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Maybe You Are Living the Dream

January 9, 2013

The co-founder of string-field theory, theoretical physicist and best-selling author Michio Kaku suggests we try to develop our abilities to their fullest. His latest book, Physics of the Future, peers into human life circa 2100.
You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life. —Albert Camus

I was going through one of those existential crises where you spend a few weeks of sleepless nights torturing yourself with unanswerable questions like: Is my life meaningless? What the hell am I doing? Does anything really matter?

Eventually, I did what any spiritually bankrupt person with internet access does—I googled “What is the meaning of life?” Predictably, the interwebs provided buckets of inspiring quotes, psycho-babble rants, links to desperate girls with low self-esteem, and a painting of Christopher Walken building Optimus Prime. (Seriously, the latter is bizarrely awesome— google the image if you dare.)

Ultimately, I lighted upon a self-appointed motivational guru with an article entitled “Don’t Die with Your Music Still in You.” It seemed appropriate enough, so I gave it a 3 a.m. read and found:

To abandon a comfortable lifestyle that isn’t deeply fulfilling is to abandon nothing. There’s nothing of real substance there to protect. An income, a car, a house, or a lifestyle is not worth protecting if the cost of such protection is your own fulfillment and happiness. People who achieve some of the external trappings of success without internal fulfillment are only living an illusion when they tell themselves they have something of value to protect.

This made perfect sense, as if God or ghosts or the (until now) indifferent Universe was speaking directly to me. People die every minute, having lived their lives of quiet desperation and unfulfilling servitude, never experiencing the joys that life held for them had they followed a more risky path. It got me thinking about making some radical changes.

Thankfully I went to sleep without quitting my gig or calling old bandmates and setting some misguided course for a new life direction. In the morning, I realized that this is the kind of pop-psych-feel-goodery that one should not read while sleep deprived, vaguely unsatisfied, and perhaps a bit buzzed. This web swami (who apparently gleaned most of his shtick from self-help tapes while serving time for a felony) ignored the fact that most of us actually need to earn money every month.

Life is not a smorgasbord where you put only the most delectable bits on your plate. Life is a package deal. You want absolute freedom to pursue only your passions? Then you either must already be rich or okay with being very poor and a burden to those around you.

We all love the idea of betting on ourselves and winning big, but sometimes even when you win, you lose. Yes, Paul Gauguin had incredible posthumous success, but his wife and five kids suffered horribly after he quit his job and abandoned them to paint naked natives in French Polynesia. Gauguin spent most of his artist years depressed and suicidal. He died at 54 of a morphine overdose—broke, ostracized, syphilitic, and waiting to serve time in prison. People look at Gauguin’s work and forget that his is a cautionary tale. Sometimes following your dream can be a nightmare.

Beware of “sages” who imply that earning a paycheck and building a home is beneath you. As musicians, we tend to be susceptible to this hippy-dippy nonsense.

I use to think that all I wanted was to write songs and play music, but with a wife and son and no trust fund, I had to sneak that dream in on my down time while working to pay bills and spending quality time with my family. I’ve had dry spells in my career where, to feed my family, I took soul-crushing jobs as a waiter, a telemarketer, a roofer, a landscaper, a teacher, a bread-truck driver, and a pawnbroker. I’d get home from whatever crap job I had at the time, play with my great kid, have a family dinner and maybe a walk and a talk, maybe watch The Simpsons or play a game. After the bedtime story, when my son was asleep and his mama was lost in a book, I’d have 30 minutes to work on music before I passed out from exhaustion.

This was nothing I ever imagined I’d do, and yet it remains my life’s greatest work— far better than any TV show, record, or tour that I’ve been part of when my career is going well. Life is a package deal, but as mundane as the package may seem, all of the parts can fit together more perfectly and wonderfully than you could ever plan on your own. Happiness and fulfillment isn’t about getting what you want, but rather making the most of what you’re lucky enough to have and not undermining your self-worth by comparing yourself to others.

Here’s something to ponder from theoretical physicist Michio Kaku:

Beyond work and love, I would add two other ingredients that give meaning to life. First, to fulfill whatever talents we are born with. However blessed we are by fate with different abilities and strengths, we should try to develop them to the fullest, rather than allow them to atrophy and decay. We all know individuals who did not fulfill the promise they showed in childhood. Many of them became haunted by the image of what they might have become. Instead of blaming fate, I think we should accept ourselves as we are and try to fulfill whatever dreams are within our capability. Second, we should try to leave the world a better place than when we entered it. As individuals, we can make a difference, whether it is to probe the secrets of Nature, to clean up the environment and work for peace and social justice, or to nurture the inquisitive, vibrant spirit of the young by being a mentor and a guide.

Now you’re talkin’ words I can understand, Michio!


John Bohlinger is a Nashville multi-instrumentalist best know for his work in television, having lead the band for all six season of NBC's hit program Nashville Star, the 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009 CMT Music Awards, as well as many specials for GAC, PBS, CMT, USA and HDTV.

John's music compositions and playing can be heard in several major label albums, motion pictures, over one hundred television spots and Muzak... (yes, Muzak does play some cool stuff.) Visit him at youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger or facebook.com/johnbohlinger.