It is difficult to have an interest in personal development without being exposed to multiple truisms, often accompanied by beautiful photos. Books, magazines and, particularly, social media platforms are full of these compact (but slightly obvious) statements. I may even be guilty of posting one or two myself (ahem). They are designed to engage us, motivate us and set us on a path to enlightenment. At their best they make us think, reflect and make changes in our daily lives. At their worst they lull us into a self-satisfied belief that, just by reading them we become more enlightened, by sharing them we make the world a better place.
One such truism, which crops up repeatedly in my newsfeed and Pinterest stream is “Life is a Journey not a Destination.”
Essentially it is telling us to be present in the moment, that happiness lies in the here and now and not in some distant future and there is much of value in such a philosophy. But it is not the full story.
People have a tendency to live in the past either because they were happier there or because the past holds the source of their current unhappiness. It is not particularly helpful to remain stuck in your memories as it is very difficult to move forward if you are constantly looking behind you.
However, it is also unhelpful to move forward without reflecting at all. The secret to who we are now lies in the past, along with the lessons that we need to learn from our personal history. Happiness and well-being require us to look back and learn from our experiences and, in some cases, to forgive ourselves and to forgive others for past trangressions.
The past has a value today and some elements of it should be packed and labelled as “needed on journey”.
It is not helpful to focus on the future if it stops you from appreciating today. A life can be wasted whilst you wait for that “rainy day” on which you have pinned all your expectations of future happiness. There is no point in focussing on your future destination if the journey makes you miserable.
But the future matters. It may be more helpful to think of “a” destination rather than “the” destination but it matters.
When people are stuck in their present and filled with despair, it is only the hope of a better future that motivates them to continue, it is the setting of a future goal that allows them to plan an exit strategy. It is only when they can see the promise of better times ahead that the despair can be lifted enough for the present to be a happier place. Without the ability to see beyond this moment you can expect to remain stuck in an unfulfilling and unhappy life.
Even if your present is not unhappy, a sense of achievement is essential to well-being. Some good things are worth working for but those good things necessarily lie in the future.
Of course, the meaning of “Life is a Journey not a Destination” lies in the challenge to make every moment count. This is great advice. Be present with your friends and family. Engage fully with your children. Focus on that great book, film, run, music etc. Work hard and play hard.
But take time to reflect and to plan as well. A life lived entirely in the moment has the potential to be a stunted life, a life without growth. The present is not an isolated island free from distraction and interruption but a bridge between what has been and what is yet to come.
As you cross your own particular bridge take a moment to examine the view in every direction. And next time you read a motivational quotation take a moment to ask yourself what it really means. What learning lies beneath the obvious?