163. Make Stories, Not Goals

Today I thought a lot about how Jay’s life would be, and what I would teach him as he grows older to get the best from it.

One thing that I want to teach, which has become abundantly clear to me in life so far, is that life should not consist of goals.

Yes, yes, I know – I have goals, but they are only useful as a tool. Don’t confuse means for an end.

Goals like getting a home, a job, a career, a spouse, a child, fame, fortune, artistic success or traveling the world every year or whatever are like situations fixed in time.

Example: You strive for a certain career, family happiness, children and life style. Then you reach it. And nothing else changes. You are succesful.

Except … that you know, some part of you, change is inevitable: You get fired, life throws you a curve, somebody dies, somebody divorces and eventually you grow old and die, too.

It’s amazing how many times I’ve listened to the tale about indigenous peoples around the world being more accepting of this ‘cycle of life’, having rituals for each stage, and therefore being better able to cope. Sounds a lot like a Kevin Costner-cliche to me, and therefore perhaps I just shelved it.

I knew this discourse, but I lived another. I lived the discourse which says that life is about achieving goals and then forgetting that everything always changes. Or at least suppress that awareness as long as possible.

When was the last time someone in your family died, not too close but close enough – like an aunt, and you stopped for more than a few weeks (or days) to think about what it all meant for your life? How was your life and her life similar, how were they different? Could something happen to you like that? What if it did? What if it did before you had achieved your goals? Or just after you had?

My aunt died of a heart attack last year, about mid-sixties, after finally having achieved her goal of an early pension. She had lots of health problems and never truly found employment she loved so this was freedom for her. The promised land. How short it lasted. But what … then?

What then for me? That’s something I’m still thinking about, and it’s clear that good as ‘goals’ are to navigate by in my life, they should be replaced by stories.

I feel that life should be lived as if you are handed a book with certain chapters already inserted. They have only headlines: birth, youth, marriage, family, work, middle-age, life crisis 1, life crisis 2, old age, death. Or a combination similar to that.

Life should not be a book with pages already filled with both birth-youth-marriage-family-success-at-work headlines and many notes or even passages about how each chapter will play out in advance. And then the sequel, old age an death and the spin-off – life crises – they are all shelved somewhere.

You know those books are in the library, but you don’t really want to have a look in them, so you pretend they don’t exist.

I want to pretend they exist. I want to pretend I have the full story in one book, with fixed headlines but no filler, because work no. 3 might make me happier than work no. 1 which I originally imagined. I want to be open, but also aware that I have a duty. I have a duty to fill out all the chapters, string them together into a story that makes sense and gives me comfort.

Even a story about what is beyond the book – what is in the next medium after the final chapter of death. Is there then the medium of film, which is a poor analogy for another kind of existence in another dimension or many more dimensions?

Or if I decide there is nothing, how can I still frame that last chapter with something of such importance and power that it makes all else matter little, including that I am to loose my life at the end of the story?

How about the image of people gathered at my funeral recollecting how much I mattered in the lives? How about a ceremony at a school I built somewhere to commemorize how much it mattered to students. Those visions of what the story is going to be about  after I leave it, are comforting. Sometimes so comforting I don’t really care what comes after, if anything.

There are other books, because in reality all of Earth is a library with 7 billion individual but intertwined stories, and they spill over into each other and new books keep coming into the library after the old ones are put at the back of the shelf, and ultimately discarded.

If a library is a useful metaphor with books as lives we can see that what matters is not even the book itself, but the story in it. That story can be continued in another book. Or just remembered, or referred to.

I feel it is such a good way therefore to think of this story, in its entirety, even the unpleasant parts like old age and try to make them less scary but actually imagining what kind of meaning and worth they could give to the story, instead of just pretending those chapters don’t exist.

I want to teach my son that. Make stories, not goals. Make goals part of the story, not the other way around.

Then you can’t be destroyed because you don’t reach all goals, or can’t keep them forever. Because stories never die.

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