Have you ever had the funny experience of noticing certain beliefs or habits of thought in yourself, and having trouble identifying where they came from? I know I’ve been there myself numerous times. I’ve also heard people say similar things. “I don’t really know where I got this or that idea. I guess I sort of always assumed it.” And yet, we know its never that simple. The reality is, nothing we ever think, do or believe comes out of nowhere. We are always taking in, processing, and being changed. And one of the striking aspects of this process is that very often our beliefs and values come in through the “back door” of our heart.
Let’s paint a brief imaginary sketch together. Put yourself into the position of a young successful professional, who has spent the last few years intensely investing into your future career. Now you sit here, reflecting on how it is that you came to believe so deeply that your career would bring you lasting satisfaction and meaning. As you thumb through the memories, you realize that this was an idea held by many of your classmates in school. You never actually faced the idea explicitly. You never said to yourself, “If I graduate and get a good job I will be a happy and satisfied person.” It just sort of trickled into your subconscious, as an assumption that existed in your social context. An assumption that perhaps even your friends don’t really remember receiving.
Maybe it started in that college info session you had in high school. You remember how the reps from the University held your 18-year-old imagination spellbound as they described the glories of life on campus, and the amazing opportunities your degree can give. Maybe that hope was fed as you caught on to various details in the TV shows you watched. The characters always seemed so fulfilled in their professional roles, finding meaning in their work. Perhaps this hope was further fueled as you saw your neighbor leave every morning in their shiny car, clean suit, briefcase in hand. Or as you saw your other neighbor pull in as you got the mail in the evening. Their uniforms always looking so solid, their lives so put-together.
Little by little, through images, experiences, passing phrases or impressions – a small hope or desire which starts as a trickle can grow into a full-blown passion in our life. And yet when we stop and think about it, we may not even be able to answer why it is that we pursue this thing so much. This doesn’t only apply to our careers or education. It can happen in any aspect of our lives. We are often the product of our environment much more than we can ever imagine. And leaving that back door open and unattended can lead to some very dramatic and heavy realizations further down the road.
I have been very fortunate to build relationships and work among people who are much older than I. This has offered really helpful perspective. It is not uncommon today to see people in their 30’s and 40’s, who are in the thick of their careers and dreams. And yet they feel really empty and lost. The glorious mountain peak that they had their eye on, turned out to be the preface to a yet larger and fiercer ascent. There is no shortage today of modern, mid-lifers, living out the ancient Greek myth of Sisyphus, feeling helplessly chained to a routine that seems to be leading nowhere.
There is really only one simple answer to this curse, and its actually a bit cliche. Live a life that is awake. Ask questions of the world around you. Ask questions of yourself. Investigate your beliefs. Ask yourself what are your underlying assumptions and where do they come from. You will always and only be the product of your ideas and beliefs, whether you like it or not. The problem today is that culture has gotten so cynical and skeptical, that it doesn’t want to ask these questions. We are told to “just be what you want”. Don’t think too much.
It is an illusion to think that we can become anything without ever giving it serious reflection and thought. The back door to your heart always exists, whether you like it or not. So if you leave it unattended, don’t be surprised when you wake up one day and ask yourself how on earth did you get here.