Can Ambition and Happiness Coexist?

Canva - Shakespeare, King Lear, Ancient, Classic, Romeo

In Shakespeare’s tragedies, the root of betrayal, dishonesty, conspiracy — what makes these narratives tragic, in other words — is ambition.

In the first scene of King Lear, the elderly, semi-senile king decides it is time to divide his realm up among his three young daughters, declaring that he’ll offer the largest share of land to the daughter who loves him most. Lear’s biggest tragic flaw is his blindness to others’ flaws: it doesn’t occur to him that any of his children might be driven by greed or power — that they might have ambitions of their own. He can’t imagine that Goneril and Regan would deceive him with flattery for personal gain — that they might love power and money more than their own father. Lear banishes Cordelia, his stubborn but only loyal daughter, and the tragedy is set in motion.

In Julius Caesar, Cassius, one of the central conspirators planning to assassinate Caesar, convinces Brutus to betray Caesar by manipulating his perception of ambition. First, Cassius describes Caesar’s thirst for power as despotic, suggesting that it has Romans “groaning under this age’s yoke.” Immediately, though, Cassius invites Brutus to consider his own ambition for the first time, tempting him with the image of power: “I have heard,” Cassius says, “Where many of the best respect in Rome/ … speaking of Brutus.” Who wouldn’t be flattered by such a remark? 

Moments after Caesar is slain, Brutus stands over his friend’s dead body and announces, “ambition’s debt is paid.” In other words, acting according to ambition always involves paying a price. In this case, Caesar’s death is a consequence of ambition — Brutus’ own, as well as a cost of it — Caesar’s.

I could bore you with more examples but I’ll be nice. Consider the above an epigraph for the following question that I’ve been noodling on recently: is it possible to focus on ambition and support your happiness at the same time? 

I’ll start by unpacking my own relationship to the word AMBITION. Obviously the way we understand and define it is different today than in Shakespeare’s context. But I started with these dramatic examples for a reason: they show how blind we can become when ambition takes center stage, and how quickly.

I began thinking of myself as an ambitious person in high school. At that time, ambition meant achievement, though I wasn’t yet mature enough to know what it was I wanted to achieve (or why). I was, however, self-aware enough to know that I was obsessed with school (grades, yes, but if I’m trying to be less cynical, I was genuinely focused on academics). But yeah sure, I also wanted to study my ass off for the SATs and do too many extracurriculars like playing guitar and painting and writing for the school newspaper so that I seemed interesting on paper. As an anxious child, I’d begun the habit of compulsively cleaning my family’s home by the time I was only 10, and I guess my penchant for control stuck around. Color-coding my closet, making to-do-lists, studying — these were all activities that soothed me, like a child clutching a blankie or watching cartoons with a string-cheese in hand. I could input effort and see output rendered. I equated ambition and control.

In my teenage years, I learned quickly that the “ambition” I brought to my school work could be applied to my body. If I restricted my calorie intake, that was ambitious, right? To me, dieting felt like an exercise in virtue — doing the same amount as everyone around me, but with less fuel. Pleasure was inefficient. Hunger felt morally upstanding — a constant reminder of my self-control, composure, even pragmatism.

This mythology — my conflation of ambition, control, and self-denial — only got more extreme when I went to Harvard for college. For better or for worse, Harvard tends to be a petri dish for students just old enough to identify their ambitions, but not mature enough to ask “why?” It was at Harvard that I became obsessed with G-cal and developed a toxic, hyper-compartmentalized relationship to time, one that continues to plague me today. Just as J. Alfred Prufrock laments “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” I often fear that I literally measure out my life in G-cal “events” — most of which are personal lists and reminders rather than actual appointments or plans.

In my junior year in college, I developed a terrifying addiction to the amphetamine-based stimulant Adderall after realizing that it sharpened the edges of my self-discipline in ways that felt supernatural. I could go days without eating or talking to other people, but I could still write papers for graduate seminars (I wanted to be an academic at the time) and clean my room until my floor was clean enough to eat off of. Fortunately, I got off Adderall before my senior year started. 

