There are many things to get caught up in during the hustle
and bustle of daily life. Work output. Quality time with family. Running
errands. Keeping up with friends. World news. The latest “health” studies.
Making sure other people make the right decisions. Paying bills. Saying
prayers. That next vacation.
A lot of things vie for our attention, and some seem more important than others. Some may seem important when placed in certain contexts, but not in others. These are the things we focus on hardily at some times, but don’t care much for at others. This may include work output. This seems really important at the office, but at a party it’s totally irrelevant.
Then, there may be those we wish we truly prioritized more often, but some of the contexts we take don’t seem to allow for that. Maybe you want to spend more quality time with your family, but the context you place yourself in at work, in which “Time is money,” doesn’t allow you to give family much attention while you’re working.
So then, we come to ask ourselves: At the end of the day, what really matters more? My family, or my job? The fun I had, or the work I did? The financial quality of life I provided for the people I care about, or the emotional quality? If you considered these questions from your deathbed, there’s a decent chance you’d go with your family, the fun you had, and the social-emotional quality of your life.
The overall point, though, is that it seems you have to choose. Monday through Friday, from 8-5, it’s all about work. On the weekends, it’s all about fun. This system probably works well enough for you: you do what needs to get done, you make enough money to meet your needs, and those several days of fun are enjoyable.
But what’s at the end of all this? Do you even have a clue? Switching between the work and play contexts at the intervals that you do is functional. But, is it sensible?
What are the end goals- the purposes- of these contexts? For the work context, it may be to have the highest work output possible. For the play context, it may be to have as much fun as possible. Certainly those are valid purposes which can be broken down into concrete goals, though the “as possible” may add some unnecessary pressure (don’t be so hard on yourself, man).
But do these contexts have much to say about their opposite? Do they take other contexts into account at all? For the most part, probably not. Instead, these different contexts seem at odds with one another.
How can you have as much fun as possible when you’re also trying to have the highest work output possible? You can’t. They battle for your love, and the only way they each can get it is by making compromises. One gets the attention today, the other gets it tomorrow.
Compartmentalizing Life Away
Steve Pavlina defines the five areas of personal development as health, career, money, relationships, and spirituality. I’d say that’s fair enough to work with. Certainly there are other ways of splitting up the world, too, though we’ll probably find we can roughly trace them back to these five categories.
There’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. There’s the health of society and the health of the natural world. There’s the government and there’s the economy. There’s academics, there’s athletics, and there’s business. There are individuals and there is the whole of humanity. There’s fun and there’s work. There are people and there are animals. There are living things and non-living things. There’s Earth, and there’s the cosmos. There’s spirituality and there’s science. There’s internal and there’s external. There’s mind and there’s matter. Each thing you do will probably align more so with one item in each set than the other item(s) it is paired with.
Sometimes, we think it’s enough to say that it’s okay to choose any one of these things as long as we acknowledge it’s okay for the other items it’s paired with to exist. We can splurge on individual desires as long as we don’t hurt other people (the whole of humanity). We can be scientific as long as we don’t stomp on spiritual people for being crazy. We can put better governmental regulations in place as long as it doesn’t kill the economy. We can turn Earth into a dirty hellhole as long as it doesn’t affect the rest of the universe.
But is it enough to say that our opposites exist and to perpetually ignore them otherwise? You certainly can get by that way. But if you never take the blinders off you’re probably going to miss some important things. The golden goose could be standing right next to you, and you’d have no idea due to your context-blindness. You might even crash into a wall.
But at the same time, switching your attention from one place to another too often is bound to be ineffective. Dabbling in a million different things won’t get you very far: it takes enough work to do well at one thing. Success demands lazer-focus.
Context: Establishing Principles and a Tone for Your Life
So, how do you attend to all the different aspects of life and the universe simultaneously and intelligently? You place them all into one broader context through which you look at life. Perhaps you can call this your “meta-context.”
Is it possible to adhere to things which matter all the time, regardless of the current context or task? Yes. This asks that you take the handful of tiny, narrow contexts you switch between throughout the week and broaden them. Find where they overlap. See where they agree with one another, put these points of agreement together, and tweak them so that you produce a coherent, comprehensive, workable context through which to live an intelligent life.
