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By Brianna Wiest
It’s interesting that culture instructs us to mentally actualize the life we want, when our brains are only capable of imagining that which they have already known.
When you pick a place to live, you often choose somewhere that acts as an antidote to the town you swore you’ve never end up in, the life you promised yourself you’d never live. When you choose a college major, you summarize what you’ve done to determine who you’ll be based only on who you’ve been. When you choose a romantic partner, you pick someone whose characteristics supply what your parents’ didn’t. You only know how to create what was in what “should be.”
If you see someone you don’t recognize in a dream, you have actually either seen them or parts of them in your waking life; the brain cannot construct people, it can only piece together what it’s known.
We are psychologically incapable of determining what will make us happy in the future. When our space for understanding our lives is solely mental, we project our “ideal” to be a combination of what the people we never received love from would see as ideal, near-guarantees that we’ll be “safe” from that which has gone “wrong” in the past, and ways we hope to shield ourselves from our deepest fears. In trying to live out solutions to our past problems, our lives cycle in the same patterns, habits and struggles again and again and again because we’ve built them around insecurity, pain and fear.
But as we all know, these plans and ideas of what the future will and should be rarely ever play out as we imagine. Things never look the way we think they will – and that’s incredibly fortunate for us.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that when unfathomably good things come to fruition in our lives – things better than we had ever imagined for ourselves – we tend to reject them, or fear them, or still feel as though we’ve failed because we deviated from the original plan. We suffer from our illusions, and we suffer when they dissolve.
This, we are well-acquainted with. But there’s another side of the story, one that we don’t acknowledge: there are things out there so good, we literally cannot imagine them. The ways in which our lives unfold naturally, away from what we think we want, is a blessing beyond our comprehension.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s journey to this theory began with a childhood interest in optical illusions, and how his brain would “fill in” what was missing. He would eventually theorize that it’s not only within artwork that the human mind does this.
Ideas of what your life will and should be are, essentially, useless. Projections of the future have no bearing on what reality will unfold, they are just foggy distractions in the present moment.
We don’t acknowledge this because doing so would mean surrendering an idea of control. Our belief that we simply must choose the life we want (as opposed to choose to be present in what we have) is pervasive, and is rooted in the inherent need to feel secure.
But rather than consider the unknownness of it all as a looming, uncertain fate, we can realize that “past” “present” and “future” are not equal concepts of time – the first and last don’t exist. Life is a succession of “nows” and you can either waste them trying to temper your fear with numbing predictions, or you can open yourself to a life comprised of more than just solutions to past problems.
Your life can (literally) be better than you can imagine. The only thing there is to choose is how you will perceive it in the moment.
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