Also fortunately, I abandoned my fantasy of a career in academia quickly after graduating college. And yet, for the past 6+ years, I’ve still held tightly onto similar narratives about what it means to be an “ambitious” or “successful” person. Conditioning is powerful, no? (And it’s not just my own neuroses — our culture does not make this easy for anyone. I’ll say more on that in a second). It wasn’t until I was sitting in therapy just this year that I realized just how much I rely on self-judgment as a source of motivation. The word “should” has long existed at the center of my vocabulary, and anything I “want” to do quickly, almost automatically, becomes a chore. At times, I don’t know what it feels like to live inside of my body — to want to do something (and to do it!) because I am in the mood. To eat something because I am craving it. To experience time as anything but a vehicle for getting something done.

Thanks to the work I’ve done on myself (in therapy, through journaling, by reading or practicing yoga and meditation, among other forms of healing), I’ve learned to identify and nurture other desires, emotions and needs — beyond “ambition” — all of which I’ve ignored for most of my life.

For example, I want to feel a greater sense of freedom and expansion in my writing work — but I’ve become so well-practiced at repressing that desire in order to devote myself to infinite to-do-lists disguised as G-cal events. I love cooking and baking and eating adventurously — but often feel scared of indulging these desires, having rehearsed self-denial for long enough to judge them as unworthy or frivolous. I want to create time and space in my life for painting, an activity I adored during my childhood (and a bit in college) — but have been facing some resistance as I try to carve away time for something that I have no “future” in.

In this last case, please consider the irony. My self-defined concept of “ambition” is not an engine for taking action, but nothing more than a major wet blanket weighing on my creativity, curiosity, and motivation. With each revelation, I am beginning to thaw, to see more and more that self-hatred is not that heroic after all.

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A painting I made this winter upon realizing that I could let myself paint simply because it brought me joy. RADICAL!

Currently, our culture encourages notions of ambition like the one I’ve been seeking to redefine in my own life. That is, ambition as an external, measurable achievement. An idea, a concept (I want to be a writer so I can be famous) — rather than an embodied feeling (I want to be a writer because I love writing). Ambition as number of Likes or followers, clicks and views. 

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I mean, really?

Social media has “empowered” us (or perhaps imprisoned us, depending on your opinion — you can probably sense mine) to turn what once may have been fun, spontaneous hobbies into opportunities for “influencing,” entrepreneurship, elements of public identity. (This opinion piece in The New York Times, “In Praise of Mediocrity,” really resonated with my thoughts on this matter). It’s not enough just to care about something — you have to show you care about it, and get the validation to confirm that you care enough. What a great culture in which to find inspiration! Amirite? 

Let me stop for a second to remind us all that the word “inspire” is etymologically derived from the Latin inspirare, to breathe into. You can literally think of creative inspiration as a respiratory action, one that is often involuntary just like breathing. We tend to think of ourselves in a state of being “inspired” or of others as “inspiring” — adjectives — rather than the action, “to inspire.” But with the proper sense of space and safety and freedom, we can inspire all of our experiences — people, poems, paintings, foods. We can allow ourselves to daydream. We can see a color we like and decide to draw with colored pencils for an hour. We may even find that with a little exploration, we unlock a well of motivation for hard work. We can take action — lots of action! — from a place of joy.

I don’t mean to suggest that everything we do in life should be born from desire or instinct, nor do I think that’s even possible. Obviously we live in a fast-paced capitalist society and sitting around strumming “Kumbaya” on your guitar isn’t going to get you a book deal. While I’m trying to move away from a crack-the-whip mentality about my own goals, sure, I know hard work is still necessary, and that sometimes hard work requires you to make a to-do-list or G-cal event.

But what I am trying to suggest that ambition and happiness can not only coexist, but hopefully can even encourage each other — if and only if your idea of ambition doesn’t threaten your sense of safety. The core feelings and desires that you may be inclined to ignore  — where are they? Are you accounting for them? What about the needs of your inner 5-year-old? How does he/she/they feel about whatever goal it is that you’re after? 

