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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

My Renaissance

It may seem an odd question to discuss in a business course, but I’m going to muse about the meaning of life. Why are we here? What should we do? How do we manage to be whole, fulfilled beings? Jacob Needleman shared some thoughts on this with Bill Moyers:

“I held a seminar a few weeks ago and I asked them what their questions were, and almost all of them had the same question: “How do I engage in making a living and still keep my soul?” They feel that the world of money, the world they are forced to live in, is sucking their soul dry and they cannot keep their self-respect, or their sense of inner worth, and still participate in the money world. They want meaning. People come for meaning” (1988).

There is a lot that I relate to in this quote. At times in my life, I have felt like the world around me was sucking my soul dry, as Needleman puts it. I have also felt entirely bereft of self-respect and self-worth. At times, those feelings derived from issues surrounding money. More often, they were manifestations of my lack of understanding of myself as a whole person, and what my place in this world is. Throughout the existence of humanity, countless hours have been devoted to this existential search for meaning and worth. I’d like to share some of my experiences in this area.

I’m a person in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder. Throughout active addiction, I used drugs and alcohol to hide from a set of core beliefs that had come to define me as a person. I believed that I wasn’t worthwhile, that I wasn’t lovable, that I wasn’t deserving of anyone’s time or attention. I was sure that if anyone ever came to know the real me, they would hate me – much like I hated myself. I was convinced that I was wrong in any way that mattered. Many of these beliefs were almost subconscious and manifested in subtle ways. I would self-sabotage, unaware of why I was doing it. I was constantly searching for meaning, whether it be in another person, in an activity, in a job, or in school. There was never a time that I simply felt comfortable being who I was; I argue that is because being me during those years was very uncomfortable.

All humans have physical needs: food, water, shelter, and so on. We also have emotional needs: love, belonging, a sense of purpose. Until my thirty-second year, I was unaware of what I needed. Speaking of need, here’s Needleman again:

“’What do I need?’ That kind of question can really bring meaning to my life because it makes me inquire. It makes me try to understand. And when I do it with another person or two or three people together, when we begin to inquire, we already begin to have a new human relationship, which is what used to be called friendship” (1988).

While in treatment for substance use, I realized that I never afforded this question the gravity it deserves. My responses were often flippant or borne out of a need for validation or attention. I did not spend the energy to truly consider what this question meant in the grand scheme of things. I used to need a girlfriend, or a beer, or some money. I used to need someone to validate my existence, or need to eat, or need to sleep. While physical needs are important, that’s not really what this question is getting at, in my opinion. I believe the question is asking: “What does my soul need to be happy?”

Prior to treatment, I thought that my substance use was the problem itself. In treatment, I learned that it was merely a symptom of the cacophony of self-loathing inside of me. I had developed a set of coping skills that worked very well. Drugs and alcohol can do a great job of dulling the experience of life. I was shielded from feeling anything, good or bad. I was cut off from any meaningful human connection. Human connection is vital to our existence as people. We are social beings. The lack of such connection feels very empty to me, which lead to a self-reinforcing feedback loop. I was close to no one, I felt like nobody could possibly love me, and my behavior kept people at such a distance that my belief was constantly reinforced. Even when I wanted to be isolated, I found that being alone is very lonely.

I finally asked for help. When the first attempt didn’t stick, I asked for help again. I got on an airplane and flew from Texas to Utah. I had never been to Utah before, and I planned to spend sixty days and head back home to Texas. What I found at my treatment center was the most loving and compassionate group of people that I’ve ever met. These folks both figuratively and literally took me by the hand and lead me out of the darkness. I remember being so scared, so unsure. I insisted that Leslie, one of my therapists, give me a guarantee that treatment would work for me this time. She wouldn’t. Instead, she asked me to do what I was asked to the best of my ability. She believed in me. Her words to me, “try different, not harder,” are a mantra I try to live by. With the help of my therapists and my peers, I was able to demolish the old foundation that underpinned my life for most of it. I have a vivid memory of Dave, another therapist, talking to Michelle, a client, during a group session. He said to her, “If you’re such a piece of crap, why does everyone in this room like you?” This question – though it was not directed at me – hit me with some force. I’ve always claimed to be firmly in the camp where evidence matters, and I too was busy ignoring the evidence around me. The people around me liked me! They liked the real me. I was being vulnerable and authentic, sharing my hopes and fears, my dreams for the future and still they liked me. Up until that point, I had been convinced that it was necessary to hide my true self, lest anyone find out how horrible I truly was. Dave’s question was an essential building block in my recovery, and it’s one that I come back to on a regular basis.

Finally, I want to discuss the perils of comparison. There is something insidious in the way I used to compare myself to the people around me. I was certain that I was better than most, and worse than some. Imagine – a 32-year-old man living in his mother’s house, with nothing to his name, thinking himself above people! The idea that the way to score your life is to compare yourself to other people is a belief structure endemic to our society. Thorstein Veblen writes about this in The Theory of the Leisure Class:

“Relative success, tested by an invidious pecuniary comparison with other men, becomes the conventional end of action. The currently accepted legitimate end of effort becomes the achievement of a favourable comparison with other men; and therefore the repugnance to futility to a good extent coalesces with the incentive of emulation.”

He is writing about money being used as a tool of comparison, but I think this quote carries into all other parts of life where we compare ourselves to another. The more energy I spent comparing myself to others, the more miserable I became. It didn’t matter if I deemed myself better or worse than someone, the mere act was toxic. During treatment, I realized the only reasonable comparison I can make is to myself. The appropriate question is not how I compare to another person, but instead, where I am in relation to where I have been. I strive to make it such that when I look at another person today, it is to see what I can learn from them, or how I can connect with them. I’m much healthier when I look at other people in my life that way, rather than using them as cudgels to beat myself up with.

Throughout this essay, I’ve shared some of my experiences with personal growth and recovery from substance use. I’ve discussed humanity’s search for meaning, the spiritual and emotional needs that we have. I’ve touched on how important it is to ask for help, and how debilitating it can be when one’s life is spent constantly comparing oneself to others. With assistance from Thorstein Veblen and Jacob Needleman, I’ve tied these ideas to concepts that were discussed during Foundations of Business. I found this class to be both interesting and entertaining and am glad I had the chance to take it.

References

Moyers, B. (1988). A World of Ideas.

Veblen, T. (1899). The Theory of the Leisure Class .

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