Somewhere along our cultural continuum, Americans’ go-go-go mentality started backfiring on us. Sure, it’s helped to make the United States a global superpower—albeit one beset by crippling debt, warmongering tendencies, woefully deficient health care, and a flagging public-education system—but it’s also turned us into a bunch of neurotic, exhausted, materialistic drones who suffer from chronic back pain and insomnia; who self-medicate with booze, pills, and food; who can’t keep our marriages together; who hate our jobs but are too scared to quit; who pay therapists and plastic surgeons thousands of dollars to “fix” us.
Underlying all this angst is our voraciously capitalist society, which often seems designed to keep us hanging in the balance between perennial dissatisfaction with what we have in the present and a persistent belief that salvation lies right around the corner. If we can just get there—“there” being a new, great love; our first, second, or third child; a higher-paying, more prestigious vocation—then we will have made it, and we won’t have to worry anymore.
Ironically, in stark contrast with our tendency to overextend ourselves by planning out every niggling detail of our days, when we advise our loved ones on the best way to get “there,” our prevailing recommendation is to not think too much, to let things happen organically, to “let go and let God.” We’re told over and over that [insert desired goal here] will come along when we least expect it. If a woman is having trouble getting pregnant, others tell her that if she would just stop stressing, remember that sex is not just for procreation but for pleasure, and throw out her ovulation-prediction kit, the great cosmic wave of fertility will gather her up and reward her with a child. When someone has been waging a full-scale job search for months to no avail, well-meaning friends encourage him to take a break from sending out resumes and cover letters, because that’s when his dream job will miraculously find him. And if a single person has explored every dating outlet and still hasn’t secured a ticket on the love train, the happily paired-off people around her say she’s trying too hard, that she’s giving off the desperate vibe, and that she needs to stop looking for external validation and focus on being her best self—and then The One will sense that she’s ready and arrive posthaste.
Certainly, this way of thinking is not without historical basis. As far back as 2,500 years ago, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s seminal book of wisdom, the Tao Te Ching, began teaching us such lessons as “All attempts to control the world can only lead to its decimation and to our own demise” and “Those on the path to the Great Integrity flow without forcing” and “When the ego interferes in the rhythms of process, there is so much doing! But nothing is done.”
But that was then. As admirable as Lao Tzu’s core principles are, and as much as we’d like to think we have the power to turn off at will all the frantic energy, gimme-more thinking, and type-A behavior we’ve been conditioned to believe are de rigueur for citizens of the Western world, it’s simply not that easy. In the game of nature versus nurture, the latter is winning. Not to mention that the “just let it go” school of thought directly contradicts an equally prevalent modern trend (and one perhaps better suited to our frenetic pace and ruthless ambition) of taking a highly structured approach to achieving our personal goals. We create “vision boards”; we devour self-help books that promise to make us richer, thinner, more positive; we hang on every word of motivational speakers like Tony Robbins, John Demartini, Joseph Campbell, and Deepak Chopra. From where I sit, it looks like we’re trying too hard to seem like we’re not trying too hard.
The bottom line is that everyone finds fulfillment differently—and sometimes not at all. Believing in the power of positive thinking works for some individuals, but not for others. Many women whose desire to conceive keeps them up at night do get pregnant, while those who are completely carefree about the process sometimes do not. Some people who spend three hours each day browsing online dating sites find their soul mate and get married, and, yes, so do others who’ve officially given up any hope of meeting their match. And while I’ve never had much faith in the idea that someone can get a great job without reaching out to prospective employers, I have to assume it does happen to a few lucky SOBs. Whether you want to attribute your successes and failures to fate, to chance, to astrology, to Oprah Winfrey, to the seminar you attended last year, or to knowing how to relax, more power to you. Just don’t presume that what worked for you will work for me.