Fulfillment Is Not A Destination
“…it is enough to make good use of what the moment brings.” -Marcus Aurelius
Here we are with yet another charged word — fulfillment. It’s that delicate balance of peace and progress, of meaningfulness and mission that we so often find ourselves banging our heads against the wall to strike. It’s the thing that, in theory, we intend our every decision to get us closer to. And perhaps that’s where we have it wrong — treating fulfillment as a destination, versus a day-to-day state we experience through our actions.
When we think of the word “fulfillment,” we tend to immediately picture the abstract, idyllic versions of ourselves and lives that we’ve yet to realize. Inherently present in the matter of fulfillment is a reflexive tendency to believe that we don’t have it yet. What we’re missing in this fulfillment-as-a-destination mindset is that fulfillment, in its truest sense, is the active realization of our compulsions.
In an attempt to effectively convey what I mean by compulsion, I’ll share a bit of what that is for me. Starting my blog, The Philosophy of Everything, just over a year ago was a realization of my compulsion to communicate ideas that have the potential to alter and optimize perspectives, and thus, experiences. It was a necessary extension of the desire to express and sharpen. “…nothing, however outstanding and however helpful, will ever give me any pleasure if the knowledge is to be for my benefit alone,” Stoic philosopher Seneca says. I can’t think of a quote that more strongly epitomizes my intention with the blog. Every word written, draft drafted, and post published is a micro-experience of fulfillment, as each of these moments is a realization of my compulsion to share what matters.
And that is our goal — to fill our lives with as many life-giving compulsions as possible. This means we create. This means we commune. This means, quite simply, whatever it means for you.
What we extract from this positioning of fulfillment is simple: the day-to-day matters. At the worthy risk of oversimplifying, it could be said that most of our frustrations can be boiled down to, as Aurelius said, not making good use of what the moment brings. This is less about “living in the moment,” and more about consciously choosing what to do with that moment. It’s about being stingy with your energy because you’re palpably aware that it’s running out — and so too with your thoughts, leaving no room in your mind for things over which you have no control.
“As for what is not in my power, in that I take no interest.” -Epictetus
Let’s now identify what fulfillment is not. It’s not a tailor-made world in which our desires have each been realized and so perfectly intersected that every waking moment is pure, utter bliss. Fulfillment is not the perfect job, relationship, or family — it’s the ability to be present and thriving even when these things are nowhere in sight (or when they are in sight, but don’t seem to be enough within themselves).
We err when fulfillment rests on the “what if,” as within that thought is an admission that whatever follows those two words may or may not happen. When our peace is contingent on what may not happen, we’ve secured ourselves a permanent spot in the realm of dissatisfaction. I’ll be fulfilled when I get XYZ! I’ll be happy when I find my passion! The Stoics’ advice? Skip the contingencies for the I will be, and just be it. The fact of the matter is that we have no idea how fulfilling that thing, that person, or that experience, will actually be. The only reason we’re convinced we’ll be fulfilled by our fantasies is because we’re comparing them to how we feel right now, versus how we may eventually feel.
Daniel Gilbert depicts this concept flawlessly in his book Stumbling On Happiness when he discusses the concept of presentism. Presentism is when you form judgements on future events based on how you feel right now, not leaving room for the very possible reality that you might feel differently when the event happens. This experience is what leads us to wonder how we once felt so certain about something that we no longer enjoy.
Our brains do this funny thing where the moment something is unsatisfying, we immediately idealize the exact opposite, forgetting one of the most vital truths of the human experience: nothing is fully satisfying all the time — your tightest-held beliefs, the people you hold dearest, and your passion projects being no exception. We mess up, people disappoint, and projects fail.
But it doesn’t mean we’re not fulfilled.
We have to take the good that we chose with the bad that we didn’t, lest we pretend that the realization of our hopes and dreams won’t also have its downsides — its late nights, its sacrifices, its risks. And that’s what fulfillment is: such grounded confidence in your pursuit that even the challenges are meaningful. Writer Mark Manson puts it poignantly when, in considering our paths, he implores us to ask ourselves what pain we’re willing to endure. The athlete is willing to risk injuries. The entrepreneur, her social life. As it turns out, the “oasis” of fulfillment that we fantasize about in our heads isn’t as much of an oasis as it is the materialization of prioritizing what compels us, and accepting what comes with it. Because without the bad, how good can the good be?
