When I was in college (yes, that was a long time ago) I had a white rat for a while. I’ve long ago forgotten who gave me the rat or even what I called it at the time, but it did come with a cage. In that cage was what is more often called a hamster wheel – a wheel that the rat could get on and run. And run he did, sometimes for hours and unfortunately usually at night. The wheel squeaked when he ran and sometimes kept me aware at night, which eventually led to me giving him to someone else.
Back in those days, and occasionally even today, I think about the rat and what he was doing on that wheel. Was he running for exercise or did he believe that there was somehow a better life up ahead, if only he could make it to the top of the wheel? Without giving the rat too much benefit of the doubt about his ability to comprehend his situation and the futility of the wheel, his constant striving does provide an interesting analogy for life. To some extent most of us are running on the big wheel of life and constantly trying to reach the elusive top of the wheel.
Many of us might be able to easily relate our daily lives to the hamster wheel. We run and run and run and really seem to get nowhere. Yet that next rung on the wheel is just ahead and after it the next and if we run hard enough, maybe we’ll get to the top of the wheel. What do we expect to find there? Most of us probably couldn’t even formulate and answer to that question. Mumbling something like, “a better life” or “happiness,” is essentially a cop-out and a sell-out to all of the commercials that we see and hear each day that exhort us to stay on the wheel and keep running. Our entire consumer-based society is built upon the notion that the rats will keep running on those wheels and striving to get to the top. From the earliest days of our lives we are encouraged to never give up; and to keep running, to keep trying to get to the top of our own personal wheels.
Some jump off the wheel at an early age. They are different, weird, they don’t quite fit in. Some end up as what we call bums, some end up as artists and are excused from wheel-duty because of their talents. Some just slow down their pace, but stay on their wheels, accepting a life of constant toil without much reward. They are often called “the working poor”, by the people who own many of the wheels. A few just jump off and wander out beyond the boundaries of society, living “off the grid”, as well as off the wheel. Interestingly enough, almost everyone ends up off the wheel. These are the people who are now too old to spin their wheel. They may have retired or they may have just gotten too tired to run on the wheel any more. Some have even discovered that the goals of the wheel were not worth the effort; that reaching the top of the wheel that you were on doesn’t lead to happiness, it usually just leads to yet another wheel.
I’m kind of at that stage in my life. I’ve been running on various wheels for various companies or various goals for many, many years. I got to the top of one wheel a few times, only to have to jump on the next wheel. I’ve also had a few wheels pulled out from under me, when companies that I worked for were bought out or went out of business, so that I had to move to a new cage. A few years ago I got off the corporate wheels and onto one that I could run on at my own pace (real estate sales) and one that I knew had no greater reward at the top, other than more money. Now, like deciding how much time to spend at the gym, I can decide how much time to spend on the real estate wheel, chasing that next listing or buyer. It’s nice to have at least that amount of control or to think that you do. The reality is that anytime that you have to say you work for (any name but your own here) you are running on a wheel and in a cage owned by The Man. Without launching into a huge diatribe about society in general, suffice to say even those who are self-employed must live within the rules and laws of The Man and thus live with only the illusion (some might say the delusion) of being off the wheel or out of the cage.
Can you just get off the wheel? Can you really do that? Probably not; at least not entirely. After all, you have to live somehow, so you have to work for someone doing something to earn enough to live on; I get that. But the point is to not let that wheel become your entire life; not to let it define you. It’s just a job. It’s how you earn a living, It’s not who you are. That’s something that you control. It’s not a cage and it doesn’t have a wheel; unless you let it. You may have to don your hamster suit and get on the wheel for a few hours every day; but once the whistle blows at the end of the day, be free, be you, run after meaningful things, not just the next rung on the wheel.
So, what is the answer? How does one get off the wheel and escape the cage? The answer is amazingly simple – just chose not to play the game of the cage and the wheel. Change the rules. Reset your goals and redefine success for yourself. Forget the chase for things and rediscover the joy to be found in relationships. Trade accumulating possessions for meeting people. Trade power and money for love and caring. Trade longer periods of running on the wheel for periods of meditation or serving others. Stop pursuing perfection and start showing affection. Life is too short to spend all of your awake time on the wheel. Get off, slow down, leave the cage and engage with other people. Give and receive love and learn to savor those moments. You don’t really ever get anywhere on the wheel, but life can be an exciting and interesting journey when you get off the wheel and start really living it with those around you. Yes, there really is life off the wheel and it can be great.