness, and mastery of one's emotional responses to be possible. My advice: cultivate those.
Rule #2: Remember that everyone sucks at everything at first.
Life is trying. People mess things up all the time, and it's frustrating. We mess things up for ourselves all the time, and it's maddening. We also quit on ourselves way sooner than we usually should (often at least an order of magnitude of attempts too soon to even be capable of judging whether or not we have any possibility with some new task). Learning is how things go, and everyone therefore sucks at everything at first. Patience--the kind that Christopher Hitchens couldn't possibly have been condemning--is a virtue in this regard (though not others). This rule is, therefore, in the spirit of "patience is a virtue," "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again," and Hanlon's Razor, "never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity."
Rule #3: Never feel that you are wrong for loving someone.
This is a big one, and it requires a very grown-up view on love to make any sense. This rule depends upon having an outward view of love, which if you ask your grandparents, they've probably realized as they've aged. You can love people truly without expecting anything in return, and it's a beautiful thing. Never feel like you are wrong for seeing the best in people, caring about them, supporting them, and doing what you can for them without overextending yourself. Note also that this rule extends in reverse too: never feel that you are wrong for loving yourself (but watch out for narcissism).
Rule #4: Stop feeling sorry for yourself, now.
I'll just quote Stephen Fry here,
Certainly the most destructive vice if you like, that a person can have. More than pride, which is supposedly the number one of the cardinal sins - is self pity. Self pity is the worst possible emotion anyone can have. And the most destructive. It is, to slightly paraphrase what Wilde said about hatred, and I think actually hatred's a subset of self pity and not the other way around - 'It destroys everything around it, except itself '.Rule #5: Never claim ownership of another person, explicitly or implicitly.
Self pity will destroy relationships; it'll destroy anything that's good; it will fulfill all the prophecies it makes and leave only itself. And it's so simple to imagine that one is hard-done-by, and that things are unfair, and that one is underappreciated, and that if only one had had a chance at this, only one had had a chance at that, things would have gone better, you would be happier if only this, that one is unlucky. All those things. And some of them may well even be true. But, to pity oneself as a result of them is to do oneself an enormous disservice.
I think it's one of things we find unattractive about the American culture, a culture which I find mostly, extremely attractive, and I like Americans and I love being in America. But, just occasionally there will be some example of the absolutely ravening self pity that they are capable of, and you see it in their talk shows. It's an appalling spectacle, and it's so self destructive. I almost once wanted to publish a self help book, saying 'How To Be Happy by Stephen Fry: Guaranteed success'. And people buy this huge book and it's all blank pages, and the first page would just say - 'Stop Feeling Sorry For Yourself - And you will be happy '. Use the rest of the book to write down your interesting thoughts and drawings, and that's what the book would be, and it would be true. And it sounds like 'Oh that's so simple', because it's not simple to stop feeling sorry for yourself, it's bloody hard. Because we do feel sorry for ourselves, it's what Genesis is all about.
This rule seems obvious, but that's the explicit half of it. The implicit half is much more subtle, much more insidious, much more common, and often taken as a virtue. We often make the mistake of feeling as though we own our friends, our partners, our employees, and so on, and this is a horrible mistake. Fix it at once literally everywhere you do it, and you'll have a better life.
Rule #6: See life as a series of opportunities.
It sounds simpler than it is. To the degree one fails to do this, one also misses good opportunities. And don't forget, you only get one go at this.
Rule #7: Go according to the situation.
The gem of Taoism--go according to the situation. This, again, is a simple-to-state, hard-to-live rule. It requires thinking for yourself; it requires letting go of many of your best-laid plans; it requires changing your expectations and letting go of your attachment to them; it requires perception, calmness, adaptivity, flexibility, and sensitivity. Whatever comes up, though, once you've let it be okay (and seen it as an opportunity), go with it. That doesn't mean agree with it or accept its continuation; but you have to work with what is, not what might have been, seemingly could have been, what was hoped for, or any other such counterfactual fantasy. Go according to the situation. It doesn't help to yell at the tide.
Rule #8: Smallness is sufficient.
You're not very big, and most of what you do will only matter locally, which is where it is most important. It's often very frustrating to define our purposes in grand ways, and the horror of doing so is losing sight of what is near, the people and activities closest to us that, in many relevant ways, matter most. Smallness is sufficient.
Rule #9: The more you give, the more you have.
This apparently paradoxical folk wisdom taps into the nature of community. Think about it that way and then try to realize it.
Rule #10: Anytime it is possible, choose kindness.
Life is short and hard, and pain, grief, and misery are all but guaranteed at times. Everyone carries struggles, and even knowing a list of heuristics like this doesn't free you from them, even if you can put them all into continuous play in your life, which is ridiculously difficult in moments of adversity.
So, like I said, here are some rules I've found useful for living well, and the list is nothing like exhaustive. If you have others, I'd love to hear them in the comments!