Surely there can be few things more tragic and terrifying than being on one’s deathbed and realizing: “What if my whole life has been wrong?”
Dr Dyer told the story of Ivan Ilyich, who was novelist Leo Tolstoy’s character in his story called The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ilyich was a leading high-court judge in 19th-century Russia who was seen as a hugely successful person in his society’s eyes.
But when he was struck down with a terminal illness, he increasingly developed deep bitterness towards everybody he met. One major reason for this was he could clearly now see the shallowness of those who he thought cared about him.
That included his wife who he realized only really loved his money and status; his colleagues who were more excited than sad because they knew one of them would get promoted to fill his position; and even his doctors who only viewed him as a challenge, a sick high-profile person who they could use to show how good they were at keeping him alive for longer than anyone expected.
By the time he became surrounded by these people, close to taking his last breath on his deathbed, Ilyich knew the answer to his question: “What if my whole life has been wrong?” He made that stark and terrible realization – yet with no opportunity whatsoever to do anything about it.
He had never been true to his real self, and so he had never known who he really was – and neither had the world. He had climbed the ladder of success, but finally realized it was always up against the wrong building.
He had died with his music still inside him.
Being true to ourselves
Most of us can relate to why a life can be lived like this. From our first memories we are asked what we are going to be when we grow up.
As children if we answer with something that really excites and inspires us we are often looked at quizzically while a wry smile forms on the onlooker. That could be our parents, or other caregivers including teachers or it could be a career advisor when we reach our teens.
We are steered towards other occupations and ways of living. Safer options than, say, being a musician or traveling the world in an RV.
But so often this means not being true to ourselves. Because the pressure of both family and cultural expectations is relentless and intense.
Frequently it’s merely because it’s what has been in the “family blueprint” for generations, such as: “In our family we are always physicians or lawyers.” The pressure and moral obligation is strongly put on every young person in such a family.
They actually feel pangs of painful guilt should they even think about breaking the family’s moral career code. There seems no escape.
Unlived lives of parents
Sometimes it can be too that it’s one or both of the parents attempting to live their unfulfilled lives through their children or seeking external validation as they try to fill up their own emptiness through one of their children.
This child can be the one known as The Golden Child in the dysfunctional family roles. But as esteemed psychiatrist Carl Jung put it: “The greatest tragedy of the family is the unlived lives of the parents.”
Not being able to fulfill our potential and be who we truly are is one factor behind many mental health issues, ranging from anxiety and depression to various addictions. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote about this in his bestselling self-help book Man’s Search For Meaning when he said that people need to find their true meaning in order to find happiness.
If we deny ourselves that – due to family and cultural pressures – no matter our external successes, we will feel internally desolate. This can not only lead to anxiety, stress and depression but be contributory in some physical illnesses related to our emotional and mental health.
Finding your true self
Until you leave your family and your culture behind you’ll never find out who you are. So you’ll never find your true self.
This is because there is a pressure and an inflexible expectation of who and how you should be, of what you should do and achieve. It’s programming, it’s belief – “Because my father and grandfather did” is often the reasoning.
Then there are celebrity stories in the media and people see a certain celebrity’s impressive mansion and their amazing car and they think that’s what society is telling me I need in order to be happy and to be someone.
This is much easier to ignore if we have a strong sense of self. But it’s this sense of self that is so often forced out of someone when they have little choice as a child.
This is where gut instinct comes in. Many people are living a life that sits uncomfortably, when their insides don’t match their outside.
Some experts such as psychiatrist M Scott Peck, author of bestselling recovery book The Road Less Traveled, felt that the pain of mental health problems could be seen as our true spirit trying to get our attention to come back to it when we have gone too far away.
Jung wrote on this in his Red Book: “My soul, where are you? Do you hear me? I speak, I call you – are you there? I have returned, I am here again. I have shaken the dust of all the lands from my feet, and I have come to you, I am with you. After long years of long wandering, I have come to you again. … Give me your hand, my almost forgotten soul. How warm the joy at seeing you again, you long disavowed soul.”
It is something that deep down, if we are all honest with ourselves, we know. It’s one reason we admire those people who have stayed true to their real self, such as many musicians, actors and authors, but equally that person we can sense is so happy because it’s clear they’re doing what they really love. They have gone with their heart, followed their bliss.
However, it does take great courage and a real sense of duty to break free from cultural and family expectations. But it is possible, especially under the guidance of someone with expertise in these matters.
It doesn’t mean that you love or care any less for your family or your nation. But it does usually mean you will find that you love your life more and care for yourself better.
That means everyone around you will truly benefit too. They might even love the music that would otherwise have remained trapped inside you when they hear it.