Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.Pirsig, Robert. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (p. 110)
I’m not very consistent in my habits, particularly long term. I’m an occasional journaler. I’m a sporadic budgeter and financial planner. I exercise regularly for about 2 months at a time. 2 or 3 months on, 6 months off. Then 4 months on, a year off.
This is not a celebrated approach to life. We want to be successful. We want for all of our actions to be correct, the be lasting, and to make sense as part of a larger narrative that shows us always headed in a direction that we chose, and can call “good”. We want to make progress. Stopping a habit or activity we decided was worth pursuing essentially negates any amount of time we spent sticking to the habit.
News about diets is often reported through the lens of long term success rates. A diet is “successful” if and only if it facilitates a permanent change in lifestyle, health, weight or all 3. Relationships that end for any reason are commonly referred to as “wasted time”, unless we can come up with some lifelong lessons learned – things to help us avoid wasting time in the future.
These ideas all circle around a narrative that tells us our efforts in life are cumulative. We’re constantly striving to further identify who we are, building the steps up a tower of our own accomplishment. We amass money. We cultivate long term relationships. We progress professionally. And all of this builds on itself, and we climb higher and higher on this tower of progress, of the evolution of a life. We’re terrified of backsliding, of taking steps back down, rather than continuing up. We cling to the foundational building blocks of our lives. We avoid losing sight of anything we deemed important, as it all contributes to our tower, and we’re always reaching higher, striving further.
And then we die.
And then the funeral happens – the crown of a life well lived, of constant improvement. If the goal is to put yourself constantly higher on that tower, then it stands to reason that the funeral is the highest point, the most valuable moment of your life. Hopefully you’ve accomplished constant, steady progress and improvement, and therefore this final manifestation of your life represents the pinnacle of your existence.
Of course you don’t care, you’re dead. You can’t enjoy it. The best you can do is to have envisioned your own funeral in the months, years, decades leading up to it. “What a great person I’ll have been.”
With this narrative in mind, sporadic journaling is not valuable. Working out occasionally isn’t valuable. If in 5 years I’m not more financially stable than I am now, then whatever I did in those intervening years was a waste, at least financially. If I lose 20 pounds over the next few months, but only keep it off for a couple of years – then we’ll all agree that in the long run, I didn’t really lose the weight at all. If a friendship or relationship is lost, then the time spent with that person was wasted – because they won’t be there forever.
This puts plans, habits, and goal setting in an interesting light: “I’m not going to change my eating habits unless I can confidently say I’ll be able to do this forever”. “I need to identify a workout plan that I can stick with long term”. Some are less comfortable: “I won’t attempt to get to know someone if I don’t think they’ll be around for life”. “If I don’t think I can make a habit of journaling forever, I may as well not start”.
There’s another style of narrative that one could choose, in which the moment of death is no more important than any other. Where 6 months spent exercising regularly are valued as 6 months where you felt good, regardless of what the next 6 months, or 6 years are like. Where a friendship enjoyed for a few months is valuable for months, even if it is completely gone after that, even if it has no lasting effect. Where the goal to be pursued is less about how high a person manages to climb by the end of their life, but instead about how many moments along the way they felt happy, or fulfilled, or satisfied.
This doesn’t exactly let a person off the hook: if feeling healthy for 6 months is valuable, feeling healthy for 10 years is even more valuable. If a relationship is nice for a month, then it may be even nicer for a lifetime. The point here is not about avoiding permanence, but about recognizing that permanence is not a requirement to find value.