Life: What it is and what it ain’t

“You can’t handle the truth!” Regardless of whether you have seen the movie or not this now famous quote, uttered by Jack Nicholson’s character in “A Few Good Men,” has permanently imprinted itself on to the landscape of pop culture. Truth, like life, can be a funny thing, an elusive and subjective matter that varies from one person to the next. What is true for you may not be true for me and vice versa. Inevitably though, the truth sets itself free.

There is a quote from the Buddha pertaining to truth which, ironically, he never actually said. How is that for irony?  Although, it does at least have its origins in a genuine Buddha quote. It goes as follows, “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”

I yin and yang picture of the Buddha

In my upcoming book, TenZen, I address the elusive concept of truth. From the outset, I make it clear to the reader that the ideas I am putting forth are based on empirical truth or contingent truth rather than universal truth. In short, the truth each of us derives from observing our surroundings and analyzing our own experiences. They say that a wise man learns from his own mistakes while a sage learns from everyone else’s. Like the majority of us, you can chock me up under the wise man column. If indeed we do learn from our mistakes I suppose I should be thankful that I have made so many. Who would have guessed that you could become smart by being stupid?


My daughter turned thirty the other day. My middle son, well he is soon to reach 25. Society considers both of those ages to be milestones of a sort. Funny thing, life marches on, but it doesn’t bother me. I see it all as one big continuum from here to there to who knows where. For many though, these ages represent markers on the road of life. A time to look back and reflect on one’s successes and failures. As I approach the milestone marker of 60, I thought it prudent that I share with you some of my observational truths about life. Take these truths or not, life’s journey will happen, and you will travel. In this regard, you have no choice. The only question is, will you traverse as a wise person or as the elusive sage?

A picture of school supplies on a desk.


What it is:

  • the initial foray beyond our local tribe, shaping our character, building our confidence and increasing our sense of self
  • platform for the early and midterm development of interpersonal skills, i.e., social interaction and engagement,  conflict resolution, personality development
  • the self-revelation that you can’t fight worth a damn and that bologna sandwiches and cheese strings aren’t the culinary delights your mom would have you believe

School is also one of the primary building blocks of our life’s foundation. It is here that we first learn the fundamental but critical skills, such as linguistics and mathematics, that will hitherto serve us throughout our lives.

A picture of a student with a backpack.

What it ain’t:

  • the place to learn practical knowledge, ie, buying a mortgage, applying for loans and purchasing varies types of insurance, investing and money management, time management skills
  • a direct route to a chosen career path
  • a good investment of time and money

While it’s great to know where New Guinea is located on a map what would be better still is knowing which type of mortgage best suits you and your situation.  The first is purely anecdotal, unless, of course, you plan on going to New Guinea.  The latter can save you tens of thousands of dollars over the span of a couple of decades.

Two students graduating.

Long gone are the days where a diploma got your foot in the door of your chosen vocation. We live in a time where the job landscape is evolving faster than school curriculums. You may secure that 3-year degree in computer coding, but half of what you learned will be obsolete by the time you walk across that stage on your way to the drunk fest that night.

Major business icons are already predicting that a full half of jobs will be online based within the next 20 years. No one is going to care about that Human Resources Diploma you worked so very hard to get. They’ll be too busy working from their homes or some other exotic location, managing their own resources.

Person working at a desk.

As far as an investment, well, that’s working out well for the banks and collection agencies. It would be for governments as well if they weren’t so inept at managing the money that they lend out.

Graduates are the ones left holding the bag with next to useless degrees and diplomas, crippling debt and the prospect of acquiring, at best, entry-level service industry jobs paying minimum wage. All that potential, creativity and inventive knowledge wasted, strangled and stifled as struggling graduates stress daily over how to make their bills. It’s hard to excel or be innovative when you are constantly worrying about how you are going to pay rent each month.

a person working and typing on a laptop


What it is:

  • a means to an end
  • self-actualization

A recent Pew Research found that a full 30% of respondents viewed their jobs as, “just a job to get them by.” Not exactly a resounding endorsement. Even though half of those polled indicated that they were generally satisfied with their jobs that still leaves the other half.

