Practical Philosophy

“Ring the Bells that Still Can Ring”

I don’t listen to a ton of music. But I do get caught on songs. Most recently, I’ve been caught on Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” — here’s a great live performance of it. I discovered it not because I’m a Leonard Cohen fan, or that I heard it playing, but rather because someone cited a few lines from it that caught my attention (and kind of blew my mind). The chorus of the song is as follows:

Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack in everything 
That’s how the light gets in

The song is a celebration of imperfection. The world is not perfect, but we should not lament it. Injustices occur, but we shouldn’t dwell on them. We should, instead, “Ring the bells that still can ring.”

The one thing almost everyone can agree to is that the world is not exactly how we’d like. And what’s more, it was never really exactly the way we wanted it to be. And if we’re really self-aware and honest, I think we know that it can never be “just so.”

Surely we can (and should) work to make the world we live in more like the one we want to live in. Surely there are tremendous gains made by the people who see an imperfection in the world and then spend a minute, a week, or a lifetime working to change it. When the direction they point is one we agree with, we owe them a real debt.

But all of that can be true without it changing the need to celebrate what we have right now. The only time we’re in is now and the only condition we’re in is our current one. We can spend our time dwelling on the imperfections in the current conditions, or we can acknowledge and celebrate the great things in them.

This is, in a real sense, the thing that separates the happy from the miserable. Everyone alive has an imperfect life. Maybe it’s imperfect because they just lost the love of their life, and maybe it’s imperfect because they weren’t named People Magazine‘s “Sexiest Man Alive.” But it’s almost certainly not exactly the way they would make it in their dreams.

But you spend all your time contemplating those imperfections and you’re almost guaranteed to feel frustrated with the way your life is. You’re going to have a low-level agitation all the time. You’re going to have a short temper, and carry a constant sense of dissatisfaction.

What’s needed for you to feel satisfaction in your life isn’t to drastically change it — finally land the man of your dreams, get the promotion you envy, or the house you’ve had your heart on since you were six — but to cultivate satisfaction with the present. To really make a practice of feeling grateful and pleased with the way your life is right now. It’s not that it’s great — “there is a crack in everything” — but you can (and I’d argue should) celebrate it. “Ring the bells that still can ring.”

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