Our eyes are always pointing at things we are interested in approaching, or investigating, or looking for, or having. We must see, but to see, we must aim, so we are always aiming. Our minds are built on the hunting-and-gathering platforms of our bodies. To hunt is to specify a target, track it, and throw at it. To gather is to specify and to grasp. We fling stones, and spears, and boomerangs. We toss balls through hoops, and hit pucks into nets, and curl carved graniterocks down the ice onto horizontal bull’s-eyes. We launch projectiles at targets with bows, guns, rifles and rockets. We hurl insults, launch plans, and pitch ideas. We succeed when we score a goal or hit a target. We fail, or sin, when we do not (as the word sin means to miss the mark). We cannot navigate, without something to aim at and, while we are in this world, we must always navigate.
We are always and simultaneously at point “a” (which is less desirable than it could be), moving towards point “b” (which we deem better, in accordance withour explicit and implicit values). We always encounter the world in a state of insufficiency and seek its correction. We can imagine new ways that things could be set right, and improved, even if we have everything we thought we needed. Even when satisfied, temporarily, we remain curious. We live within a framework that defines the present as eternally lacking and the future aseternally better. If we did not see things this way, we would not act at all. We wouldn’t even be able to see, because to see we must focus, and to focus we must pick one thing above all else on which to focus.
But we can see. We can even see things that aren’t there. We can envision new ways that things could be better. We can construct new, hypothetical worlds, where problems we weren’t even aware of can now show themselves and be addressed. The advantages of this are obvious: we can change the world so that the intolerable state of the present can be rectified in the future. The disadvantage to all this foresight and creativity is chronic unease and discomfort. Because we always contrast what is with what could be, we have to aim at what could be. But we can aim too high. Or too low. Or too chaotically. So we fail and live in disappointment, even when we appear to others to be living well. How can we benefit from our imaginativeness, our ability to improve the future, without continually denigrating our current, insufficiently successful and worthless lives?
The first step, perhaps, is to take stock. Who are you? When you buy a house and prepare to live in it, you hire an inspector to list all its faults—as it is, in reality, now, not as you wish it could be. You’ll even pay him for the bad news. You need to know. You need to discover the home’s hidden flaws. You need to know whether they are cosmetic imperfections or structural inadequacies. You need to know because you can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken— and you’re broken. You need an inspector. The internal critic—it could play that role, if you could get it on track; if you and it could cooperate. It could help you take stock. But you must walk through your psychological house with it and listen judiciously to what it says. Maybe you’re a handy-man’s dream, a real fixer-upper. How can you start your renovations without being demoralized, even crushed, by your internal critic’s lengthy and painful report of your inadequacies?
Here’s a hint. The future is like the past. But there’s a crucial difference. The past is fixed, but the future—it could be better. It could be better, some precise amount—the amount that can be achieved, perhaps, in a day, with some minimal engagement. The present is eternally flawed. But where you start might not be as important as the direction you are heading. Perhaps happiness is always to befound in the journey uphill, and not in the fleeting sense of satisfaction awaiting at the next peak. Much of happiness is hope, no matter how deep the underworld in which that hope was conceived.
Called upon properly, the internal critic will suggest something to set in order, which you could set in order, which you would set in order—voluntarily, without resentment, even with pleasure. Ask yourself: is there one thing that exists in disarray in your life or your situation that you could, and would, set straight? Could you, and would you, fix that one thing that announces itself humbly in need of repair? Could you do it now? Imagine that you are someone with whom you must negotiate. Imagine further that you are lazy, touchy, resentful and hard to get along with. With that attitude, it’s not going to be easy to get you moving. You might have to use a little charm and playfulness. “Excuse me,” you might say to yourself, without irony or sarcasm. “I’m trying to reduce some of the unnecessary suffering around here. I could use some help.” Keep the derision at bay. “I’m wondering if there is anything that you would be willing to do? I’d be very grateful for your service.” Ask honestly and with humility. That’s no simple matter.
You might have to negotiate further, depending on your state of mind. Maybe you don’t trust yourself. You think that you’ll ask yourself for one thing and, having delivered, immediately demand more. And you’ll be punitive and hurtful about it. And you’ll denigrate what was already offered. Who wants to work for a tyrant like that? Not you. That’s why you don’t do what you want yourself to do. You’re a bad employee—but a worse boss. Maybe you need to say to yourself, “OK. I know we haven’t gotten along very well in the past. I’m sorry about that. I’m trying to improve. I’ll probably make some more mistakes along the way, but I’ll try to listen if you object. I’ll try to learn. I noticed, just now, today, that you weren’t really jumping at the opportunity to help when I asked. Is there something I could offer in return for your cooperation? Maybe if you did the dishes, we could go for coffee. You like espresso. How about an espresso— maybe a double shot? Or is there something else you want?” Then you could listen. Maybe you’ll hear a voice inside (maybe it’s even the voice of a long-lost child). Maybe it will reply, “Really? You really want to do something nice for me? You’ll really do it? It’s not a trick?
This is where you must be careful.
That little voice—that’s the voice of someone once burnt and twice shy. So, you could say, very carefully, “Really. I might not do it very well, and I might not be great company, but I will do something nice for you. I promise.” A little careful kindness goes a long way, and judicious reward is a powerful motivator. Then you could take that small bit of yourself by the hand and do the damn dishes. And then you better not go clean the bathroom and forget about the coffee or the movie or the beer or it will be even harder to call those forgot ten parts of yourself forth from the nooks and crannies of the underworld.
You might ask yourself, “What could I say to someone else—my friend, my brother, my boss, my assistant—that would set things a bit more right between us tomorrow? What bit of chaos might I eradicate at home, on my desk, in my kitchen, tonight, so that the stage could be set for a better play? What snakes might I banish from my closet—and my mind?” Five hundred small decisions, five hundred tiny actions, compose your day, today, and every day. Could you aim one or two of these at a better result? Better, in your own private opinion, by your own individual standards? Could you compare your specific personal tomorrow with your specific personal yesterday? Could you use your own judgment, and ask yourself what that better tomorrow might be?
Aim small. You don’t want to shoulder too much to begin with, given your limited talents, tendency to deceive, burden of resentment, and ability to shirk responsibility. Thus, you set the following goal: by the end of the day, I want things in my life to be a tiny bit better than they were this morning. Then you ask yourself, “What could I do, that I would do, that would accomplish that, and what small thing would I like as a reward?” Then you do what you have decided to do, even if you do it badly. Then you give yourself that damn coffee, in triumph. Maybe you feel a bit stupid about it, but you do it anyway. And you do the same thing tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. And, with each day, your baseline of comparison gets a little higher, and that’s magic. That’s compound interest. Do that for three years, and your life will be entirely different. Now you’re aiming for something higher. Now you’re wishing on a star. Now the beam is disappearing from your eye, and you’re learning to see.And what you aim at determines what you see. That’s worth repeating. What you aim at determines what you see.