Alternatives to leading a double life

A great writer, perhaps Thoreau, once said that many people were ‘living lives of quiet desperation’. If only it were that simple! His familiar saying implies that some people, perhaps a lot of them, are unhappy with the way their lives are now and want to change things for the better. I think it’s worse than that. While they may look in the mirror and don’t like what they see; while they may get up in the morning and don’t like the work they have to go to; while they see rich and successful people on their TV, in their newspapers, and in magazines; they don’t just feel unhappy and unfulfilled. They also console themselves with daydreams about how they could be there too, out there, where they want to be.

What’s wrong with that? Only one thing. It means you’re leading a ‘double life’. Just as ‘mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent’ was the alter ego of Superman, so there are plenty of other ‘secret identities’, in every office, every factory, every workplace. While they may seem harmless enough, and are going about their daily lives in a humdrum way, you might just catch them once in a while, staring out of the window and dreaming of how things could be, given – well, whatever you think is going to save you, a win on the Lottery perhaps, or just ‘being ‘discovered’ by that talent scout, the photographer, that agent, whatever. Eric Berne, the man who invented ‘Games People Play’ back in the ’60s, called it ‘Waiting for Santa Claus’, and you can see what he means. There you are, where you don’t want to be, hoping against hope that one day you’ll be ‘rescued’ and off you go, to a new and better life.

The main problem, of course, is that all this fantasising takes up a lot of energy. It means you don’t have a lot left for the roles you need to be playing – breadwinner, spouse, parent. When you should be here, doing those things, you’re actually off in your head, somewhere else entirely, maybe the future, or some idealised present, where everything is not as it is, but is as you feel it should be for you. There’s only one answer to this dilemma, and it isn’t pleasant. It’s to make a choice. Some times – rarely – people do just that, and we sometimes hear about the accountant who runs off to the South Seas to become a painter, or the loyal husband who disappears one day and turns up years later as a beach bum and surfer. It happens. For the majority, it doesn’t. And why should it? Most people aren’t very good at making decisions, and it’s bound to be worse, far worse, if they are life-changing decisions. No, that’s the whole reason the dilemma is created in the first place. Rather than solve the problem, square the circle, cut the knot, most people are happier putting up with the inconvenience of not being a ‘star’. They live an ordinary life and console themselves with dreams of stardom. For most of us, that compromise is all we are capable of. It means that we are, in a very real sense, TWO people, but that’s a small price to pay for not ‘rocking the boat’, ‘causing a fuss’, or making problems for those around us.

In fact, I’d say we mostly like the fact that we can adapt ourselves to lead these double lives, even if it means filling our days with contradictions. Take the case of a co-worker I once knew who was so ‘conscientious’ that she would drag herself into work even when she was feeling really ill. That’s admirable, except for the colds and flu she spread around to all her fellow workers, causing them time off work. If she had been as caring as she pretended, she would have thought of them, put them first, and stayed away herself. No, far better for her, she thought, to prove how ‘loyal’ she was to the company by being there, even if it put everyone else into their sick beds.

She had another trait, and this was a really strange thing. The woman was so bound up with her fast-paced, stressful job that she kept saying that she ‘deserved’ expensive holidays. More than that, she used to save up all her overtime and time owing (that she got for working late and doing unpaid overtime), then she would book three, maybe four weeks, in a far-off exotic location like Goa or Ghana. How could she do that? How did she imagine that people would manage without her while she was abroad for so long? In fact, it didn’t occur to her that it was a problem. She had one set of rules for illness and another set covered holidays. One break from work was allowed (for holidays), one wasn’t (for being ill). Talking to her, it was like talking to two people with two sets of priorities. Later, I came to see that such contradictions aren’t uncommon.

Basically, because facing the problem, tackling it, even moving on and resolving it, probably takes more energy than just letting it ride. More than that, we get used to the idea of having opposing views and values in every part of our lives. How many people really value their health but can’t give up smoking? How many run to the gym for much needed exercise, then reward themselves with chocolates and candies, thus forcing themselves back for another bout of exercise? And don’t even mention politics! The answer, in every case, is firstly to admit what is there. Don’t pretend there isn’t a dilemma. Own up and own it. Secondly, think through the consequences. If you want to be an actor could you accept the disappointment of losing auditions? If you want to be a rock star could you face the months away from home on tour? If you’re aiming to be a sports hero could you manage the practice? Third, make a decision. If you truly, deeply want whatever it is your heart craves, then there’s only one thing for it. You’re going to have to start making changes. If you can’t accept that, then things really aren’t going to improve that much, and you’re either going to have to accept the mundane way of things, or else accept that your dreams are simply that – daydreams.

On the other hand, all great people started with dreams. They all spent time where you are now, thinking about a better future. So what makes them different? It could be lots of things, but one thing is certain. At some point, on some day, at a particular minute, they made a decision to put things into motion, and make their plans into a new reality for them. Dare you follow their lead? All you have to do is ditch the ‘secret identity’, put on the cape and tights, and – fly.