Partial blame for this current state is the persisting paradigm of which many still blindly follow. You know it well. First, go to school and then get a good job. Get a foothold and then meet a lovely significant other and get married. Next, have and raise children of your own. When ready, enroll those children in school, retire and die. Sound eerily familiar? It should because the vast majority still believe in it.

A picture of a coffee, notepad and laptop computer.

Too much pressure is being applied to high school students to make snap decisions that carry serious implications that will affect them for the rest of their lives. Many alternative routes could be and should be considered, including internships, volunteering, hands-on training as well as online education. With the quick rise of online learning resources such as Udemy and Khan Academy, it’s the perfect opportunity to try out a few topics before delving deeper into your pocket.

Volunteering can provide a practical overview of a variety of careers young students may be considering. If someone thinks they would enjoy firefighting, then they should be encouraged to volunteer at the local fire department. If you feel that fashion might interest you, then there are volunteer positions at shows such as the Toronto Men’s Fashion Week. Consider volunteering at an animal shelter or farm before you invest time and money in a veterinary program. These are all low-cost and time-saving methods that allow one to gain a clearer picture of the direction he or she would like to take.

A man singing a life insurance policy.

What it ain’t:

  • stress-free
  • a swingers club

Paychex, a sizeable American Outsourcing company, recently released the results of their study on stress in the American workplace and the statistics aren’t encouraging. Participants rated the work stress levels on a 1 to 5 scale. A full seventy percent measured their stress levels at work to be a 3 or higher. Of that number, one third claimed they were at a 4 or 5. Exacerbating this adverse health-related problem, sixty percent of respondents noted that they experience these high levels of stress at least 3 or more work days each week. I don’t have to tell anyone reading the role stress plays in our overall health.

Suffice to say, whether it be an increased chance of heart disease, depression or diabetes, such high levels of workplace stress is a known factor in accelerated aging and premature death. In the aforementioned book, TenZen, I outline five easy to learn waking meditations that can provide relief from stress in addition to a sense of well-being.

Sex in the workplace; It’s exciting, it’s adventurous, it’s forbidden and dangerous but, unless it’s with your partner, it’s rarely a good idea. Have I done it? Well, I’ll take the fifth on that one. For years I have preached to my kids the adage, “High Risk, High Reward.” It’s a bit of a sliding scale. If you are going to attempt any high-risk activity, you better make sure that the reward is correspondingly high as well. I’m not preaching(well maybe a little) but I know a few people who managed to get themselves fired for having sex at work with a coworker. So you gotta ask yourself, “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?”

A Happily ever after sign


What it is:

  • Companionship
  • Life Teacher

Marriage is good for your health, well, half of the time anyway. As for the other half, not so much. It more or less breaks down this way. Those who live the longest either marry and stay married or are single and stay single. Not surprisingly, it’s the people who get divorced who encounter shorter life spans. Given all the anguish and stress of a messy divorce, it’s easy to see why. The mental and emotional stress of a breakup can take a toll on one’s physical health so judge accordingly. So while varying studies are claiming this and that about the statistical health of married person versus that of a single individual I can speak to my thoughts on companionship.

In this regard, marriage can be, if one is open to it, an excellent tool for self-evaluation and personal awareness. At the early onset of marriage, we can all be somewhat forgiven for initially seeing situations entirely from our point of view. Up until then, our entire worldview consisted entirely from our own limited perceptive. We may have dated or even lived together, but there is a certain degree of finality that hits our psyche shortly after the ink dries of that marriage certificate.

