Have you ever heard the saying “Embrace the dark to see the light” or something along those lines? Well I have. Lately that saying has been popping up everywhere for me.. Whether on tv, a podcast, in book or the radio, someone starts talking about it. At some point I have to say, “Is the universe trying to drive something home that I’m not getting?” Right around the time I think my head is going to explode because my OCD keeps telling me this is some sort of sign, I read “The Road to Character” by David Brooks. In this book I was finally given a way to embrace this idea without all the self help mumbo jumbo bull shit. Listen, I get it; you need to embrace the light to see the dark, yadda, yadda, yadda. But what the fuck does it mean? It makes for one super catchy bumper sticker, but that is about it.
In an earlier post I wrote about this idea of how helping one find his or her passion has become big business. I feel this is driven a lot by the millennials, who are forging their own path in life. Choosing to bypass the typical, go to college, graduate, work for big company X with a steady paycheck, retire, then die. Unable to find a meaningful employment in corporate America they decided to invest in themselves. Which is great, it is certainly the path I took. Brooks points out and I completely agree our society more so than any other time in history is “all about me.” How can I be happy? How can I make a lot of money? What is my life’s purpose? I must fine something I’m passionate about. You get it. Me, Me, Me. Brooks argues that we need to ask ourselves a very different question. Instead of, what is my passion in life; ask what does life want from me? The idea is that you look outside yourself first; at the circumstance that surround you and then decide how I can make a meaningful difference. You are probably wondering what all this has to do with embracing the light. Give me a fucking second, this isn’t twitter. I get more than 90 characters to make my point.
In the book, Brooks tells the story of several well known people from the first half of the 20th century. “Each person in this book started with a deep vulnerability, and undertook a lifelong effort to transcend that vulnerability. Each person struggled against that weakness and used that problem to grow a beautiful strength”, says Brooks. Be it Dorthy Day, Dwight Eisenhower or Victor Frankel. Each one had to overcome significant obstacles to achieve a life they valued. Notice I did not say a life of financial success, but a life that had meaning for them. Take Victor Frankel for instance, the famous survivor of the Nazi death camps. The life he was given certainly was not what he had planned. But he gave meaning to his life by seeing the opportunity in his suffering. Bam! See, he embraced the dark to find the light. If he survived this he would be able to share his experience with others of what he learned while enduring some of the most horrifying conditions imaginable. Once he had found purpose in his suffering, he knew his spirit could not be broken. Life he concluded, “Ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets before the individual.” Frankel embraced the dark and found the light.
That is powerful shit.
The pretense for my recent bout with anxiety and OCD is my perceived failures as an adult, mostly professionally speaking, but let’s face it if it was not that it would have been something else. The list of things that can drive me into an OCD spiral is endless. I play the same tape over and over again.”I’m a failure, someone not capable of financial success.”” I don’t have what it takes to be person of consequence.” Here is the deal, I’m 37 and have spent the last 7 years of my life working to build a business that has failed. When I say failed, I mean failed to create anything that remotely looks like personal or professional success. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent regretting the decision I made to become an entrepreneur. Wondering how much better my life could have been if I’d never left my career in marketing to start my own business. I turn on the tv and see stories of individuals that in just a few years have created successful businesses. They have employees, sales meetings, offices with mediation rooms. What the fuck is wrong with me? If they can do it why not me? It just adds to my depression. I was angry. Convinced I’d never recover, never make it, I just got more depressed and anxious. See what I’m doing here? Yep, you guessed it. I’m stuck in the darkness. I was too busy catastrophizing to look for the light switch. What I did not realize is, this was all preparation. Without theses struggles any future success I may achieve would be short lived and unfulfilling. Like ejaculating before you even get your underwear off. Albeit less sticky. I need to embrace the darkness to see the light.
Maybe I was asking the wrong question, going about things the wrong way. Brooks says “If you try to use your work to serve yourself, you’ll find your ambitions and expectations will forever run ahead and you’ll never be satisfied. A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what is life asking of us.” This could be the reason so many people who have achieved “western success”, ie. wealth are so unhappy. The one thing I know about people with money, they want more of it. It is like the feeling you get when you buy that brand new car you always wanted. For a short while it is great. You love it. You are so fucking happy your dick may actually just fall off. That C-class Mercedes you’d be dreaming about, you are driving it and it is amazing. But eventually the new car feeling goes away and you now must find something else to bring you that “happy buzz”. You probably should also go back and look for your dick.
As Brooks puts it, “Life is essentially a moral drama not a hedonistic one.” No amount of money or fame will satisfy our soul. That is not why we are here. Unless we are working to grow morally, to evolve into better people, our life will feel empty. I won’t lie. I want both, the freedoms that come with financial success, while being happy with where I am in life. What I know now is that unless I make changes, orient myself towards the path of “moral growth”, any success I achieve will be short lived.
I believe my business has failed, because I was not ready for it to succeed and God or the Universe, knew that. The Todd you see know is much different than the Todd that started his own business a few years ago. I’m more focused now on how I can make difference for others, while doing something I love. My primary motivator before was not just money but status, being admired and respected by my peers. In my mind the only way to get that was to be financially successful. Because as fucked up as it sounds, to me that is what determines whether you are good at something or not. It is what determines your worth as a person. I’m embracing the dark to see the light. Had I achieved financial success within the first few years of starting my business, I’m pretty sure it would have been a disaster.
So what is it I’m trying to say, the take away if you will from all this. First, I’ve must stop asking, what is my life’s purpose. Rather what is life’s purpose for me? Put another way, where is the intersection of my passion, skill and world need? I’m not talking about curing cancer or opening a chain of massage parlors with complimentary happy endings. All of us, no matter how small can find ways to help others while doing work we love. How does that look for me? I have the opportunity to create something that I can share with others and makes them feel good. I also realize I have an chance like Victor Frankle to use my struggles to help others. I hope this is what I’m doing here. Brooks says, “Each weakness becomes a chance to wage a campaign that organizes and gives meaning to life and makes you a better person. A person who has gone through these struggles seems more substantial and deep. And by a magic alchemy these victories turn weakness into joy.” All my failures in business, my battles with OCD and anxiety have given me the opportunity to find real joy. I’m not there yet. But I do believe as I work to embrace what is the darkness around me I will see the light. My first step is to embrace where I am right now and do what I can in this very moment, step by step to build the life I want out of the rubble around me. So when I do feel joy, it will be lasting and real.