Whose Life Is It Anyway?

As a fan of Jim Carrey, one of my all-time favorite movies is The Truman Show. The hero, Truman, lives inside a Utopian bubble carefully constructed just for him by a savvy media company. Unbeknownst to Truman, hidden cameras broadcast his every move live on television 24/7 to an audience of millions. While outwardly, he appears happy-go-lucky, inwardly a subtle desperation begins to take hold, as he gradually realizes that the life he thought was his, is in fact a monstrous hoax perpetrated upon him.

On one level, the film is a biting satire of our voyeuristic media-saturated culture. But a more careful examination reveals deep layers of subtext dealing with issues of self-determination and free will. Having finally discovered the true nature of his existence, Truman is faced with a choice: does he choose the false – albeit very comfortable – existence that has been given him, or does he exercise his free-will in choosing a life that is uniquely his own, with all of the attendant uncertainty and risk that real living entails? Happily, he chooses the latter, and in so doing he becomes a “true man.”

It’s a choice that all of us – sooner or later – must contend with if we are to become truly independent people. While the choice may seem obvious (“Who would want to live like that?!”), it’s startling just how difficult this can be. I know of a man in his mid 50s who was recently weighing a job opportunity in London. Ultimately, he turned down what was a very lucrative offer when his 90-year-old mother deemed the firm less “prestigious” than the one he was currently with! You may laugh, but it’s more common than you think.

Julie, an attractive investment banker, recently confided in me that she would really like to meet someone. She keeps herself immaculately, owns a beautiful apartment in Manhattan, and what does she do every weekend? She goes home to visit her parents on Long Island. Now, while it’s nice that she feels welcome and loved in the bosom of her family, she must also know that this is totally incongruous with her stated goal of meeting someone and having a life of her own. For that, she needs – like Truman – to get outside of her comfort bubble.

I have another friend, Paul, who slogged his way miserably through 3 years of medical school without the faintest interest in medicine. Why? His father was a well-respected physician, and as his only son, Paul felt duty-bound to carry on his father’s great legacy. When he became so physically ill that he was unable to continue his studies, he finally confessed to his father his true desire to teach high school English. His father’s reaction: “Wonderful! Why didn’t you say something before?”

The “disease to please” is a common one, and nobody is immune. It is the daughter who marries within the faith, though she loves another; the employee who remains stuck in his lowly rank when he knows he is capable of more; the recent grad who applies to business school when she wants to be an artist. It is showing up to an event out of guilt, and then resenting the subtle manipulations that got us there, in which we ourselves are complicit.

But aren’t we supposed to care for the people we love? Yes, but our primary responsibility must be for our own happiness. Just as the airlines recommend putting on your own oxygen mask first in case of emergency, so too must you attend to your own needs if you are to be of any use to others. Enlightened self-interest is not selfishness – rather, it is at the very heart of all healthy adult human behavior. As long as you live, you will NEVER EVER please everyone all the time.

I’m not dismissing the very real pressures that many people feel – from parents, peers, society. I watch after my own mother in N.J. when at times, I’d prefer to be elsewhere. It’s difficult to live a life in keeping with your own highest ideals. The voices of opposition can be loud and obnoxious. But there’s another voice – maybe not as loud, but altogether more truthful. It’s the voice of your own true nature. Signs that you may be ignoring your essential voice may include: boredom, irritability, interrupted sleep or eating habits, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, reckless behavior which imperils those close to you, extramarital affairs and so on. You may feel you are doing everything right, and yet something feels wrong. This is often the painful place that people are in when they come to me for coaching.

While I don’t profess to have all the answers, I am very good at asking questions. Here are some that I frequently ask:

1. Where are you stuck in your life and in what way has this “stuckness” cost you dearly?

2. Where are you resistant to change? How has this limited the choices for your life?

3. What is your greatest fear and what is the hard wiring that supports this? Can it be revised?

4. Where are you avoiding necessary conflict in your life, and therefore at war with yourself?

5. Where are you still seeking others’ approval? Why are you allowing them to write the script for your life?

In the end, it all comes down to individual choice. Is the life you are living truly yours, or an expression of someone else’s dream? In the movie Out of Africa, pioneer Karen Blixen confesses: “My biggest fear was that I would come to the end of my life and realize that I had lived someone else’s dream.”

Only you – like Truman – have the power to choose.