“Excellence withers without an adversary.” -Seneca
Fulfillment isn’t the absence of frustration, but rather, the presence of a pursuit so compelling that the struggles aren’t just tolerated, but welcomed. When Seneca says that excellence withers without an adversary, he’s saying that without challenges, our best selves may never be realized. This is why a super-hero show without villains or some deep internal battle would be uninteresting; their foes allow them to become more of themselves. The unique setbacks assigned to us are what give us the opportunity to become better, and the presence of which need-not be mistaken for a lack of fulfillment. Turmoil isn’t so much an indicator of being on the wrong path as it is an indicator of you being a person — a living, breathing human being who is no more immune to the perils of life than anyone else.
“For you should regard as an enjoyment all that you are able to accomplish in accordance with your own nature; and everywhere that is within your reach.” -Marcus Aurelius
We also can’t minimize the importance of the small things — those little experiences that we’re tempted to write off as silly or unnecessary, but in actuality, bring us more joy than we might be willing to admit. I’m talking about going to the roller rink. Staying up too late gabbing with a friend. Watching the sunset. The thrill of starting that new thing that seems completely unrealistic.
Fulfillment is the sum of the daily experiences that comprise our lives. Fulfillment is the sum of how we spend our time, not how we imagine spending it. Imagining our futures (read: daydreaming) either A). lends us to more frustration with the discrepancy between our desires and our reality, or B). gives us the proper fuel or blueprint to get us there. Only engage this inasmuch as it results in B.
To be fulfilled, act in the ways that may fulfill you. Don’t imagine it — act it. Work out. Work toward your goals. Leave situations that aren’t right for you when you have the reasonable capabilities to do so. And if you don’t possess the resources necessary for such an exit, work to obtain them. Your entire being should be working to obtain them. Because if our entire being isn’t working toward what it is we want, what are we doing?
“Stick with your purpose. This alone will strengthen your will and give your life coherence.” -Epictetus
Now, let’s remain honest. None of this negates the fact that we do feel unfulfilled at times — lost and uncertain as to why we’re doing what we’re doing, etc. What I want to squash, however, is the notion that this feeling will ever permanently go away (at least not until, you know). As we’ve acknowledged, the initial luster of everything fades. But lucky for us informed citizens, we know fulfillment doesn’t rest on something that shallow. Rather, it’s being present, knowing yourself, and making decisions that help bring forth the best version of yourself that create the fulfilled life. Slave-turned-teacher Epictetus put it effectively in Discourses And Selected Writings with this encompassing truth:
“Your happiness depends on three things, all of which are within your power: your will, your ideas concerning the events in which you are involved, and the use you make of your ideas.”
When it comes to fulfillment, we must realize the following: we’re already in possession of what we’re looking for. It’s the pursuit of our ends that’s meant to be what fulfills us, as we don’t have the luxury of knowing whether we’ll reach those ends. If you don’t find your pursuit meaningful, your day-to-day process engaging, it’s unlikely that the actual achievement of that end goal will be meaningful and engaging. This is critical. It doesn’t mean that every day will be a wildly stimulating, wonder-filled adventure, but it does mean that every day, placed in context, can be appreciated and reframed because you know it’s part of it all. There is sweetness in the anticipation. We can choose to approach life’s “waiting” periods with blasé passivity, which breeds disengagement, or with a palpable awareness of the fact that these moments count too. The waiting counts. The anticipation counts. It’s all life and is worth experiencing just as zealously. You’re not waiting for or working toward your adventure. You’re living it right now, every day, and that matters.
“You must fashion your life one action at a time,” Marcus Aurelius says, “and if each attends its own end as far as it can, be satisfied with that.” Be satisfied in what you did yesterday, today, and in what you’ll do tomorrow. Pile up enough days of being satisfied with what and who you pursued, and you’ll inevitably find that the life you’re looking back on was a fulfilled one.
I’ve referenced this quote before, but it bears repeating. “Just as a well-filled day brings a blessed sleep, so a well-employed life brings a blessed death,” Leonardo Da Vinci said. May these words inform us daily.