The idea of safety might seem a little out of left-field, but let me explain.

In a recent article I wrote for The New York Times, I examined the psychological underpinnings of procrastination and explained how, at its core, procrastinating is about managing our emotions, not our time. Quick synopsis: we procrastinate because of difficult feelings that come up for us around a given task — insecurity or dread, self-doubt, boredom, you get the gist. Evolutionarily, our brains are wired to perceive these feelings as dangerous — threats to our safety, in other words — so we avoid the cause of these feelings in order to “survive.” Yes, procrastination is a survival mechanism gone awry.

Similarly, if our personal definition of “ambition” requires us to deprive ourselves of adequate sleep, food, social interaction, or whatever the needs/feelings/etc. are, we will likely feel a sense of danger or unease at our core. This doesn’t mean that we won’t still be wildly successfully — plenty of entrepreneurs, inventors, artists, writers, etc. have been known to work very hard, and very successfully, at the expense of their well-being. But most of them have not been able to boast of happiness, which is up to each and every one of us to define for ourselves.

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I have been reading this and find Julia Cameron’s insights about “the inner artist child” and the importance of play ESSENTIAL.

By “happiness,” at least for myself, I don’t mean to conjure images of glittery, buoyant blonde women doing yoga poses in front of waterfalls on Instagram. Frankly, I am often put off by much of the self-help-slash-wellness rhetoric around questions like “How to be happy” or “What does happiness mean, anyway?” Much of this content doesn’t address the difficulty of the journey toward feeling good — the anxiety of developing new habits and facing fear about change; doubt about whether new habits will even make a difference; whether it’s even possible not to judge self-destructive behaviors when they become so frustratingly repetitive.

What I do mean is something resembling contentment, groundedness, a sense of I-am-OK. Safety, really. 

Finding the pathway to contentment isn’t easy. Acceptance of “what is” is at the core, and we all know that is easier said than done. But being able to take a breath in (inspire!) and feel our feet beneath us is a good starting place, and most of us can get there. From there, we can practice what it feels like to trust ourselves. Ask, What do I need in this moment to feel safe? Do this on your way to work, at the start of a big project, in the shower each morning as you consider the day ahead — wherever, really.

I know the notion of the “inner child” is abundant in the self-help world, but I prefer the image of my “inner children” — multiple! — as I definitely felt anxious and wasn’t able to “parent” myself at various stages of childhood. When I ask this question — What do I need in this moment to feel safe? — I consider my vulnerable inner 5-year-old, my rambunctious inner 8-year-old, my bratty inner 12-year old, and so on. I show them, and myself, that I can trust myself. I am accounting for their safety, our safety.

From this foundation of greater trust, we can experiment with taking action in a new way. We continue to strengthen the muscle of self-trust. We can be ambitious — we can achieve things, great things — without paying our happiness as the price.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion famously began her 1979 collection The White Album. The aphoristic phrase later became the title of her 2006 book of collected non-fiction. While there is a certain melodrama in Didion’s observation about survival, it’s strangely accurate, pinpointing that drama, or perhaps even melodrama, comprises the foundation of what it means to be human. 

That is, if we woke up each morning without telling ourselves a certain set of stories—often both unconscious and implicit—we would be at a loss. If someone asks, “What’s your name?” each of our answers is a story. So too are our likes, dislikes, jobs, habits, past times. Our lives are all fueled by self-created (and self-perpetuated) narratives. 

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“I will never be as good as Joan Didion” = a story I tell myself as a writer

Culturally, the very idea of “storytelling” is comforting (although it’s become a bit of an annoying buzzword in the TED-talk-worshipping zeitgeist of 2017). When we were children, most of us asked our caregivers for story-time before bed. Fairy tales and myths transported us to emotional locations beyond the isolated islands of our thoughts. And yet even humanity’s psychological status quo (read: anxiety) is constructed out of narratives. (“I am out of breath. Why am I out of breath? Will I ever breathe again?”) As someone with panic disorder, this parenthetical example is **DERIVED FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE**

Anxiety is an evolutionary mechanism: as a species, we have adapted what contemporary neuroscientists call “negativity bias,” a hard-wired impulse to locate and identify threats (internal or external) all around us. There is always a metaphorical lion on the side of the road to be avoided. Telling ourselves that—repeatedly, and in whatever variation depending on our circumstances—gives us answers, meaning, something to grab onto.

