In Tunbridge Wells last weekend I am shopping for beds. After an hour or so walking around looking at a variety of largely over priced monstrosities I decide it’s time for lunch and beat a path to the park via Carluccios having first scored for myself a Chicken Milanese sandwich (highly recommended). I find a bench by the basketball court where there are three guys shooting hoops and I watch whilst eating. The boys are obviously keen on the game and undoubtedly far better than me but the truth is that of all the shots taken I would be surprised if more than 25% are actually scored. By any stretch this is pretty poor. Shot after shot after shot bouncing off the hoop, ricocheting from hoop to backboard or missing completely but still they press on seemingly unconcerned about their rate of success but visibly buoyed by the odd spectacular effort looping through the air in a perfect arc straight down through the hoop without touching the sides, the basket making a satisfying noise as if someone had dropped a bowling ball through a string shopping bag. Perhaps they are finding happiness through something other than success.
I don’t know why things come to me, they just do. I don’t know why I suddenly make random connections between one experience and another, it’s not that I feel I have any control over it but there, quite suddenly and without warning, these three guys playing ball appeared a perfect metaphor for what we spend much of lives doing. They were constantly striving for something but forever falling a little short, either overreaching themselves or missing one small component that might finally make everything click into to place and send them powering off into the distance, but their interest maintained by the odd shard of beautiful light so sharp and illuminating that it’s glow seems to radiate in a way which makes everything else superfluous.
It doesn’t take any real level of insight to point out that we can have a tendency to give up when things go badly. Neither is it earth shattering to make a link between a lack of success and a lack of confidence. We set ourselves unconscious benchmarks and we experience deflation and disappointment when we fail to reach them. Not only that but there is compelling evidence to support the theory that our lack of achievement, success, happiness, balance and so on leads us not to a redoubled effort but perversely sees us curling up in a heap berating ourselves for our shortcomings and therefore perpetuating the whole sorry mess.
As I watched the guys throwing ball after ball through the air I wondered what it was that kept them interested and motivated even when maybe six shots straight were unsuccessful. Partly I am sure it was the lack of imperative, the conscious acknowledgement that it wasn’t really important if the ball went into the basket, the sense of proportion that made a good shot less crucial than the opportunity to have a shot at all. Secondly though it was something else, something much more powerful that we might sometimes disregard in our quest for a life worth living. Happiness.
The idea of prioritising success in such a way that it doesn’t become more important than the experience is worth consideration. We tend to regard success and achievement more highly than the process of getting to that point. I once worked with a man who couldn’t just go for a walk to enjoy his surroundings, see the colours changing on the trees, enjoy the spring air and so on unless there was a specific reason to get somewhere. Think about that for just a moment. Is your life ever like this? Are there times when the journey is of little consequence but the destination is everything? Literal journeys are obvious candidates when the scenery and company of your fellow travellers pales into insignificance against the need to arrive as quickly as possible but there are also many other “journeys” on which we might similarly underestimate the value of the time spent “traveling”. Education seems far too often all about exams rather than the process and wonder of learning, cooking for many of us is just about getting dinner on the table rather than enjoying the ritual of cutting, mixing and stirring, taking care of the children can consist of trying to keep them occupied in as low maintenance way as possible until bedtime, sticking them in front of the TV maybe, rather than really spending time with them, understanding them, engaging with them, talking to them, making a mess with them and properly living with them, and alarmingly a night out in town seems mostly to be about getting pissed as quickly as possible so that the evenings events can be little more than a thick headed blur by the morning after. What on earth are we doing? We are “fast forwarding” our lives to get to the good bits, except that we miss all the good bits by doing so. Think of it like this, if you live to be 90 (I hope this will be the minimum you can expect) how much of that time are you going to spend “travelling” and how much will you spend “arriving”? It’s pretty much ALL travelling so if you don’t find joy in it that’s heartbreaking.
I was put in mind of the saying “Life is not a rehearsal”. But in a way it is. What is a life without risk, without the possibility of failure, rejection? What is a life in which we want something, yearn for something but hold ourselves back fearful of what might happen disregarding the impact when nothing happens because we held back from taking action? What is a life without pushing outside of what is emotionally comfortable, without treading a path where one didn’t previously exist, where we occasionally leave people aghast at our determination to live our own way without apology, without constant wonderful unbridled “rehearsal”? That’s not a life I want although I fully admit to having lived it for long periods of time, as indeed many of us have. Our ability to break free lies only in our own hands.
I think that we spend a lot of our lives looking for happiness and beauty but this search might be unnecessary. Happiness and beauty rarely require us to locate them, rather we are invited to notice them. If you expect satisfaction, fulfilment and happiness to come they generally sidle up to you quite happily like an old horse in search of the apple you have in your hand. Just this evening I was walking home and a huge yellow sun, it’s colour paling in the autumn dusk, was falling in the sky behind the Wickes superstore, yes that’s right, the Wickes superstore in all it’s lyrical beauty. The sun was full in my face seemingly forcing me to notice it, to look and acknowledge it’s warmth and wonder. I had to smile, I often have to. Now, maybe I am just easily pleased or a nutcase or both, but it might also be that because I want to feel good I quite happily notice opportunities to do so. Shooting hoops and missing three out of four doesn’t matter if you’re determined to be happy.
It’s not all about happiness of course. Happiness is a transient emotion as are all others, but it is the combination of doing something for the love of it, trying to get better at it but still enjoying it even if you don’t. Taking the pressure off the necessity to be great, to achieve, even to be happy in the first place is the very thing which is most likely to bear happiness.
What is a life full of things we can do? It’s a boring life, that’s what it is. I work with people quite regularly who are struggling to find nourishment and fulfilment but when we talk about what exists in their life which might be both enjoyable and stretching there is a silence. Life can never be properly rewarding if we don’t push ourselves beyond what we believe to be possible. We are constantly constrained by our own limiting beliefs about ourselves and the world. We can create such an awful image of our potential existence should we dare to step away from what is comfortable that it is no wonder when we don’t. Other people make prisons for us, we make them ourselves and with every passing year the walls grow higher and the key to freedom is kicked further into the lengthening grass. Despite all of this it’s never too late to create the life that you want. It might require courage and risk, it might be painful or frightening, you may be criticised and mocked but in the end only you are responsible for all you become. You can play a game where you know it so well that virtually every attempt is a slam dunk or you can go at life with the vim and vigour of bull in a china shop unwilling to relent until every last piece is smashed on the floor and you lie on top of it laughing like a hyena and struggling for breath from a mixture of exhaustion and exhilaration knowing that nothing, not a jot, was missed.
I finished my sandwich just as a man and his wife wandered past my bench. Before he reached me I saw him looking at the boys and then exclaim, as much to himself as anyone else, “they need to work on their shooting” I caught his eye and he could see I had heard him. We exchanged a wry smile. After he had disappeared around the corner at the top of the path I thought about what he had said and suddenly it made perfect sense. That’s what we’re doing here isn’t it? We’re all just working on our shooting. That is what life is, a daily round of shooting practice where the score is much much less important than giving ourselves an opportunity to just take the shot.
It’s time we got back out onto the court isn’t it?