On happiness and expectations

[Original en español, aquí.]

(Perhaps, I was never truly happy. But it is known that misfortune requires a lost paradise.) There is no man who does not aspire to plenitude, that is, the sum of all experiences that a man is capable of; there is no man who does not fear to be cheated out of some part of that infinite treasure.
Jorge Luis Borges – El Aleph – Deutsches Requiem

There are many ways to interpret this passage; many little gems to analyze. A few days ago, however, two of its sentences stared at me intently: There is no man who does not aspire to plenitude, […] there is no man who does not fear to be cheated out of some part of that infinite treasure.

What is that infinite treasure? What is plenitude? What do we aspire to, and what do we fear losing or -worse- never attaining? These questions assaulted me in the dark; one of those nights that remind me of a certain quote from Charles M. Schulz (the Peanuts genius): Sometimes I lie awake at night, and ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong?’ Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.’

It is an interesting exercise, to dare to look, straight in the eye, some of the hardest questions we can ask ourselves – you quickly notice that the answers you thought you had do not fare well under scrutiny (I guess it is reassuring to think that a guy like Richard Feynman would say that it is better to have good questions than to have bad answers). With the end of the MBA a few months ago, another chapter of my life came to an end. And that opened the door -wide open- to the rest of my life. I could not help but wonder: what if this does not end well?

What if you are not good enough? What if you are not able to rise up to the challenge?

On the one hand, my expectations (many, and pretty high; perhaps also a bit blurry). On the other hand, the expectations of those whom I love and respect. The expectations of those who have carried me on their shoulders since I can remember, or since they came into my life -I feel thankful to fate or to whomever pulled them out of the hat-. The expectations of those who still believe in me and see things in me that I do not (or, at least, not always). The expectations of those who I really fear disappointing.

How do you fit all of this in a single life? How can you feel that you really got everything you could out of your life? How can you reach that plenitude that Borges talks about, without feeling that fate cheated you out of some of it?

What would you think if, twenty years from now, you were still someone with potential? Is really the journey what matters, and not the destination, if in the end we do not get to where we wanted to go?

Sometimes, even when we achieve what we set out to, we can feel disappointed –reality has the bad habit of not wanting to accommodate to our expectations. How can we define plenitude, then, if it is not simply achieving everything we wanted to achieve? (in fact, I hope you do not) How do we overcome the fear not only to not making it, but also to making it and being disappointed? How do we confront the possibility that we may reach our destination and realize we did not actually know where we were going? That, in fact, that infinite treasure we thought ourselves owners of at the beginning of the road, was not but a mirage? How, then, will we face those who believed in us?

I guess it is one of those traps that the mind sets us sometimes, to make our quixotic windmills look like giants. From time to time, we forget that one of the reasons why others believe in us is that they love us, they respect us, and they truly wish us the best. It seems obvious when you read it, but, how much of those expectations we fear are but their best wishes for us, based on the potential they see in us? A mere hope to see us reach our peak, to see us happy? Are these “expectations” really liable to end in disappointment? And, even if they were, were those expectations based on an accurate idea of who we really are? Of the things that make us tick? That make us happy?

In the end, it all boils down to coming to terms with the idea that you can try and not get there, or that you can get there but not find what you were looking for. It is about coming to terms with the idea that we can envision an out of reach plenitude –perhaps because it is not possible to get there, perhaps because we envisioned it without understanding its implications–. Coming to terms with the notion that, well, you might nevertheless be happy with the result.

We may get cheated out of some of that infinite treasure that we have dreamed about so many times –perhaps it does not matter. Who thinks about what could have been when satisfied with what was?

I believe that the thing that scares us the most about asking ourselves where we will be in twenty years is not the possibility of failure, but the lack of action that the question seems to imply. To think that our fears might have gotten the best of us: the fear of not making it, the fear of disappointing those we care about, or the fear of choosing the wrong goal (perhaps because instead of thinking about us, we chose to follow someone else’s path).

The beginning of the rest of our lives seems like a great moment to remember that only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go (T. S. Eliot).

Why not try?

We’ll be standing on the shoulders of those that, if we end up not making it, will be there to remind us that plenitude is not about goals but about adventures. About Ithakas.

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