Our habits are also stories. “I’m a morning person.” “I drink too much.” “I hate exercise.” Data shows that humans repeat 40% of all behaviors every day. Are we really “creatures of habit” or are our habits largely the product of the stories we tell ourselves? I’d hazard the guess that the answer is a combination. We stick to our habits (partially as a result of the stories we perpetuate about them) because they function as evidence of our survival mechanism. “I’ve eaten cereal almost every morning since I was 10. Therefore, cereal has enabled my survival up to this point.” The mere idea of giving up eating cereal could give me heart failure. God forbid, but you get my point.

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Dana Schutz’s Swimming, Smoking, Crying. A story I relate to.

Whether or not we’re aware of the particular stories we tell ourselves may not make a difference in our actual quality of life. I’ve been in therapy since age 9, and have definitely rehearsed psychodynamic analyses with my various therapists over the years. I like to think I’m pretty aware of the stories I have told (and still do tell) myself, but I am also comfortable admitting that my awareness hasn’t changed much when it comes to my happiness in a big picture way. But knowing the impact of the stories I tell myself helps me expand the aperture of my perspective. If, say, I am feeling shitty, anxious, and depressed, I try to invite myself to ask how much of my sinking mood is the byproduct of a myth I’ve written about who I am and why my thoughts operate the way they do.

By the way, doing so doesn’t really me feel better, but having the emotional tools to ask myself the question provides me with a palpable sense of empowerment and freedom. Rather than feeling like a narrator, devoid of subjectivity, reading off the “page” of my stories, I act as a protagonist. I still may be telling myself a story. But the narrative unfolds in the present, rather than the past, tense. Selfhood itself is a narrative.

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Oprah knows her stories. FOR SURE.

During Thanksgiving and the “Holiday Season” in general, everyone seems either to complain about their impossible, right-wing relatives who they can’t even stand chatting with at dinner, or the fact that just being around family makes them crazy. I fall into the latter bucket. Being around parents—and the evocative artifacts of what “home” used to mean— tend to bring out the worst, most fossilized stories that we’ve ever told ourselves—including the ones that date back to junior high school. Like, no, brain, I am no longer a depressed anorexic 14 year old….but thanks for reminding me that I used to be that, and think that. There is a certain comfort in remembering the evolutionary mechanism at work. You may still feel like shit, but at least remind yourself that YOU ARE A MAMMAL.

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No, you’re not a fish. You are a mammal.

Like most people, I sometimes wake up wishing that I had a clean, structured understanding of what my purpose was on this earth, and how I could best enact it. There’s a reason people join cults, nurture their SoulCycle obsessions, or become vegan. We all have control issues (#deathanxiety), and the pursuit of external identity-markers gives us a break from having to create and uphold our own, individualized stories of meaning and purpose. Remember that Marx called religion “the opium of the people” for a similar reason—in an attempt to point out the pleasure we derive from dogma, those pre-existing ideological structures that lessen the weight of personal responsibility—to define our own ethics, taste, politics, spirituality. But at the end of the day, every religion can be traced back to a cluster of stories.

You may feel an instinct to judge the stories you tell yourself as “bad” or “good.” (Guess what? That’s evolution too.) Certainly, some of the stories we tell ourselves are productive and inspire us to make positive changes, while others are regressive and keep us imprisoned in the chains of old, bad habits that we’ve simply practiced for too long. But there is nothing valuable about making blanket judgments about our conditioning and the ways we enact it, internally and externally. We will never stop telling stories. The most powerful thing we can do to free ourselves from the ones that hold us back is to notice them.

