I exercise at the senior center recreation facility in my hometown. For the past five months, I’ve been going in at 6 am. At that time, the gym-goers are by and large retirees. Sharing the space with the elderly works wonderfully for me. The barbell equipment is almost always open, and I interact with a proportion of society that I rarely engage with—a group of people that are easy to ignore in the rush of daily life.
These individual mostly talks about family, health, and whatever the news is conveying at the moment. The brave ones discuss politics in such an open fashion that I feel jealous. They openly speak opposing views, and the other person listens, responding with their own thoughts. It’s polite and informative. I believe this can happen because, for both individuals, the conversation is the goal. It’s not about conveying a point or changing someone’s mind. Hearing the back and forth on meaningful topics is refreshing and is a genuinely admirable skill we young folks seem to have a hard time putting into practicing.
I don’t converse much directly with my fellow gym residents. I listen, or let’s be honest, eavesdrop and stay on track with my routine. Yet, the discussions I overhear provide me a lot of food for thought. Stories of teen years in the fifties. College before computers. The joy of grandchildren. The simple things in life we youngsters tend to be a bit too distracted to appreciate.
There was one conversation in particular that still stands out. A man walks up to another man and sits on the bench next to him. “How’s your day?” he asks. The other man put down his weights and said, “I’m living the dream.”
After some banter back and forth around the statement, the man who is living the dream describes his upcoming day. “Well, after I get my exercise in, I’m going to go home and making some coffee. Later today, I’ve got to figure out something to make for dinner. I might even try to figure out what to make for lunch tomorrow.” His listener nodded in agreement as I pause mid squat, waiting for the next thing. There wasn’t the next thing. Exercise, coffee, dinner, and maybe tomorrow’s lunch was the day. More importantly, that was “living the dream.”
I was confused and more than a bit worried upon reflecting on this description. I already know old age will be a bitch, just due to declining health and faculties. But 40 years from now, will my ideal day be reduced to what I already do in three hours today. It didn’t feel right. That was not the dream I wanted to be living.
I gained a new light on this dilemma when I found a more appropriate perspective on what it means to be living the dream. William B. Irvine, in his book “The Guide to the Good Life,” states that we are all living the dream. It’s just the dream of our past selves. We may have courted and married the person we love. We have obtained the job, car, house, title, friendship, or status that we once so keenly desired. We made it, but we choose to put our gaze on whatever comes next very shortly after reaching the goal we wanted so badly. We continue to chase for more rather than reflect on what we have.
[Hedonic adaptation]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_treadmill is the term the author uses to describe this pervasive quality of the human condition. Changes in our life don’t often dramatically affect our well-being or happiness in the long term because we so readily adapt to those new circumstances. We don’t do well with absolute measure. I should be happier than everyone in the world who doesn’t have a secure food source. But in reality, I’m probably not. My well-being is relative to my understand and expectations of well-being.
The wisdom of the man in the gym was that he had understood he got there. He didn’t need to reach for more. I don’t know his history, but it’s possible he achieved his goals for his family, health, and personal character. The understanding of knowing you’ve done it allowed him to view the day of making tomorrow’s sandwich with visible peace and satisfaction. He showed that “living the dream” can be met by a simple set of actions if you can remember all those previous actions that got you there.
I want to know that I am standing at the finish line. To feel content in watching others continue to push themselves far past it, believing that the finish line will move once they get there. This understanding does not mean I’ll simple giving up on my goals. I’ll still work to gain more stability and knowledge, hoping that pursuit leads to a bit more wisdom. It’s about appreciating all that came together to make this moment happen. We can’t live the dream by seeking something in the future. We simply need to respect and value the quality of our past and present experiences.