A wedding picture showing the wedding ringsWhether it’s lessons in humility, compassion, apathy or self-control, marriage is a fantastic life guide and mentor. I have discovered, with time, that it isn’t so much about finding the right partner as it is about being the right partner. What one is not aware of in the early formative years of marriage is just how much you come to appreciate it in the latter years. Apparently, not all people concur as divorce can and still does occur to some in their senior years. That said, those I know who have “stuck it out” agree that there is something very positive to be said about planning a future with someone in the later stages of one’s life. We are social beings as we move closer to the inevitable, it’s comforting to know that someone is going to be there with us as we move into the final stages of life.

A wedding picture showing the bride and groom. starting a new life.

What it ain’t:

  • Easy
  • Hollywood

Anything worthwhile in life isn’t easy. We all know this by now, and if you don’t, you’re going to find out soon enough. Marriage is work, period. Not just work concerning one another as a symbiotic unit but it also dramatically involves personal work. There is most likely no more celebrated teacher than marriage when it comes to self-awareness. I can think of no more exceptional teacher of the Yin and Yang principle than matrimony. You will run the gamut of emotions from joy to anger, happiness to sadness, comfort to frustration and every other emotion you can think of.

All in all, though, that is a good thing. As it is said in Zen, “Sit still, and you will reveal yourself to yourself.” Well, there may not be much in the way of sitting still but I can guarantee that marriage will reveal you to you. How you react to the various situation given different circumstance will tell the tale of just who and what you are.

a couple cycling together as the sunsetsMost of us enjoy a good romantic comedy. They are lovely feel-good stories where star-struck lovers overcome obstacles and adversities, finally ending up in each other’s arms. In reality, marriage is anything like Hollywood. It requires that both partners be completely honest with not just each other but also themselves. The butterflies, head over heels feelings your share for one another as you are cutting the wedding cake will most assuredly wane.

As mammals, we are swimming upstream in this regard. Of the more than 5,000 species of mammals only 3 to 5 percent are monogamous and we, like humans, carry the biological imprint of polygamy. It is important to realize going in from the start that there will be times where you doubt your love for the other person. It’s a two-way street. Sometimes you may feel in love but your spouse may not while at other times the roles will be reversed.

A picture of a watch and wedding rings.

Be aware of the fact that this is quite normal and every couple will and does go through it. For many married couples, it is merely a matter of reenergizing their feelings through newness. Afterall, who knew that she liked Pina Coladas, and getting caught in the rain?

Let’s face it, we all tend to paint ourselves in a good light when it comes to any relationship. Some refuse to accept their fair share of responsibility when a marriage breaks down while other couples split more amicably. It is said that another’s karma is based on what they do to you while your karma is based on how you react. As aforementioned, marriage can be an excellent master. What you choose to learn as a result is entirely up to you.

A newborn baby in a basket. A new life begins.


What it is:

  • a lifelong commitment physically, financially and emotionally

In the movie, Eat Pray Love the main character Elizabeth finds herself grasping for meaning and direction after the breakdown of her marriage. The notion of having children being a solution to finding love comes into play at this point. It is at this point that her best friend, Viola, shares some sage advice. “Having children is like getting a tattoo on your face, you want to be totally committed.”

Any parent possesses a complete knowledge of what it is Viola is saying. Having children is a lifelong commitment. It’s not just your time that you are committing although that is a big part. It is also a huge financial responsibility that goes well beyond the 20 or so years that we assume before having children.

In the period leading up to having children, we like to perform this inaccurate yet straightforward equation in our minds. “Let me see; if I have my children by the time I am 30, then I will be free and clear by the time I am 50.” Don’t kid yourself. It’s just beginning a new at 50 with obligations of college and universities, weddings, financial assistance for purchasing homes and finally grandchildren where the whole darn process comes full circle and begin anew.

Three young children on a swing

What it ain’t:

  • stress-free and always fun

To a veteran parent, such as myself, it always brings a smile to my face when I hear rookie moms and dads talking about the “terrible twos” Believe me, compared to the teen yours and ever early twenties, the terrible twos is a walk in the park.