The 25 Best & Worst Things That Happened to Me at 25

I haven’t written a blog post in a couple of weeks. I have been feeling—admittedly—a bit stuck. My psychiatrist often encourages me to notice the relationship between this creative paralysis and the status of my anxiety levels, as she is led to believe  that I am less willing to produce work (of any kind) when I am feeling most anxious, rigid, obsessive about order. Ironically, my OCD slash anxiety mind is always trying to convince me that order is paramount. And with order will come creativity. Then will come fulfillment. Then will come happiness. Then, then, then.

Then, incidentally, is one of the words most central to anxiety.

Of course, I disagree with my shrink. Anxiety makes me who I am OK?! That’s what I usually say in response, at least in my head. And sometimes, I do what feels like a genuinely successful job of convincing myself that sweeping the floor five times every day is necessary for my well-being. Other times, I notice that my “itch” to clean the floor is so stubborn that it never feels assuaged, even when it’s scratched with a compulsive ritual. The desire for order is simply a nag that will never relent. In those moments, I wish I could simply relish disarray and drink in the chaos as fuel for my ideas. 

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Don’t even get me started about how anxious litter makes me.

But perhaps that’s unrealistic. Maybe I can just notice that I love order, that my love for order is often unproductive, and try my best to shepherd my attention back to trying to write, trying to brainstorm story ideas, trying to read poetry. With trying, the metric of order is irrelevant, and therefore moot. So here I am: trying.

This blog is the result of my attempt to create structure around creativity, to give myself an external entity to which I was accountable for creation. If I am merely forcing myself to write in a vacuum, it simply will not get done. Why? It’s not because I’m not-Type-A (because I am), but because it gives me a perennial source of self-loathing. With something else, and ideally someONE else, asking something of me, I tend to deliver. Problem is, my blog is mine.

Enough ruminating: it’s my FUCKING BIRTHDAY! 6:46pm now on my 26th birthday. I have been inside all day on the phone with my health insurance company (I know) and eating salad too quickly and getting a stomach ache and then Instagramming myself in a sardonic anti-Trump hat. I have felt paralyzed by anxiety so I chose to do nothing—except things that felt vaguely self-care-y but also kind of ripe for rumination. So now does the vicious cycle make a bit more sense?

To me, the mere notion of a birthday explains it all. I don’t know about you, but my birthday brings up a lot. Most of all, it makes me want so very badly to be a kid, and to feel so profoundly at a loss for how to believe—experientially—that I am aging before my own eyes and also an infant who wants the world to stop turning and time to freeze. But now that I’m 26, I know that the world will continue turning regardless of my internal tantrums, and that PUSH-PULL of self-awareness is what makes the propulsion of anxiety continue to hum.

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How I feel inside on a regular basis: bad and boujee.

So, on this special day, I am taking the opportunity to RECOGNIZE AND HONOR my anxiety, but also alchemize it into creative energy—and a new blog post for you all (thank you to my 74 regular readers around the globe).

Straight-forwardly, I am presenting 25 of the best things that happened to me in this BIRTH YEAR, and 25 of the worst things that happened to me. These are not THE best or THE WORST—just a sampling of some, and so please don’t feel offended if you believe the lists to be non-comprehensive. They are also not in a particular order. I doubt anyone would care enough about any of this to be offended, but you know, you gotta put it in writing.

