We don’t talk about our struggles, living in this changed world. Why? Because ‘there is always someone far worse off’.
Do you know what my first memory of the word ‘gratitude’ is? Not an utterance of honest appreciation resounding after a refreshing drink of water, nourishing meal, reunion with old friends, sincere accomplishment, or a good night’s rest in a warm bed. No, my first memory of hearing about ‘gratitude’, is from the vacant reprimand: “Be grateful for your blessings”… And keep your head down while you’re at it.
This is not the gratitude you inherently feel for being true to yourself. No… This is the gratitude you are taught to express for being true to the ideals of the world, because, no matter the depths of emptiness in your persistent fraudulent pursuits, ‘you have it so much better than others’. You simply don’t realize how fortunate you are for your sophisticated position in society.
Ah yes… sophistication…
When I was five or six years old I disassembled my first computer. It was an IBM AT. The ‘AT’ actually stands for ‘Advanced Technology’; It still makes me chuckle. Since then I’ve built and fixed more computers and gadgets than I care to remember.
I coded a small computer program for a science fair in the early nineties as part of my involvement in the local Herpetological Association; I was twelve. There was no category for my age group, so I competed with the seniors and managed to take home a silver medal. I also milked the venom from a spitting cobra at that age; No jokes. A part of my upbringing was on a farm, so early in life I learned about plants and animals, how to ride a horse, and how to operate heavy machinery.
In my final year of secondary education I served as Deputy Head on the Student Representative Council, and I studied Visual Communication at a respected (and expensive) private school thereafter. I worked more than fifteen years across the fields of graphic design, web design, animation, branding and advertising, sometimes for big names; My first commission was at the age of sixteen.
In my late twenties, I decided to polish my music performance skills and music composition knowledge with three years of study. As a musician I played in quite a few bands, contributed to video games and other interactive media projects as a sound designer, and composed various genres of music over the years.
I’ve done volunteer work for the World Wildlife Fund, and I’ve been invited to participate in human rights workshops in The Hague. Throughout my life I’ve read as many books as I could. I especially enjoyed reading books on psychology, philosophy, religion and spirituality, and I recently started studying a Counselling diploma.
I’ve taught myself a great variety of skills like playing various instruments, building mountain bikes and baking tasty traditional sourdough bread from starters I cultivate. I speak four languages: two fluently, and two well enough to make conversation. Oh, did I mention I appreciate art galleries, museums and opera…?
Every coin has two sides, of course.
I grew up in a loving, but troubled family; Society forced its dogmas on me; I was called the ‘black sheep’; I’ve experienced abuse; I’ve lost family members to cancer; I’ve had friends try to commit suicide; I’ve watched the farm of my childhood burn, sabotaged; I’ve watched my father struggle to make ends meet; I’ve experienced prolonged poverty; I was hospitalized, very badly cut, after running through a pure glass sliding door; I’ve been in a few car accidents; I was assaulted by a doped-up gang because I tried to break up a fight; I’ve been mugged at knife-point more than once; I’ve been a victim of armed robbery, tied up and beaten up, pistol against my forehead; I’ve been addicted to alcohol, and was toying with addiction to various other drugs; I’ve suffered from trauma, crippling anxiety disorder, obsession, insomnia, depression, self-loathing, nihilism…
The world: A beautiful place; A dangerous place…
Of course, through the wealth of my life experiences (some spectacular and others terrifying), I’ve struggled to find direction or inspiration. Many times I was so despondent about my chosen career paths and prospects for meaningful work, I fell into deep depressions, gave up what I was doing, and considered living on the streets. Or worse.
I remember the year I finally gave up my graphic design career: I was sitting with my laptop at the Christmas-eve dinner table, on the verge of collapse from stress, trying to finish last-minute designs for a pharmaceutical company. All that mattered to me was meeting deadlines; And getting paid what I’m worth. The worst thing is, my family and friends also suffered, because, what little time we made for each other was often ruined by our career anxieties. We always had “so much work to do”. I started thinking about where I was spending my energy during that time.
I remember applying to almost a hundred video game companies for any available position I could launch from. I’ve been playing and modding video games since the days of Zork. I was happy to take a low salary for the opportunity to grow and apply my creative skills anywhere other than the consumer marketing and advertising sector. The companies that responded to my portfolio mostly pointed out their need for specialists, and, that there were endless lines of younger graduates waiting to take positions as interns. “Every second person and their grandmother wants to work in video games…” one response said. This was the second time I reconsidered my career path.
I remember doing volunteer work for almost two years, during which time I applied to various NGOs and companies focused on humanitarian and environmental sustainability projects. I really wanted to do something useful with my life and contribute to the world in a ‘meaningful’ way. Some were eager to employ me; Others didn’t even respond. Nobody could pay me any kind of salary, though. People who care for the environment or the rights of others don’t attract much funding. It just isn’t the right market. Sorry Earth. This was my third sobering look at the world.
Eventually I became profoundly bitter about the skills I had chosen to pursue in life. The only place willing to remunerate my time and natural abilities, was the saturated consumer market I was trying to escape. Why did I even have talents? Where there is money to be made, there is advertising, and where there is advertising, there is plunder. Things I once cherished and developed with passion became dead weight to me. I felt deceived. For a long time I blamed the world and didn’t want to live in it anymore.
What future remained for me? Finding a dead-end job on an overpopulated planet facing climate crisis, mass migrations and diminishing resources? I had tried to make my life into something respectable. I wanted my parents and friends to be proud; I wanted myself to be proud. I worked hard; I wanted to be a ‘somebody’. I wanted to stand out! I hated the self-indulgent, narcissistic, selfie-obsessed generation I was born into, but I wanted to stand out…
Maybe just in a more ethical way…
Through the struggles and reflections these phases of my life brought, I started to realize something about my upbringing, my hobbies and my career choices: Whatever I pursued, my focus was never on who I was, it was always on who I wanted to become. Why? Because, without knowing myself, I thought I knew what I wanted. I thought I knew what was best for me, but where did I learn this? I learned it from my desire to stand out; My desire to be better than others. I pursued choices based on my ambitions, not on my design.
We live in a self-help, self-promotion world of ‘no limitations’. A world where, even in organizations that pursue ‘the greater good’, people compete for the best positions and highest accolades. A world where the desired careers are the ones that lift us above others. Would I have been willing to give up any competitive advantages I earned, if I had succeeded in being ‘anything I wanted to be’? Would I ever have paused to take a sober look at my life and the world?
When I was born, there were just over four billion people on this planet. We are now almost eight billion; A doubling of the population by the time I reached mid-thirties. Currently, one hundred and thirty million babies are born every year. With more and more people competing for fewer and fewer resources, what will the next generations strive to be? What ambitions do our actions teach the world to strive for?
Do you know what I find interesting about living in a world with so many people? It is getting harder and harder for us to stand out. It is getting harder and harder for us to ignore each other. It is getting harder and harder to be ‘anything we want to be’.
Do you know why we can’t be anything we want to be? Because we are torn between the empty allure of what we desire to be, and the struggle to become who we already are. Fear drives us to our ambitions and desires; Courage drives us to become who we are. I had to be still to consider who I am becoming.
Today I get up at five in the morning to serve people coffee; I try, once again, to compose music, and I write. For the first time I have tasted the freedom of not caring about what the world thinks of my ‘success’. Expressing myself with honesty, and simply being there for others, is good enough.
We don’t talk about true gratitude, we live it, because true gratitude is expressed in our deeds, not our thoughts and words. Those of us who are truly the worst off in life are the ones too afraid to become who we are.
May I have the courage to become who I am, living in a changed world.