8 min read

The Perils of Personal Progress

There is a constant sense that you are missing something, that you are incomplete. That somehow, you are not enough. Many people will happily confirm this for you. But many of them have that same feeling too, and they don’t want to be alone.
The Perils of Personal Progress
Photo by Isaac Smith / Unsplash

There is a constant sense that you are missing something, that you are incomplete. That somehow, you are not enough.

Many people will happily confirm this for you:

“You are missing something. You are incomplete. You’re not enough.”

Some are trying to sell you something, but many of them have that same feeling too, and they don’t want to be alone.

You begin searching for that something that you’re missing. Your purpose is to get that something so you can eventually be “enough.” There are levels you’ll need to complete first, and this will give you a sense of progress. That thing you’ve been missing is within your grasp…

Then, after a lot of hard work, you finally get it! It’s here! You’ve arrived…

But you don’t feel very different from how you’ve always felt. Then you begin to wonder if there is another something that you’re missing, and people say, “You’re not quitting already, are you? You’ve come so far!” So you think, okay, perhaps I’m still missing something. I’m still not enough. I’m still incomplete. There’s more work to be done.

So you put your head down again and double your efforts, because you need to get that something. And if you keep working, you’ll get there someday…

Someday, you’ll have the right amount of money, you’ll have the right job, you’ll have the right possessions and the right body and the right thoughts and the right skills and the right accomplishments and the right spirituality and the right love and the right marriage and the right kids and the right life.

Someday, if you keep working hard and playing our games, you can win.

You can be better than everyone else.

# # #

While you’re playing our games, you must always view yourself as a member of one of three groups: best, average, or worst. If you’re one of the best, you must keep that spot. And if you’re average, or one of the worst, you’ll need to work much harder so you can be one of the best. Also, in each group, there are “good guys” and “bad guys.” You are, naturally, one of the good guys. In these games, people are your pawns, allies, and competitors. They are not fellow humans; it is Us vs. Them.

You only have a few years to play, so you must work quickly to become one of “the best.” You will spend all of your energy trying to make your life fit a certain image, while assuring others that you’ve nearly achieved it. Accomplishments will be your fetish, and everyone will applaud as you successfully make your way through each level. Your spontaneity and openness and joy will be replaced with seriousness — the seriousness that’s driving you to achieve this ideal life you’ve mapped out in your head. You must not slow down, because everyone else is playing this game too, and they don’t like it when you don’t take it as seriously as they do. Remember: Your life is to be conquered and won. Enjoyment is incidental.

But the progress you make feels like treading water. Nothing is ever enough to feel like you’re truly a part of “the best” group. A feeling of guilt sinks in with the growing suspicion that you are permanently in debt, that you’ll always owe the world for your existence. There is a cost to being here, and your struggle to justify your entitled existence on this planet doesn’t feel adequate. No matter how you play the game, it’s not totally clear whether you’re doing it right. You begin to wonder, “Do other people understand the rules? Is everyone just faking it?”

One day, you’ll decide that it’s time to buckle down and really commit to winning this game, once and for all. You’ll proclaim that it’s your duty to earn your place, and this is the noble way to become one of “the best.” Everyone will pat you on the back for embracing your insanity, and you’ll find yourself congratulating and admiring those who take the game even more seriously than you do. If only you could be so serious! You’ll convince yourself that this life is not supposed to be so fun or spontaneous. It must be won methodically, with a well-executed strategy. Each day requires sacrifice, and you must remind others how good you are at making these sacrifices in order to become one of “the best.”

And slowly, you forget, and you start to believe that this is all very real; that the outcomes of everything you do just have to be leading to an important… something.

But you’re not sure what that “something” is anymore. It’s changed its shape so many times, and you don’t even know if these rules will get you there.

Everything starts to feel like a game, even people. You tell someone you love them — not out of honesty — but because you feel like it’s the right thing to say, or because it will help you win some other game. Perhaps you can win your own game of being the nicest person you know. Or maybe you want to win the game of not being alone. You become a genuine fake. And when you actually feel real love, you dare not say it because of the problems it could create. You’ve been told that once you say it, you need to follow through, and that’s one more game you’ll need to win. For the rest of your life, you must align your feelings and behaviors with those words. Those are the rules! And what if your words are rejected? What if they laugh at you? You will lose that game, and you’ll need to start over.