BEST THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO ME AT AGE 25

  1. I told the entire world about my experience navigating a secret Adderall addiction.
  2. During the week my grandfather was dying (read on for the “worst things…” list), I got to see my dad undergo a familial trauma, and the experience brought me so many feelings of clarity and empathy about him as a person.
  3. I internalized that I had built a financially and spiritually sustainable career as a freelancer.
  4. I became closer with my best friend from college—inarguably even closer than we had been in college. (I hope she never leaves nyc but I think my hope will not come true).
  5. I inched closer toward normalcy in the eating realm, and can now say that I rarely enact anorexic behaviors (and even thoughts). AND that doesn’t make me hate myself (that much).
  6. I snuggled with a cat that didn’t scare me even though I’m terrified of cats.
  7. I moved into a beautiful two bedroom apartment with my sister/best friend and it feels like the sanctuary of my dreams.
  8. I said “I love you” to a man that I loved.
  9. I had my TV debut on the Today Show lol.
  10. I started writing a TV pilot and then stopped writing a TV pilot.
  11. I realized I liked networking because really it just means having drinks with people who are cool.
  12. I laughed harder than I had in a long while kick-ball-changing down the soup aisle of a CVS with my sister.
  13. I went to the American South for the first time and ate barbecue.
  14. I drove MULTIPLE TIMES on the highway WITH A DRIVER’S LICENSE and WITHOUT MY PARENTS.
  15. I upped my dose of Zoloft.
  16. I ate a really good steak. Several.
  17. I started this blog, lol to the fact that I was just trashing on the creative process.
  18. I realized I didn’t want to write poetry anymore, and then realized ANEW that I did. (Yesterday, 3/27/17).
  19. I quit a job that wasn’t serving me even though it was easy and good money.
  20. I gave good life advice to a damaged 10 year old with dubious values.
  21. I started paying my own health insurance in my pursuit of 100% financial independence.
  22. I got to see my bff’s (see #4) mom give a talk on Leonard Bernstein and it was really inspiring and moving.
  23. I started brainstorming article ideas with a greater sense of what I was doing.
  24. I worked for MONTHS on a book proposal and then decided to ditch the project.
  25. I realized the importance of having fun and that burning yourself out into an overworked depression isn’t righteous.
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Lest you forget I blogged about my on here before #tbt.

WORST THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO ME AT AGE 25

  1. I lost my health insurance through my parents :( tbt.
  2. My grandfather died.
  3. I started getting panic attacks again.
  4. I worked for MONTHS on a book proposal and then decided to ditch the project.
  5. I thought I wanted to be a TV writer and was all set to UNDERSTAND MY IDENTITY and then I realized I didn’t want to do it.
  6. I started thinking way too much about death on a regular basis because of my anxiety.
  7. I had several moments of doubting myself and the career path I am choosing and it gave me a lot of emotional pain and physical discomfort.
  8. I stayed up for an entire night self-flagellating about a typo I’d left in one email that someone didn’t notice.
  9. I realized the body is fragile and complicated and ever-changing. (Best thing too, not on the list).
  10. I continued indulging my seltzer addiction, even though the CO2 isn’t good for alkalinity.
  11. I didn’t discover what I want to be doing with my life.
  12. I failed to figure out what kind of writing will make me happy.
  13. I treated my ex-boyfriend unfairly in several occasions, and one particular one comes to mind where I regret my behaviors.  
  14. I didn’t read a single book cover-to-cover with attention and care.
  15. I didn’t appreciate my family vacation enough this summer.
  16. I didn’t do anything for the Clinton campaign and then sat around like a depressed fool when Donald Trump became President and have continued failing to be an activist because I am too anxious and paralyzed to move in any direction.
  17. Donald Trump became president. (Sorry to everyone else to whom this happened: e.g. everyone.)
  18. I let time go by faster than I wish I’d let it go by.
  19. I fell out of touch with some of my closest friends and feel an absence of a cohesive social group in my life, and feel guilty about my role in not cultivating it.
  20. One of my best friends and I are not as close as we used to be and I feel sad and weird about it.
  21. A close friend of mine died of cancer at age 25 and I never got the chance to tell him how much he meant to me, nor did I pursue the friendship as much as I wanted to. I had been afraid.
  22. I realized how much I’d taken my family’s (now dead) cocker spaniel, Eli, for granted during his life, and that I fear intimacy even if I think I don’t because I am so afraid of loss.
  23. I didn’t write an amazing article for a prestigious magazine that I’d never written for (e.g. The New Yorker, New York magazine, etc.). This is a goal. Let me know if you have ideas.
  24. I felt jealous of people a lot who deserved whatever it is they got that I was jealous of. #mudita
  25. I got a lot of stomach aches that are psychosomatic.