When discussing the raising of children with young parents, I explain that it consists of three distinct phases.

Young kids playing football

The Physical Stage.

This inaugural stage begins on the day of your child’s birth and lasts until they are approximately 12 years. We have seen the harried parent loading up their cars with car seats, diaper bags, strollers and other odds and sods. One needs almost to be an octopus to carry everything needed for even the simplest of tasks like buying groceries.

As they grow into young children of school age, the physicality continues as we the parent feel compelled to enroll our children in every activity humanly possible. Don’t think for a moment that you are allowed to forego these activities yourself as volunteering is a necessary component of each group. From coaching to costume designer to the taxi driver to a fundraiser, it all involves physical exertion. Tougher yet, all of these character building activities must be scheduled before and after your regular workday. Forget the gym; your life becomes workout enough.

a young man crying colored tears

The Emotional Stage

For many children, the most challenging emotional stage commences upon first entering high school. Whereas many kids befriended the same classmates from grade one on through to grade 8, high school is the first time in many a year that most of these youngsters are exposed to a myriad of new peers. Many of them find this transitionary stage to be the most difficult of their early lives.

This subject matter is too broad to touch on in any great detail here but suffice to say this influx and intermixing of new personalities causes many adverse issues for young adolescents. Inevitably there will be the alpha males of the group who begin to assert dominance over the lesser of the herd. Cliques and groups with like affinities begin to form quickly as young teens and preteens attempt to find their place in this microcosm of society. Without fail, some do not make the grade and are singled out and isolated.

a young man feeling lonely about lifeThis sense of feeling isolated and alone is compounded further when these same kids begin to sexually mature. I don’t have to point out to the reader the many issues we are now seeing with rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. There are other contributing factors as well as proposed solutions to these pressing if not deadly societal issues. I don’t claim to have the answers, but awareness of the problem is critical.

The scariest moments of my life were not due to any perceived threat to my own well-being but resulted instead from an outright fear of what my children might do to themselves. Be forewarned here and now that even though you may feel that the lines of communication are open and you have been a loving and supportive parent, there will be times that your children will not be completely forthright.

a young girl feeling depressed about life

My son was bullied when he was younger, yet he did not make us aware at the time. Years later, I enquired of him why he didn’t tell us at the time, and he explained that if we knew and said anything to the school, it would have made things worse. This bullying caused him to move forward in a less than desirable direction which, in the end, caused him even more anguish and pain. My advice to any parent is to pay closer attention to your children and not assume for even a moment that you or your child has things entirely under control.

Life-a young man driving a car

The Information Stage

As children finally reach the early stages of adulthood, they begin to spread their wings for the first time just to see exactly if and how far they can fly. It is at this point that they start to “adult” as the hipsters say. Desiring to leave the confines of mom and dads home or having recently graduated from college, they move along into steadier employment. Following the lead of friends and peers, they soon look to strike out and rent a place of their own. Once gone from under their parents’ roof the need for transport becomes a more pressing necessity.

Each of these new steps involves specific methodologies that must first be learned and who better to teach them their parents. All these new bridges to cross and roads to travel. How do I buy a car? What do I need to know about insurance? How do mortgages and lines of credit work? These are all endeavors that first-timers must learn, and information is what they seek.

Life-A picture of a house.As their lives wind up and yours winds down, it is the least stressful of all stages. That isn’t to say that problems won’t still arise but by now you yourself have gained enough insight into life to provide some wise, perhaps even sage, advice.

All in all, it’s an exciting journey that snakes along over hills and through deep valleys. Is it for everyone? I don’t believe so. I have given thought to just how my life would be if I had never married or had children. Would I feel as content and fulfilled. I have a sense that I would. That’s not to say that I regret any parts of my life, but in truth, I would have just done something else with it.