Next you have to ask yourself, What is it that matters all the time? What matters regardless of where you are or what you’re doing? What is it that dictates where you should be and what you should be doing? Ultimately, that’s up to you. But, I’ll tell you this: at the end of the day, it’ll probably be a set of principles.
Principles are timeless and universal. You live by them no matter where you are or what time it is. They guide the path of your life. You still have to make conscious decisions, but generally you’ll find that the decisions that pan out well and which feel good to you (they work out both internally and externally) are aligned with the overarching principles that set the tone for your life.
Well, perhaps the tone of your life helps to set the principles you live by, too. They play into one another. They grow together. This means that you can start with either the principles you want to live by or with type or life you’d like to lead (perhaps the “theme” you’d like your life to have), and from there both sides of the equation will develop simultaneously.
For example, if I want the focus of my life to be on personal growth, then the principles I will follow- again according to Steve Pavlina- include Truth, Love (connecting with things that matter to me), and Power (the ability to create desirable results). Now, someone who’s not particularly interested in consciousness or in becoming a better person might still find that these are good principles to follow. Perhaps they just sound smart or feel right to this person, so he figures he’ll give them a go. This person is focusing on the principles themselves, rather than the type of life he’d like to lead.
It’s also possible that he has a focus for his life that isn’t personal growth, but he’s come across these principles and considered they may serve him well. Maybe he’s primarily interested in making lots of money, and he sees how aligning with Truth, Love, and Power can help him do to that. So his focus is on the type of life he’d like to lead, rather than the principles. But his alignment with both will still increase over time. Plus, maybe his alignment with these principles will even alter the chosen tone for his life. Maybe in time he will indeed be pulled into leading a life of growth.
Then, there is the person whose tone of life is personal growth, but he hasn’t deliberately chosen to follow these principles. As long as he has a decent definition of what growth is, I’d say that this person will end up naturally aligning with these principles more and more over time regardless. Odds are that a person committed to his own growth cares about discovering new truths about himself, seeing reality accurately, doing what makes him feel alive, and taking actions that get him closer to intelligently-chosen goals. Such is the case even if he does not carry around a list of principles which say all of these things in fewer words. Overall, this person is unaware of the overarching principles of his life, but they certainly are there and are at work.
The point here is that whether you start from the type of life you’d like to lead or from the principles themselves, both are valid focus-points for creating a broad context for your life which is both sensible and functional. It allows you to attend to the different compartments of your life as much as needed, because it includes all of them.
Now the compartments aren’t at war anymore because they all lie under the umbrella of a shared purpose and a shared set of principles. From the broader context of your life, you’ll be able to consider all things simultaneously, yet without considering any one thing individually. It is the principles and the purpose (the tone of your life) that accomplish this.
The different compartments do still have valid boundaries: it’ll still be wise for you to focus on one thing at a time. Work while you’re at work, and don’t do or think about anything else. When you’re with friends, don’t check on e-mails or other things related to work.
But these boundaries are only at the micro-level—that is, the level of action. Plus, those divisions will make sense according to your principles and purpose. They will no longer be arbitrarily-defined, or limited only by the needs of the other compartments. Your purpose will still expand beyond your lifetime, just as people who come after you will find better ways, for instance, to yield the highest outputs of fun and work as possible. But, the further you go down this path, the clearer it’ll become to you when it is the proper time to switch your focus from one aspect of life to another (e.g. from work to play).
Additionally, if you have chosen your principles well, you’ll probably find that while you were focusing on one area of your life, other areas were boosted by the gains you made there. While focusing on relationships, you might learn something that helps you to be more easy-going at work. While working, you might get an idea for the next adventure you want to go on.
All aspects of your life are present whether you’re consciously attending to them or not: the subconscious mind is always processing this information. It’s working things out whether you know it or not. In that case, you might as well have a broad, comprehensive context: connections between the different areas of your life will be made anyway. Your life doesn’t happen in separate boxes. You’re best off, then, setting the stage for useful connections—connections which can come about under the guidance of a consciously-chosen purpose.
