When I was in my late teens, like most guys, there were only three things I was really passionate about: girls, sleep, and having a good time.
Unlike most guys, however, the extent to which I tried to indulge in my passions was borderline dangerous. Throughout my four years at college, I stress-tested my health beyond sanity, I went to no classes, I skipped exams, and I essentially wasted the money I had earned for my education on partying, harmful substances, and other unflattering habits.
Somehow, though, I came out with a degree. I was bright enough to figure out how to get the most out of a broken system, and maybe more importantly, I was arrogant enough to think that it wouldn’t matter even if I didn’t.
When I think back on that time, I feel slightly uneasy. I don’t necessarily see it as regret. Some of the key experiences I had and the people I met played a large part in turning me into who I am today. I may not look back too fondly on the kind of person I was then, but I also have a lot to be grateful for.
Still, I can’t help but wonder how much more I could have done with that time. How much better my experience would have been and how much less pain I would have had to deal with if I had balanced that excess fun and the false excitement with a healthy kind of discipline.
The problem was pleasure. It was the thing I valued more than anything else.
I gained my energy from living a fast life, and I especially liked everything that I knew wasn’t good for me. Because I had a hard time not wanting more, every now and then, my mind and my body would come crashing down.
I’m obviously not alone in my pursuit of pleasure, but the degree to which it dictated my life masks a deeper and subtler lesson about how the things we value the most, if chosen incorrectly, can become our biggest source of internal conflict and self-destruction.
All of us have our own motivation behind how and why we live. Together with the sensory information we consume from our surroundings, this motivation is responsible for much of where life takes us. The fact that we each get to choose how to frame context and meaning based on our experiences is empowering. It’s what makes life worthwhile.
What gets you up in the morning is different from the thing that gets me up in the morning. We’re each one among seven billion others, but the values we choose and the principles we follow allow for our differences to arise. It’s how we each make our own mark.
There is something beautiful about that. That’s hard to argue with.
Yet, this same fact is also what so often leads us down the wrong path, because although there is joy and awe in being able to choose to value something highly, when we do so, we give up part of our power to that thing, whether consciously or not, and that’s not always a good thing.
Pleasure is an easy value to identify as problematic, and it’s quite visible in its vices. That said, it’s not the only thing that can lead us astray.
You know how I mentioned my arrogance?
That was a symptom of me buying into a false story about how special I was.
I’m very lucky in a sense. Through no work of my own, I’ve always had a particularly good rote memory and a notable learning advantage. This was visible at a young age, and the importance of how valuable this is was reinforced to me frequently in my youth. Things seemed to come easier to me than they did most other kids.
Over the years, somewhere along the line, I started to like the sound of me being someone destined for great things. I built an identity around it.
I figured if I was that great, I wouldn’t need to work hard at anything. And I didn’t. Given that I could get by like that throughout most of my time spent in the education system further reinforced my arrogance to the point where I started to hope that maybe the rules just didn’t apply to me, and it was okay to spend my time racing in the wrong direction.
The key word there is hope. The truth is, and it took me a while to realize this, that the arrogance was a mask for insecurity. Working hard meant that I would have to confront whatever imagined potential that I thought I had, and the idea that it may not be all that much terrified me.
So, I never worked, and I spent all the more time indulging my short-sighted desires because then I had an excuse to fall back on. The excuse was that I just didn’t care, but the potential, the spark, was still there.
This way of looking at things is largely delusional. The thing that I worshiped the most — my imagined potential — become the source of my biggest insecurities, and the way that they manifested almost caused me to waste four years of life without having anything to show for it other than a damaged body and a lot of shallow memories.
Pleasure may have been my first problem, but the reason that it went so out of control was that I was running away from something else, too.
For me, this didn’t quite click until I came across a particular section of an old commencement speech by David Foster Wallace a few years ago. He captures the sentiment far better than I ever could.
“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships.
The only choice we get is what to worship… If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth.
Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you…
Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”
I’m not unique. This is true for all of us, whether we want to believe it or not.
There will be things that dictate your life, whether they be a set of personal values or your commitment to a cause. And some of these things will make you miserable, while others will light a lasting spark inside of you.
Either way, you get to choose, and that choice is something you’ll live with.
So, the question is:
What do you worship that you shouldn’t?
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