It’s life itself that I appreciate most. Sometimes within quiet moments, I will give thought to the fact that I exist. It is powerful and profoundly moving thought. I am here, at this very moment. I could as easily be nonexistent if it were not for reasons well beyond my comprehension. So bring on sixty life. I still have a lot of mistakes left to make.

Life-a couple walking into a sunset

Further reading:


20 thoughts on “Life: What it is and what it ain’t

  1. Wow! So insightful and inspirational. This is the kind of wisdom that I wish I had more of in my life. It’s like a premium life-guide. Definitely worth sharing.

  2. A really interesting read. So insightful, many of those moments and stages I hadn’t pondered on for a while. Its certainly lying made me thing about how I’m parenting. I’ll be thinking about things differently going forward.

  3. It would be so nice if school DID teach practical things! I’d love to have learned real life skills in school.

    1. tenzendude says:

      Indeed. I see a day when brick and mortar schools will become obsolete. With the advent of sites like Udemy and Khan Academy, not to mention innumerable more, the times they are a changing.

  4. I believe in the benefits of getting an education. A college diploma puts you at an edge over other people vying for the same position. However, when I landed my first job, I realized that most of the things taught in school were not applicable to the real world. I was given skills in school, but sadly, I was not taught how to use those skills. Experience is the best teacher, really.

  5. Wow! What a thought provoking post! Thank you so much for sharing your life perspective, and I think you are spot on. What really resonated with me was the part about school. I’m a teacher for elementary kids, and kids that have experienced significant trauma. My goal is to not only teach them basic math and reading, but also problem-solving and emotional regulation. I agree that in the upper grades the focus is put too much on knowledge that most will never use in the real world, and not enough on real world concepts.

  6. This is such a powerful post… and laid out many #truths that only come with experiencing life. 🙂 I needed to read this 20 years ago.. but if I did then, probably most of it wouldn’t stick. Unfortunately we need to live life to truly learn.. And that comes in it’s own time.. Thank you for putting this down in a post. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    1. tenzendude says:

      Thank you for the kind comments.

  7. Wow, you are dropping truth bombs in here! haha. I love your section on marriage . . . it isn’t always easy but the companionship and support is more than worth the tougher times.

    1. tenzendude says:

      It is worth hanging in for. You don’t realize early in life how nice it is to be able to plan a future with someone in your later years. Thank you for your kind comment.

  8. Congrats on your upcoming book. It sounds like a great read. I just reached a big milestone last month and the age really has me feeling down. I like when you said “you have no choice”. Good point!

    1. tenzendude says:

      Thank you for your kind words. Yes it is true. The next ten years will come and pass with us either having accomplished our goals or not, so we might as well.

  9. Love this powerful and truthful post. I do worry that schools do not teach us and our children practicalities of life.

    1. tenzendude says:

      Schools have become a business. With the explosive growth of online learning sites and ecourses I see a day when brick and mortar schools will become obsolete.

  10. I love reading articles like this. Listening about life from a perspective of a person more experienced than me. I especially love the part about marriage. How it may not be easy, but it is absolutely worth the effort. I trully enjoyed reading your post.

    1. tenzendude says:

      It is more than worth the effort. I myself never realized how precious a thing it would become. The truth is, you can have all the money, all the fame and all the riches but without someone there to share it with, you don’t have anything.

  11. vincent388 says:

    You live and you learn, right? Haha. Thank you for your thoughts on life. It sounds like you went through a lot in life. However, I am only in my early 20s and reading this made me know about practical marriage than watching The Notebook.

    1. tenzendude says:

      No, marriage isn’t Hollywood. lol It has it’s peaks and valleys. Somedays you feel in love, others, not so much. Know that your spouse is going through the same thing. Sometimes you are in love and they aren’t feeling it other times it’s reversed. It’s natural, you’re only human. But, if you stick it out long term I guarantee you that in the end you get this place where you are both really chill with one another. By then, you aren’t just partners, you are best friends and there aint nothin better than that. Believe me.

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