After creating a broad context for your life, you’ll still be able to narrow your perspective back down to the old, individual contexts, and you’ll still be able to explore new contexts entirely. But the comprehensive context- depending on what it is- can serve as the guide for which all exploration occurs. It gives purpose to these explorations: they can serve to enhance the comprehensive context.
When you truly do deviate from your broader context, it’ll be obvious enough. It’ll be obvious in such a way that you won’t want to remain deviant for long, either. It’ll feel better to get back on track.
One and the Same
Your broader context will most likely be simple yet abstract. To include all aspects of your life liberally, it will have to be. It’ll consist of a few basic, fundamental ideas about how your reality works. If your reality expands and comes alive when you align with love, and it shrinks and becomes dreadful when you don’t, then there you have your context: everything is evaluated based on whether it aligns with love. It’s brief, it’s abstract, and it accounts for everything. Such is the way of the broader context.
Rather than seeing how your family life and your work life can go at war with one another more effectively, look at what they have in common. Maybe work output and play output aren’t quite the same thing, but under the surface they may be driven by the same thing—or, at least, they can be.
From the outside, working and playing probably don’t look the same at all. In their concrete, objective forms, they are quite different. But underneath the surface they are guided by the same abstract principles, and ultimately they aim for the same thing. Work and play are just different tools you use along the quest for truth, forgiveness, unity, courage, or whatever it is that you’re after.
The point is that you aren’t after the concrete forms of work and play in themselves. Instead, what you’re after is the principles that work and play embody. In this way, you live on purpose and on principle in each moment. Let internal and external, concrete and abstract be one. External action sets the stage for internal clarity. Internal clarity sets the stage for external action. Action and motivation are one and the same.
There’s no need for a work-life balance. Work is life. So is fun. So is family. So is health. So is spirituality. So is science. All these things are equally a part of life. They need not infringe on each other. All you have to do now is give enough undivided focus to each area of your life so as to be effective. You will give the needed amount of time to each. The way you conduct yourself in each area will be determined by your broader context.
What Matters in the End?
So, what does matter in the end? I suppose the expected answer, based on what has been written, would be whether you chose principles and a purpose that led you to be your best self, and how well you aligned with those principles and with your purpose. In short, what matters in the end is whether you did your best. Indeed, that is basically the answer. Surely it matters to you that you do the best job of doing whatever it is that leads you to feel your best and to create a positive impact in the world around you.
But, I think there is something beyond even that. Certainly there are objective measures you can use to determine whether you’ve done your best. These provide you with a realistic, perhaps sobering view of how you’re doing.
But in the end, all you will have in that moment is your present subjective experience. Even if you look back on the past, what you’ll really have is your perception of that past—and that perception occurs in the present.
So, in the end, it indeed will matter to you what you have done and how well you have lived in alignment with your purpose. But what will matter more will be how you see yourself right then, in that instant. And so, I think what matters in the end is whether you can say to yourself, when the time comes, “I love you.”
Indeed, it is important that we keep our loved ones out of harm’s way, express ourselves authentically and creatively, and try to have the biggest positive impact on this world that we can. But if you are doing all of these things with strife and with spite, then what of it?
Sure, maybe the things you do look great from the outside. But if it feels wrong from the inside, and if you cannot love yourself, then they serve no greater good. How can you even know what good is if you cannot be good to your own self?
To love yourself is the only way you can start to create a better life for yourself anyhow. If you didn’t love yourself, you’d be content to live a life of low-quality. No intelligent decisions, principles, or purposes will arise out of hatred for yourself. None. Hatred is the context in which suffering blooms. It is the root of a context that is blind. For just about any goal you want to feel good about, you’ll find hatred to be an obstacle. Without love, then, you will never be your best self.
Maybe you see no need to include love in your context, but when you’re out there trying to create the best life for yourself, I think you’ll find its call to you inevitable.
What matters most to you? If you’re not actively embodying it right now, stop what you’re doing and go and get it. Go out and be it. The path may be much closer by than you think. All you have to do is take the blinders off to see it.
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