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Now, that was a difficult exercise. I didn’t plan these items before I wrote, nor did I really edit these lists. I wanted it to be a kind of #automaticwriting a la Andre Breton. This would drag on if I analyzed why it was difficult, so I will refrain. But I will say that it was interesting how much easier it was to generate “bad things” than “good things” (duh! The human condition!). Furthermore, it was even more fascinating to notice that most of the negative things I wanted to say were THOUGHTS: I realized this, I didn’t do that, I wish I had done this, and so on. It was very difficult to bring myself to actually stop and say that an event or experience was bad in and of itself.

And you’ll see that certain experiences I put in both lists—ah, the clichés abound! But really, reflecting on shit makes you see that pain and pleasure are usually NOT occurring in isolation. If they’re not coexistent, they’re certainly intersecting in some way.

With that: happy birthday to me. I hope you enjoyed this self-referential list, the fruits of my labor trying to alchemize death-anxiety on my birthday into a blog post. May it give you insights!

A Valediction Forbidding New Year’s Resolutions

As someone who struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), I admittedly adore the times when external structures in the world validate my itch to find and secure order.

Let me give you an example.

I find the morning to be, categorically, the best time of day. In the morning, the day is clean. It is new. It is discrete, and in its discreteness, it is full of potential—the potential for order.

The morning says, “Get the fuck up. Start fresh,” even when my brain chemistry wants to drag me back to laze indolently in the dust of yesterday. There is discipline in the voice of morning, but it is looking out for me. That kind of discipline is radical.

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Yet despite my arguably dysfunctional love of compartmentalization, I have always thought the notion of setting New Year’s Resolutions is a load of shit.

WAIT: I’ll revise that to me an “I-statement”: I have always felt that setting New Year’s Resolutions is a load of shit for me. 

While my OCD-brain tells me to be fucking cray about cleanliness and list-making and other things I don’t even want to admit (e.g. organizing my anxious thoughts into imaginary Punnet-square-like grids), I also am deeply committed to trying to be a happier and less anxious person. Sometimes, my impulse towards happiness pushes me to rebel against my OCD, and it’s awesome.

Today, I am realizing that one such enduring act of rebellion has been to resist New Year’s Resolutions.

According to several reports, approximately 50% of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions; and according to another, only 8% of folks report successfully achieving their resolutions. We live in a culture that loves to slather capitalistic values onto holidays, and those values include extremism and, often, the supremacy of self-improvement trends. If and when there is an opportunity to tell ourselves that we are not enough (or that we don’t work enough, that we don’t make enough, etcetera), it seems the patriarchy / capitalism tells us, “You’re right!”

I should stop here to clarify that self-improvement is a noble practice—one I am after, and think others should be, too. I am also ambitious, and I believe that no one should feel shame in claiming ambition as a personal value. Especially not women. Seeking greatness in whatever form does not make you a Machiavellian biatch. At the same time, wanting to be happier is not LITE or less important than having a million bylines or being on Forbes’ 30 Under 30.

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But recently, my sister and I listened to a podcast about goal-setting (#LOL), one that I found particularly inspiring. The lesson was about setting goals from a place of abundance, rather than scarcity. In other words: what if we set goals by FIRST considering that which we have already created for ourselves and brought into our lives, celebrating those achievements, and articulating further goals that support us in building on our positive change?

It’s a crazy way to rewire the emotional underpinnings of goal-setting. Instead of being like, “I am a fat, lazy, idiot and my goal is to be a skinny, motivated pubic intellectual,” you can be like, “I started a blog this year, and my goal is to continue writing content and building my audience.” I don’t have to call this “abundance,” make a dumb hashtag, or write a love letter to myself and my blog for my gratitude jar. But it feels so good to recognize that I started this blog even when, last week, I felt like a depressed and bloated slob. Already! There is so much power in that word.

It all sounds abhorrently cheesy, and I assure you that I detest New Age platitudes about “abundance” and “gratitude” much as the next “guy.” But I think there is power in the age old adage of “faking it till you make it”—OR: stopping to consider AND directly articulate the stuff you’ve already done, and seeing it as evidence of your in-progress goals.

