The Profundity of Everyday Things
I worked with this guy, call him Josh (not his real name), for a few years. He was a bit younger than me, and after he had been t at the company for about 2 years, I became his manager. In an effort to get to know him better, as I like to do for my team, I took him to lunch.
Josh had served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, and had been in combat situations on several occasions. He had seen an IUD blow up a truck. He had been part of a firefight with some insurgents who came out of nowhere. He’d been in situations that many of us can only imagine. So I asked him something I’m always curious about.
“Aside from whatever tactical things you had to do in the moment in battle, what else was going through your mind?” I asked him.
He smiled and laughed. “It sounds dumb, but in situations like that, I just wanted to be back at the barracks, complaining about the mattresses and the terrible food. Or back home, swearing at my lawnmower because it won’t start. I appreciated my small problems that had seemed so big at the time.”
I understood exactly what he meant. When we face really big, out-of-control problems — like the kind that bring us face to face with death — we suddenly appreciate the mundane stuff of everyday life.
It’s funny that we use that phrase “everyday life”. We use it like there is some other kind of life. But in fact, all there is is just “everyday life”. Not only that, but the bits and pieces of “everyday life” are actually really great. But sometimes it takes the threat of never again having one of those mundane moments of “everyday life” to make us appreciate just how much we appreciate the life they are a part of.
That conversation with Josh helped me realize something that I still try to remember regularly: You’re only as successful as your ability to appreciate the mundane “everyday” things. When something threatens to take them away from you forever, you suddenly realize how much you should’ve been appreciating them.
Two Notes on Appreciation
Two things to note here. First, by appreciate, I want to make it clear what I mean. I don’t mean you you should be excited that your car won’t start one morning, or that you have to clean up your kid’s unsanctioned “science experiment” from all over the kitchen floor.
Those can be frustrating, and you can’t stop yourself from feeling immediate frustration when those things happen. But those things are part of your life. They come with the rest of it. And if they’re part of a life you wouldn’t want to lose, then step back from the frustration for a second. Remember that though this thing right now is frustrating, it’s yours, and you would long for it if you were about to kiss it all goodbye.
The second thing I want to make clear is that this lesson is more than just Maraṇasati — or the Buddhist meditation on death. You can use it to reframe how you think about various chunks of your life, as well. You can think about whether the tough parts of some aspect of your life are just part of a greater whole this — all things considered — worthy of appreciation.
If a conversation at your job, or an infuriating email have you swearing and fuming — use the same thought process. Would you miss this if you were forced to leave it behind? And if the answer is no, then great! You’ve just realized that this job isn’t worth keeping. So begin looking for a new one. But otherwise, take a breath and allow yourself to appreciate it. Just appreciate the particular heap of craziness that you deal with every day. It’s yours. And if you can’t come to appreciate, begin working to change it.
It’s Just a Reframe, But It Accumulates Into More
I’m no guru. I have no idea what happens after we take our last breath, or what forces (if any) are at work behind the scenes. But I do know that we have a fantastic ability to step back from our feelings and the ongoing narratives in our heads. And when we do step back, we can — if we choose to — reframe how we evaluate it all. My simple suggestion is to reframe as much as you can from the standpoint of appreciation.
However underwhelming, disappointing, frustrating, annoying, or dumb something seems to you right now — remember that one day, the threat of it all going way may be real and present. If that were to happen, would you give anything to just be facing the everyday problem you’re having now?
99%, the answer will be yes. And that should make you feel a bit better. At the very least, it can help you get a lot more out of what would normally be a boring old cup of coffee while you wait for your plane to board.
Do that enough times, and get really good at it, and you might just find your baseline mood is lifted. You might just find that your everyday life seems a whole lot more fulfilling. You might find that you get more done, and feel less stressed, less down on yourself. You may find you’d like to do a bunch of things differently.
But whatever you find, if you find it because you’ve begun to actively appreciate your life — that sounds pretty good to me.