When I was 13 years old, the khaki cargo pant was the height of teen fashion. It was the late 90s and – after watching one-too-many TLC or All Saints music videos – I became firmly convinced that I simply must have a pair to go with my butterfly clips and “Bad Girl” t-shirt. And it wasn’t long before I had my heart set on this cute khaki pair at the local Jeans West store.
I spent (what felt like) weeks begging my parents for a pair of those cargo pants. I have no doubt that my mood ring would have been permanently black with angst. “Everybody’s got them”, “I really, really need them” and – in the grand finale of teen tantrums – “If you buy me these cargo pants, I’ll never ask for anything else ever…” This last declaration has been quoted back to me far too many times to count or for my liking.
Then, one day after a mid-week grocery run, I finally managed to drag my Mum into the store and point them out. A wave of excitement came over me at the thought of finally having these much-dreamed-about pants…
Alas. Fate intervened in that glorious way that she does and the store didn’t have my size (obviously due to their extreme fashionable popularity). But, they did have my little sister’s… So, that afternoon my younger sister walked away with the cargo pants that I so desperately wanted – and I had to wait a week for more stock to arrive (although I did eventually get a pair).
What’s the point of this story? It’s not that the younger sibling always gets it easy (although this makes a compelling case, don’t you think?) Nor is it that if you persist long enough, you will get what you want. No. The cargo pants have become a symbol for the moving goal posts in my life. You will not be surprised to hear that, despite my adamant promise – to myself, my parents, God – the cargo pants were not the last thing I ever asked for. The cargo pants (quite unsurprisingly) did not permanently fulfil me. They just moved the goal posts.
Over the last decade or two, I have found myself in similar cargo pant territory – only, over much less trivial or fashion-sensitive issues:
- “If I can just get that clerkship position…”
- “If I just lost 4kg…”
- “If I could just find a decent boyfriend…”
The implied end of those sentences is that “I will be happy. That will be enough”. But it’s never enough. It just moves the goal posts and before you know it –
- “If I can just get that new job/promotion/project…”
- “If I just had a bigger bust/less freckles/longer legs…”
- “If I could just find The One/be engaged/married/pregnant…”
Everyone from Socrates to Eleanor Roosevelt to Oprah has commented on the importance of being content with what you have. But the real truth is, the entire self-help section of Book Depository won’t fix a cargo-plant-dilemma (believe me, I’ve tried). Yes, as John Stuart Mill suggests, happiness is found in limiting your desires, rather than attempting to satisfy them. But I think the real unhappiness comes from focusing on your desires for too long in the first place. Instead, what if the focus was:
- Helping an ex-colleague get a job when they need it most.
- Being grateful for your health and cooking freezer meals for a sick friend.
- Focusing on what you contribute to your relationships – being the best friend / sister / girlfriend / wife that you can be.
Rather than just moving the goals posts (because, lets face it, the desire for growth and improvement is natural, human and inevitable for all goals, superficial or not) you’ll get to really feel the satisfaction of the goal before moving to the next one. And it firmly places you in the driver’s seat because you can control what you do, think or say in those situations.
It has taken close to 16 years to deduce this from my cargo pants experience – and I’m not saying that I don’t still have those “If I just…” moments (because I do, quite regularly). But I now know the “fix” is not picking up a copy of the latest self-improvement NY Times best seller and joining a boot camp. Instead, that feeling is a reminder to turn my attention to someone else’s cargo pants and consider what I can do to help them get a glorious-fitting pair. Because that’s the thing about cargo pants – the metaphorical kind at least – everyone is looking for the perfect pair. And if, instead, everyone is selflessly and sacrificially trying to find the best pair for their neighbour, things have a way of working out for the best. So I think this essentially means that every “self” help book can be replaced with these 5 wise words – “love thy neighbour as thyself”.