Monday, May 30, 2011

Dave's Guidelines for Life

The Dalai Lama recently created a list of 18 "Rules for Living", which he hopes will help people live happier, better, more productive and loving lives. And by "recently", I mean "a decade ago." (That's me: Stayin' on top of recent trends on the Information Superhighway!)

Though I don't think I'm nearly as well-qualified as His Holiness to guide others on the path to right living and happiness, I am a person, and I live on the same planet as all other people, so that's a start, right?

Anyway, I've been thinking about this, and I've come up with a little list of my own Guidelines for Life. I won't call them rules, because if life has taught me anything, it's that everything depends on context, and most rules that don't take that into account can easily be abused by those who seek to impose their own beliefs and judgments on other human beings. I don't want to do that, or have others do that in my name; hence, the important change of word.

I've only made a list of ten guidelines: partly because it's a nice round number, and partly because I simply haven't spent as much time on this Earth as His Holiness, and therefore can offer fewer perspectives on how it works.

So here you go, in no particular order:

1. It's always more complicated than you think.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything, and I do mean everything, affects everything else in creation. "You can't pick a flower without jiggling a star," as the proverb goes. The whole of the universe, particularly the universe of human interaction, is a single undifferentiated whole, and each part affects that whole. Until you know every part of that whole, you can't possibly understand any part of it. Whatever your understanding of the nature of the universe might be, it is very probably wrong, or at the very least, incomplete.

2. Nullum gratuitum prandium.
This Latin proverb means, roughly, that there is no such thing as a free lunch. People don't throw their money away; they expect to get something in return, quid pro quo. Find out why a person is doing what they're doing, before you trust them.

3. Don't let your emotions dictate how you feel.
A lot of people, when they get upset or depressed, seem to wallow in their own misery and despair. Even I do this sometimes, though less than I used to, I like to think. While these are natural reactions to the human condition, and it is important to express them, you shouldn't fixate on them to the point where they control your life and mind. It is possible to choose to be happy, to consciously decide that you're done being stressed out, and just let go. Release your anger, let go of your rage. If it's something worth feeling, then it'll come back to you, and you can deal with it then. But don't let your own little pity-party get in the way of enjoying life.

4. No one wants to hear you complain.
...and I mean nobody! Not even your close friends and family. They might listen to you more than others, because they want you to feel better, but it's possible to wear out their patience. Don't dump all your unhappiness on those closest to you.
It took me a long time to realize that complaining was not the same as commisserating, but I'm glad I figured it out.

5. Revenge will never make you feel better.
I'm sorry to admit that I have, on occasion, taken little acts of revenge on people who I felt had wronged me, or someone I cared about. And let me tell you, it has never, not even once, made me feel even the tiniest bit better. It's only made me feel worse: the damage wasn't undone, and I felt even more upset, because I'd just proved that I wasn't the better man.
...which brings me to my next guideline, which might be called a corollary to this one:

6. Always apologize. Even if you don't mean it.
This one seems a little counter-intuitive, even dishonest, but hear me out. Sometimes, apologizing is the only way to make a situation better, but your pride won't allow it. You were in the right, and you know it, and you think the other person knows it too. You have no reason to apologize. You did what was right, and damn the consequences.
Well, forget about that. It's not important. In a few years, hindsight will probably show that you acted unkindly. In the meantime, you need to prove to the other person, as well as to yourself, that you're willing to let bygones be bygones, and not reopen old wounds. Often you might find that the very act of apologizing is all it takes to break down your own mental defenses and admit wrongdoing. Hearing those words come out of your mouth frequently helps you to believe them yourself.

7. You need to make time for what's important to you.
Your life is always going to be hectic and busy. There's never going to be a quiet time for you to start painting, or take up Tai Chi, or learn how to sail, or write that screenplay you've always wanted to write. Not even when you retire.
If you want to have any hope at all of living your own dreams, then you need to start them RIGHT NOW! Don't wait for a sign, or a break, or a quiet moment. Sit right down and make concrete plans to start them up today.
In the end, we don't have any tomorrows; just a series of todays.

8. The personal is political.
Many people think that what they do in their spare time, or in the privacy of their own homes, is apolitical, because politics involves public attention. Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but that simply isn't true. No man is an island, and so each person's actions affect other people. A senator who works to pass legislation that will defend the rights of domestic abuse survivors, but beats his own wife at home, is not only a hypocrite, but actually undoing all the good he's done in office. Even if she never tells another soul, the damage done to her will inevitably come out in other ways: her work, her friendships, her art, even her relationships with her children. We pass along our scars and injuries to those around us in subtle ways, often unintentionally.
Your personal views reflect, more than anything else, your views of how the world ought to run, and the changes you want to see in it. Make sure you're sending the message you want to send.

9. Suffering builds character.
Once again, Bill Watterson (the celebrated creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes) was right. I think he meant this maxim (which was a favorite of Calvin's dad), to be sort of a joke about his own father. But over the years, I've seen it proven true again and again. To suffer is to understand the human condition. Each of us puts on an emotional suit of armor, each day when we go out the door. It protects us from the daily disappointments, the "thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to," but it also keeps us from empathizing with our fellow human beings, keeps us from understanding the depth of their suffering. It's what makes us change the channel whenever a Feed the Children ad shows up on TV, or makes us navigate away from a page that includes a link to the Smile Train, accompanied by an image of a weeping, harelipped child.
Suffering creates cracks in this armor, and allows us to become a little closer to our fellow human beings.

10. Everything that's important is difficult. No exceptions.
Ask your parents what it was like, raising you as a child. Was it easy? Of course not. Ask a director if making blockbusters was something that came naturally to him from a young age. Do you think that your favorite musician makes albums because it was the easiest way to make money that she could think of? No, no, and no.
They don't do these things because they're easy, or because they're good at them. They do it because they're addicted to challenge, because they can't help but push themselves, because doing anything else would mean to "go tumbling down into that satisfying darkness, the darkness of ease, the darkness of acquiescence, the milk-livered niddering darkness of sweet sweet cowardice."
If it was easy, then everyone else would have already done it by now. Don't despair: the difficulties you're having only prove that you're doing the right thing.


So, there you go. There they are. Take the ones you like, leave the ones you don't, and try to leave the world a better place than it was when you found it.


  1. Nice, I liked your perspective, Dave. Thanks for sharing! -Amy

  2. You little philosopher, you.

  3. Thanks, Amy! Thanks, Anna! I'm flattered that you enjoyed my post. And here I was, worrying about whether I could have composed it better. I really need to stop second-guessing myself.