Now, I use the term ‘higher power’ because I’m not necessarily talking about God or any kind of religious concept – for many people their higher power is spiritual, but for others it might well not be.
I’m talking about that ‘Thing’ or idea that you live your life by and aspire to. It’s what brings you sanity on the days when you just can’t quite think straight. It’s what helps you to determine the path of your life and the choices that you make. It could be a god; it could be the universe; it could be Society; it could be a philosophy; it could be a particular set of values or principles; it could be food and calories; it could be humankind; it could be drugs or alcohol; it could be sex and sexual validation.
The concept of having a higher power outside of religion occurred to me after I spoke to a lady who had just gotten out of an abusive relationship:
“I made him my higher power,” she told me, shaking her head. “My whole life revolved around him and how I could make him happy. If I ever had a decision to make, I would go by his opinion. If he told me I was rubbish, I believed him. If he told me I was beautiful, I believed him. I didn’t have God – I had my boyfriend.”
This got me a-thinking about what I my higher power is and also what it is for other people in my life.
What is my so-called higher power?
The first thing that immediately came to mind was so-called “professional success”.
How much money do you make? Do you live in London or do you live in some supposedly mediocre town? What’s your job description and how important is your title? What do the neighbours think? Are we keeping up with the Jones’s? How are you doing compared to x, y and z from back in the day?
I was brought up to work my arse off in education and do well. My teachers told me that ending up working in a supermarket or scrubbing toilets was the worst thing in the world. My friends’ parents openly and endlessly compared me to their children.
I made education and academic success my higher power. Whenever I lost my way or had a decision to make, education and being “successful” was the benchmark to look to.
The end result was a very miserable individual incapable of having fun and suffering daily with soul-crushing panic attacks. I was hyper-critical of both myself and everyone else around me, which didn’t make me a supportive or happy person to be around – I was physically incapable of celebrating other people’s successes, and very resentful. I didn’t want anyone to be more successful than me and I was hell-bent on proving every person that had ever called me “stupid” wrong.
What’s even crazier is that I don’t think that I fully realised that I had made all of this bullshit my higher power until I came home from travelling.
Is success and money the higher power for many of us?
You see, when you travel people aren’t particularly bothered about what job you have. The questions asked most frequently include: “Where are have you been?”, “Where are you from?” and “Where are you going?” People are more concerned with who you are as a person than how much money you have or how well educated you are.
Jobs on the road are viewed as simple necessities to fund your nomadic lifestyle – I’ve seen travellers celebrate a new waitressing job the way that graduates celebrate their first executive title.
Then I returned back to the UK.
All it’s been ever since is an endless stream of questions about what job I’m doing and whether or not I’m going to use my degree, as though it’s my most defining feature. Seriously. People who have known me my whole life think that my career is the most important thing about me; that it’s the biggest indicator of how much respect to offer me.
Comparison is the thief of joy
A few days ago my parents went to Tesco bumped into the mum of an old childhood friend of my brother’s. Without pausing for breath, this mum launched into an explanation of how “successful” each of her children was – she emphasized how one of them was now living in London, she assured my parents that the “one who isn’t academic” is now doing very well for himself and has proved all of the critics wrong, and she crowed about how one of her daughters now owns a house.
My parents didn’t say anything about what my brother and I were doing – they simply assured the lady that we had grown up to be decent human beings.
I mean, they did understand why this lady was proud of her children – my parents celebrate mine and my brother’s successes – but they couldn’t shake the feeling that her real goal was to compare and play the “whose children are better than whose?” game.
What we perceive as our higher power is how we perceive happiness
Looking at the concept of higher power in this way, it’s easy to understand why unhappy people often believe that they will find happiness only once they get that job, or that romantic relationship, or have those children.
I used to tell myself that I would be happy once I got A’s at A-levels (I got the grades but no happiness); once I got a first class degree (again, I achieved by dream but happiness was nowhere to be found); and once I got a great graduate job (nope, no happiness in sight!)
I will add that there’s nothing wrong with wanting a good job or nice possessions. However, what I am learning is that perhaps those things are by-products or extras of an otherwise joyful life filled with integrity, family and friendship. Basically, the values that govern my life have to be bigger and brighter than the road to material success, because otherwise I will be governed by madness (everyone knows the old cliché that money and success don’t buy you happiness, so it is madness to have it as a higher power.)
What is your higher power?
Now, I’m not saying that I didn’t have other values or philosophies going on in my life before I went travelling: I had some awesome political philosophies that I rationally lived by and strongly believed in, and in my childhood I did believe in the Christian God (though I don’t follow any religion as an adult.)
However, in my heart that wasn’t the power that I turned to, and I consequently didn’t practice what I preached. Academic and professional success was what constituted my higher power – they were what I unconsciously turned to every time I made each decision in my life – and it drove me insane. Well, actually, it drove me to the point where I had to travel thousands of miles around the world to find a new power to govern my life:
“What do you live your life by? What do you value most in the world? What do you put your faith in? What principles do you actively live by and practice daily? What or who do you talk to when you need advice and guidance?”
Many of us talk about our beliefs and principles in wonderful eloquent ways, but we don’t always manage to live by them. When we start answering the above questions more honestly, the reality of how well we are practicing what we are preaching isn’t always how we imagined.