With that, my M.O. this year is to CONTINUE all of the sustainable shifts I’ve already brought into my life so that I can avoid slipping into the ideology that everything from 2016 is over and shitty, and that I will achieve enlightenment in 2017 simply because January 1st marks a new calendar year. That is fucking stupid.

*~*Life is always ebbing and flowing*~* (a quote by me if you want to gram it or something).

Or, as Heraclitus said, “Change is the only constant.”

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Here are a few of the self-caring changes I have already begun making, and that I will continue in the New Year:

  • I have already learned to drive, and I will continue practicing when I have the chance so that I can feel more empowered and independent!
  • I have already begun a regular free-writing practice to help me feel more joy around my work, and I will continue to do this so that I can let go of the idea that published work is the only work worth writing.
  • I have already gotten better about noticing the times when I am abusive to myself in my head, and I will continue to catch myself when I do it, and to try to be kinder.
  • I have written many poems in the years I’ve been alive, and I will continue to find a place for poetry in my life  even if it is different or less prominent than it used to be.

I have already, and I will continue … POWERFUL SHIT, n’est-ce pas?

I will close with the virtuous final stanza of John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” because I am a terrifying dork, because the image of the circle seems apropos for the message of this post—and because I played on the title of this poem here, and I am self-satisfied about it.

“Such wilt thou be to me, who must,

  Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;

Thy firmness makes my circle just,

  And makes me end where I begun.”

Do what thou wilt: My attempted motto for this blog

Often, I feel I am confronted with personal writing that is cynical and acerbic—and stunningly articulate—but that makes me feel like vulnerability is a sin. There may be moments of self-deprecation, sure, but they can still feel guarded and impenetrable. There may even be allusions to Walter Benjamin. Perhaps you know the kind of personal essays I am talking about.

Other times, particularly when I’m reading extra-personal writing about intimate issues like sex and relationships or mental health (topics I care endlessly about), I find that there is no place for irony. Narratives about self-improvement guide us from the writer’s dissolution to their dharma, and the notion of being self-critical or wry isn’t part of the equation. I find this can be especially true for “women’s issues” writing, much of which is urgent, essential and empowering, especially for female-identified readers. After all, there are so many issues that are, indeed, women’s issues.

But I also think there’s an opportunity to bring the cutting nature of humor and irony to the coziest attitude, and the most vulnerable writing. My goal is to try and check myself. To be funny and candid, but also grave when the moment is right. To find the humor in my moments of self-loathing. To alchemize the micro-traumas of everyday life into opportunities for laughter and self-compassion.

That is why I am starting this blog.

Today, I scoff at the idea of dieting even as I often feel like shit about my body, and feel jealous of other people who appear to have more self-control than I do—the people who uncritically look on menus for salads dressed with fat free balsamic vinaigrette, or a comparable example. 

Sometimes, I get mad at myself for being critical about my body, arguing in my head that feminists should resist the paralyzing effects of self-hatred. But over time, I’ve learned the value of letting myself be—allowing myself have the feelings of self-loathing when they arise and noticing them, rather than hating on my own self-hatred. The word for that in Pali (the language of the original Buddhist texts) is papancha. Sharon Salzberg has translated papancha to mean “the imperialistic tendency of the mind toward negativity.” I try, each day, to stick with the singular island of negativity in my mind, rather than allowing negativity to proliferate into an imperial empire.

Sometimes, accepting the times when I hate myself feels paradoxical, wrong, unreasonable. But why add insult to injury? Why not try to find at least a little bit of freedom in shitty moments?

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I am reminded this evening of the mantra “DO WHAT THOU WILT” or “DO WHATEVER YOU WANT” from François Rabelais’ Gargantua (translations vary). This idea guides a group of monks living in an abbey called the Abbey of Thélème in a parable at the book’s end. “Their whole life was lived, not in accordance with laws, statutes or rules, but by their own choosing and free will. They got up when they felt like it; they drank, ate, worked and slept when they so desired… In their rule, there was only one clause: DO WHATEVER YOU WANT.”

Since I can’t live this way at all times (can you?), I will try and write this way. At least when writing on fat free balsamic … because guess what? No one’s telling me what to do!