Is there a Secret to Life? You know, a technique or approach or belief that helps us live well and get what we want and fulfill our purpose?
A lot of people seem to think so.
Take religion. Christians say that all you have to do is accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior (and comply with your congregation’s rules and regulations). Buddhists suggest you simply meditate until you achieve “enlightenment” (whatever that is). Pray to Mecca five times a day and do some other stuff and Allah will accept you into the afterlife (though it helps if you kill a few infidels). Hindus remind you to keep your Karma clean and you’ll be reborn as a higher being (otherwise, in the next life you’re a cockroach, dude). If any one of these beliefs is the true secret to life, how come most people believe something else?
Then there are those personal-growth techniques. You know, like Tony Robbins and positive thinking and Dale Carnegie and martial arts, as in: you should be totally determined; you should see vividly what you desire in your mind; life’s tough, so ya gotta be tough yourself; you should recontextualize bad results into good outcomes; etc etc. All these philosophies compete for our attention; none of them has caught the world by storm.
Let’s not forget politics: Communism promised an earthly paradise; progressives believe government can make us happy; conservatives believe if we just got rid of all that government we’d be happy; some think people should be ruled by the majority, while some think Sharia Law and the Imams should be in charge; and so forth. Every political movement insists its way will lead to happiness. All ya gotta do is follow them. And so we follow one or another of these movements, but none has swayed us all, and most gain or lose popularity like dress fashions.
True, politics and religions are nearly ubiquitous, so they do provide something people want. Some sense of security, of tribal membership. But there are so many of them! Which one is the real one, the one that really works for everyone? No single system — religious, political, or otherwise — has captured the hearts of us all. Why not?
“The Man suppresses our message!” Really? Religions and political parties get huge publicity, and self-improvement schools flood the media with their offers.
“People just don’t want the truth.” Maybe. But why have so many, for thousands of years, been searching for it?
“The Answer doesn’t work for you because you’re doing it wrong.” Oh, puhleeze! If it’s hard to do and easy to screw up, then maybe it isn’t the Secret.
Meanwhile, we live with dreams of money, love, fame, achievement, spiritual greatness, etc etc. We think — we hope — that these things will give us the happiness or fulfillment we seek. And when our work or families leave something to be desired, we seek out hobbies, sports, music, dance, drugs, affairs. There’s a huge variety of possibilities here. But not a single one has taken over the hearts and minds of all people. Hobbies are fun, but they aren’t the Answer.
And so, despite all these attempts to enshrine an ultimate truth about how to live, here we remain with our struggles and anxieties and weight problems, resentments and feuds and sorrows, divorces and murders and suicides, addictions and loneliness and emptiness. Is there no secret, no rule of thumb — no heuristic — that can help?
We’ve been searching for thousands of years; if there really were a secret to getting what we want, people surely would have found it by now. Believe me, if it had been found, everyone would be using it. Things that work get adopted quickly. Look at cellphones and computers and electricity and airplanes and cars and television and soccer and pop music: they’ve all been adopted across the planet. Which religion or political party or belief system has that kind of universal fan base? Yet even these things and activities fail to provide the answer to our question.
One problem is that, no matter how successful we become, there’s always more to yearn for. We could become happy, immortal, wealthy, loved, thrilled, and so forth, and still we’d want things our powers couldn’t reach. We could end up with our hearts’ desires and ache for more. The super-successful Richard Cory, as the poem tells us, “one calm summer night, / Went home and put a bullet through his head.”
Still, we try. And when we adopt a new method, often it does help us quite a bit at first. But then it begins to hem us in, forcing us to think only within a permitted range, or it creates weird side effects that dilute the benefits. (Every time we try, for example, to visualize ourselves as successful, we’re subconsciously reminding ourselves we’re not and therefore need this big process to improve ourselves. We end up chasing our tails.) After awhile we’re forbidden so many activities and things, or our behavior is so prescribed, that we find ourselves painted into a corner, unable to step out and access the full vitality of our lives.
Maybe the reason we humans — bright and determined and relentless as we are, all seven billion of us — haven’t yet found the secret to life is because … there isn’t one. Maybe we’re just fantasizing that there’s something we can do, some process we can perform, some magic wand we can wield, if only we could find it. Maybe instead we are, each of us, unique and must confront the realities of life in an ad hoc fashion, making it up as we go. That’s not much of a hope. But look down at your oversized belly or undersized bank account and tell me your belief system is working just fine, thank you.
Why does almost nobody consider this possibility, that there’s no operating manual for life? Is it because we were taught by our elders to believe what they believe, and we’re afraid to disappoint them? Is it because our communities pressure us to behave as they do, or they’ll reject us? Or is it, at bottom, because the very idea that we’re on our own — that there’s nothing under our feet, that there’s no rulebook for our life, that there is no outside authority who really knows what’s going on — is simply unbearable?
Can we tolerate uncertainty without pushing it under the rug? Can we go about our lives without being confident of the outcome? Can we survive, even thrive, without really knowing what we’re doing? Do we have any choice?
… What if uncertainty itself is the key?
Years ago I attended a seminar where a wise man said, “There’s no secret to life.” On the way home, I wondered, “Is that a clue to the secret to life?” Clearly I missed his point.
But then I got to thinking: “Maybe the Secret to Life is that there’s no secret!” Without a belief system, we’re more flexible, less dogmatic, more adaptable, especially in an ever-changing world. We don’t have to remember a set of axioms because our brains are designed to respond appropriately to any new situation. Ah, good! I’d found a way to have an authority, a rule of thumb, a safety zone that I could rely on, and at the same time I didn’t have to obey any arbitrary rules or limit myself to specific techniques, like praying or campaigning or visualizing or meditating. All I had to do was repeat the mantra, “There is no Secret to Life.”
Soon that, too, became stultifying. I was solving all my problems — or failing to solve them — by retreating to my little saying, “There is no Secret to Life.” I couldn’t see things freshly; I could only see them through the veil of my new, super-simple philosophy. I was like Sally, from the cartoon “Peanuts”, who would solve her problems by inventing simple philosophies: “How should I know?” or “Who cares?” or “Where will it all end?” She’d intone one of these beliefs constantly until she tired of it, at which point she’d invent a new one.
It seems I was still invoking protective philosophies long after I knew there weren’t any left to use. It occurred to me that most people who explore this issue end up in the same predicament: we need a rule of thumb to feel safe in life! Yet there isn’t one.
I was stuck with the realization that “There’s no Secret to Life, including the fact that there’s no Secret to Life” — and that, in turn, was not the Secret, and so on ad infinitum.
This was exhausting. Who would want to do all that work and end up nowhere? I mean, ya can’t even be a decent Nihilist anymore! It’s much easier to cave in and believe in a benevolent God, or that democracy will make all humans free, or maybe Transcendental Meditation will do it, or something, anything other than total emptiness and meaninglessness!
And yet … there’s no Rule, including the fact that there’s no Rule.
And there’s no ultimate Authority, including that very statement.
And, most of all, there’s no Secret to Life. End of story. Period.
… question mark?