We’ve been looking in the wrong places for meaning and happiness. I think it’s a universal flaw of adulthood. We keep looking ahead for answers when maybe we should be looking backward.
Maturity, education and experience propel us forward. We work, achieve, marry, buy homes, have kids, follow the rules and yet, struggle to find happiness and meaning in our lives.
For many people, happiness is elusive. They’re suffering from stress, depression and anxiety. Often, they turn to the self-help industry for guidance and answers.
An article in Inc.com noted:
“Back in 2008, the self-help industry was valued at 11 billion dollars each year. That’s a lot of books and motivational speeches that failed to help the 40 million people suffering from anxiety, the 14.8 million sufferings from depression, and the 7.7 million people suffering from the post-traumatic stress disorder. And in 2016 alone the US spent 446 billion dollars on medications — almost half of the global market.”
The problem is that a lot of self-help content makes people feel worse. It points out what’s wrong with you. What you need to change. Who you need to be like. You end up feeling like a loser.
Also, not everyone dispensing self-help is qualified to do so.
While it’s true that change is often required to grow, we overlook the good that’s already within us. We don’t need to change the positive core of who we are in order to change our health, work or life circumstances.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
Instead of scouring the self-help aisle of the bookstore, or online self- improvement forums, maybe we should take a deep breath and look over our shoulder — to the past, and the literature of our childhoods.
Maybe everything we need to know about life, and how to be happy being ourselves, can be found in children’s books.
Lift Up My Life a Trifle
Ah, children’s books. We tend to forget about them in adulthood until we have kids of our own. Or when we root around our parent’s attic and find that dusty box in the corner. We open it and pull out the relics of our childhood. Wonderful, illustrated books that used to spark our imaginations and dreams.
A lot of creative, caring authors and illustrators took the time (and still do) to share their wisdom with us.
In simple words, rhymes and magical illustrations, we learned about the golden rule, fairness, sharing, forgiveness, cooperation, love and so much more.
Somehow, with the distractions of adolescence and challenges of adulthood, we forgot about our treasured companions. Our splendid little children’s books, that teleported us to other worlds, talking animals and simple lessons for better living.
Here are a few gems you might remember:
“The Little Engine That Could,” by Watty Piper (aka: Arnold Munk) taught us to think positively and never give up.
“I think I can. I think I can. I think I can. I know I can.” — The Little Engine That Could
Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” may have broken our hearts, but it showed us the importance of compassion, generosity, and selflessness.
“I am too big to climb and play,” said the boy. “I want to buy things and have fun. I want some money.” -The Giving Tree
A. A. Milne’s “Winnie- the- Pooh” demonstrated the importance of loving your friends.
“I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long. If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.” — Winnie-the-Pooh
E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” taught us all the value of friendship and sacrifice. In the novel’s end, Charlotte sums things up:
“‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.’”
These endearing children’s books, and many more, taught us about what is important in life. They captured our imaginations, showed us how to live, and helped us believe in ourselves.
Revelation Comes From Silence
There were other childhood gifts that shaped our self-esteem and character. Television programs like Sesame Street, Captain Kangaroo, Romper Room (there was always one kid picking his nose!) and Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood.
Yes, there are silly things you can poke fun at in each of these shows. But for millions of children, these programs were safe and welcome friends. There were many helpful lessons about life in those programs.
I remember my teenage friends parodying Mister Rogers, but I grew to respect and admire his mission: To encourage the healthy emotional growth of children and their families.
Fred Rogers was a centered, authentic man. Beyond the charm of his on-air persona, he was a man of depth, kindness, authenticity, and maybe a touch of divinity.
Watch this tender scene with a boy in a wheelchair:
Fred Rogers once appeared on the Charlie Rose show, to talk about his recently published book, You Are Special. Rose complimented Rogers on what a calm, soft-spoken, centered person he was.
When asked what his book was about, Rogers said it was about “Being, and the things that matter to me.” And then Rogers added:
“It’s about the white spaces between the paragraphs, which I think are more important than any of the text because it allows you to think about what’s just been said.”
Rogers went on to talk about a college professor of his who once told him:
“There’s one thing that evil cannot stand, and that is forgiveness.”
During the interview, Rogers said he was very concerned that our society focuses more on information than wonder, and on noise versus silence. Rogers felt that we needed to make more time for quiet and reflection, because:
“Revelation comes from silence.”
The Privilege of a Lifetime
At one point in the interview, Rogers talked about leaving the television studio and encountering a Down syndrome boy on the street. The boy immediately hugged Rogers.
Rogers explained to Charlie Rose:
“…people who are not the fancy people in this world… are the ones who seem to nourish my soul.”
There’s a lesson here for the rest of us: Stop trying to be one of the fancy people.
Stop trying to emulate your Hollywood and music idols. Stop trying to mimic famous or popular people. Stop trying to impress others by surrounding yourself with trendy things. None of this is really you.
Focus on your authenticity. On your unique gifts, talents, and passions. What makes you interesting and different is you. Why would you want to become a cheap imitation of someone else?
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” ― C.G. Jung
What is Essential
In the interview with Charlie Rose, Fred Rogers mentioned a plaque that hung in his office. It contained the following words:
“What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
It’s not about how attractive we are, how talented we are or how much money we have. What really matters is what’s inside us. Our character and hearts. It’s the core of who we are that others appreciate most. Our unique personality, honesty and trueness.
I’m as guilty as everyone else. I’ve tried to copy other people. I’ve worried about my appearance and changed my behavior to try and fit in. I remember wanting to part of the “in-crowd.” Hoping to join the “inner ring.” I’ve written about this before:
Thankfully, experience and maturity taught me to refocus on what is essential. I realized that it’s more valuable to be myself, and develop my own unique gifts and talents than try to be someone I’m not.
Re-reading some of my childhood books helped, too. They remind me that each of us is special in our own ways. Why would we deny the world our unique authenticity in some vain attempt to be someone or something we are not?
Enter Through the Narrow Gate
In a way, people are a lot like Lemmings. They tend to follow the group. When a person or group finds success or popularity, everyone else copies them.
Remember when the singer Madonna first became a sensation? It wasn’t long before millions of people were copying her clothing style.
The same happened with Michael Jackson. Kids everywhere were wearing gloves and moonwalking.
I saw this behavior in the blogging world, too. Writers started offering a free eBook if you signed up for their newsletter list. They also installed popups on their websites. Soon, everyone was doing it. I did too, for a while, because the “experts” said that’s how you grow a following.
Then one day, I started to think about it. I hated dealing with popups on websites. Also, most of the “free” eBooks people offered were of poor quality and value.
Eventually, I abandoned “lead magnets” like free eBooks and popups. I figured if my content was good enough, readers would come. Despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, I was right.
I have often found it advantageous to do the exact opposite of the masses. To chart my own course, and follow the beat of my own drummer. When we go our own way, we sometimes end up standing out.
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the rad that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only few find it.” — Matthew 7:13–14
Overwhelmed by the Tribe
So, stop trying to be one of the fancy people. Steal a page from Mister Roger’s wisdom. Be your own, unique self. You’re way more interesting.
The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
Revisit those childhood books and rediscover their wisdom. The world doesn’t need more cheap imitations and impersonators. We don’t need more fancy people.
The world needs you.
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Before You Go
I’m John P. Weiss. I paint landscapes, draw cartoons and write about life. Thanks for reading!
Previously published on Medium.com.
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Photo credit: By John P. Weiss