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Why is My Life So Hard? Or: How I’m Learning to Stop Playing the Victim and Just Be Grateful

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“Life hands us a changing syllabus.” On Sunday I began reading The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile. I also began through working its study guide. A couple months ago I sat in on a day-long lecture Cron gave, introducing the basics of the Enneagram. The first section of the study guide paralleled the lecture, with its focus being to learn about the nine personality types of the Enneagram. (For whatever it’s worth, I’m probably a “four.” I’m sure I’ll get deeper into that another day.) It’s not so much our behaviors, the text reads, that lead us to a particular Enneagram number (or personality type), but our motivations. Motivations can be deceiving.

I recently listened to an episode of Freakonomics’ podcast titled “Why Is My Life So Hard?” In it, the focus is on a concept of the “headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry.” Essentially, this speaks to a tendency to manufacture or embellish obstacles while overlooking other factors that make life easier.

“The idea should be familiar to anyone who cycles or runs for exercise. Sometimes you’re running or cycling into the wind, and it’s not pleasant. You’re aware of it the whole time. It’s retarding your progress and you can’t wait until the course changes so that you get the wind at your back. And when that happens you’re grateful for about a minute. And very quickly, you no longer notice the wind at your back that’s helping push you along. And what’s true when it comes to running or cycling is true of life generally.”

What’s the motivation behind that sort of thinking? The thinking that life is putting roadblocks (self-handicaps) in my way, and is trying to get in the way of Me living My life? The podcast elaborates,

“Yeah, self-handicapping is a familiar idea, particularly if we go back to the world of sports, where, before a contest, people claim a certain obstacle in their favorite team’s path. ‘Maybe we’ll win, but we’ve got a key player out.’ And that’s setting everyone up for an explanation if you should lose. Students often do this too. They might study as hard as they can and pretend that they haven’t studied so if they bomb the exam, people don’t think they’re challenged. And if they should succeed, all the better. It’s a more glorious victory if you’ve overcome an obstacle. So people will put these obstacles in their path to manage other people’s and their own attributions or explanations for why they succeeded or failed.”

It’s unrelated, but this also left me thinking about motivations. Intentional or not, there’s something going on with intention that isn’t entirely honest here. But why?

Monday’s reading of The Beginner’s Guide to Zen Buddhism focused on the technique of meditation, and with today’s reading in Peace is Every Step came a focus on being present in the myriad situations life presents us with, including sitting at the dinner table eating a meal.

“Having the opportunity to sit with our family and friends and enjoy wonderful food is something precious, something not everyone has. Many people in the world are hungry. When I hold a bowl of rice or a piece of bread, I know that I am fortunate, and I feel compassion for all those who have no food to eat and are without friends or family. This is a very deep practice. We do not need to go to a temple or a church in order to practice this. We can practice it right at our dinner table. Mindful eating can cultivate seeds of compassion and understanding that will strengthen us to do something to help hungry and lonely people be nourished.”

This morning I sat with a meditation by April Wagner, “Social Distancing as Metamorphosis.”  I don’t know that this appropriately brought everything all together for me, but it presented an idea that opened me up: The butterfly doesn’t know what it’s turning into when it’s changing from a caterpillar. This—right now—can be a time of great change, but lost in the words was a feeling and it didn’t really connect with until now: That change relies on motivation. And part of the motivation belongs to letting go of control.

With The Road Back to You, there’s control over escaping negative personality traits. With the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry it’s control over what others think about me and the story I write for myself. And with Peace is Every Step: A different kind of control that I can’t quite place, trying to guide myself from where I am to where a voice in my head tells me I should be going.

For as much as I’d like to claim I’m being met with headwinds right now, latching on to any number of the troubles in the world around us right now, it’s all a matter of perspective. At times, I’m overtaken by gratitude, appreciative of the tailwinds that continue to propel me forward. But getting in the way of that is a force that I’m regularly susceptible to embracing. Maybe it’s because part of me desires to control outcomes. Maybe it’s because part of me is the guy in a plane on a cross-country flight complaining about the wi-fi signal, all the while overlooking the fact that he’s effortlessly rocketing through the air at cruising altitude.