And as the years pass, you completely forget that they are all just games, that you’re playing by rules that someone else made up. The rules are only important because we’ve all agreed to abide by them and wear ourselves down in the pursuit of becoming one of “the best.” Of finding our missing something.

You start to develop this dreadful idea that adults are refusing to allow themselves what they really want — to just play and laugh and help one another, without any of the seriousness that comes with the games. You start to think we’ve all conditioned ourselves to believe that the rules are everything, because none of us want to be average. We don’t want to die as one of “the worst.”

So until we can become one of “the best,” we will hold our heads high, and strike down those who stand in our way.

# # #

The games start to get old. They aren’t as much fun once you see you’re running through an endless cycle of bigger and louder. You know that participating in a relentless competition to be one of “the best” is crazy. You see that no one is better than anyone else; we’ve all just been growing in and reacting to different environments that are out of our control.

Still, we try to convince each other that these games are all heading somewhere really wonderful and important for us. So we keep playing and playing and playing…

It’s too late to stop, because you are afraid of breaking the rules. You’ve wanted to win these games for so long, but there are people who are ready to throw you into a lower group. And we pay them to enforce these rules, and tell us when we are losing the game.

A teacher writes in red pen on your paper, and you think “I’m a failure!”

A boss fires you, and you think “I’m a loser!”

A doctor says your body has turned against you, and you think “I’m diseased!”

A police officer shows up at your door, and you think “I’m a criminal!”

A soldier fires a gun, and you think “I’m the enemy!”

A priest reads from a book, and you think “I’m a sinner!”

All of them reinforcing the notion that you’re still missing something, that you are still not enough. That in spite of all you did, you still managed to fail. And above all, to fear what happens to those who aren’t one of “the best.”

So you fall back in line. You keep trying to beat the scam, while you attempt to mend your now broken self. Then one day, the games finally beat you.

And that’s the moment, when you can see the whole scene for what it really is, and… it’s funny. It’s crazy and weird… but it’s actually funny.

But now’s not the time. You must be reverent and solemn and serious and you must not laugh at our seriousness. You must shed a tear for your sins to show how sorry you are. You must wear yourself out and take our pills in order to get better. You must feel guilty about breaking the rules and admit that you’re a son-of-a-bitch. You must believe that your life is being supervised by someone who is always disappointed in you. You must numb yourself into oblivion with food and drugs and TV shows until you no longer remember what it’s like to be healthy or vulnerable or creative or loving. You must grind out your daily existence until your soul is crushed, and you become a wisp of the child you once were.

And you must remember that you cannot win these games, because these games will never end.

# # #

You are not missing anything. You are not incomplete. You are not broken. The endless search for something more, for that thing you’ve been lacking, is like looking behind a mirror. You’re chasing your own tail.

And you are not winning or losing any sort of game. There’s no true “progress” to be earned by you or anyone else, because you have always been enough. You are fundamentally acceptable as you are. You are


. You simply refuse to accept that there’s nothing more to become, EVER, because that’s the culture you were raised in, and the games are very important to us. We let them define who we are.

Every hoop you choose to jump through gives you a sense that you’re moving forward, but your chase will never end — there will always be a new game waiting for you at the finish line.

Eventually, you have to figure out how to free yourself from the struggle of becoming something more. To let go and just… be.

Life is not supposed to be viewed as an endless competition, and it’s not supposed to be taken so damn seriously, no matter what anyone says. There is no “best” way to live, you can’t make mistakes (even though you can still be punished), and there is definitely no such thing as “them.”

This is all just a crazy dream. It’s a ride. And not one second of it has ever been in your control, no matter how much your ego rationalized it or how convincing your life appeared. Every moment has been uncalculated; there is no past to regret, and no perfect future to carefully plan for. There’s only now.

When you can really remember that and feel it, you start to let go of the struggle. You can stop playing games, and avoid the perils of personal progress. You can just be.

And that’s when your life starts being fun again. That’s when you can reclaim it as your own.

# # #

Many thanks to Alan Watts for inspiration and my shameless cribbing. [Photo by Dave Morrow]