There is no Success. There is no Happiness.

Today I saw a motivational poster thingie on Facebook.

I can understand the desire underlying this. When we’re in the midst of a hard time, we want to believe we’re working toward something, that our suffering has some meaning or purpose. It’s really hard to continue to believe in meaning and purpose in world with so much suffering, injustice, and uncertainty. So we make mantras like this one to try to change our perspective about the hard shit.

I don’t disagree at all that the hard shit is valuable. Pain is like a charcoal water filter. You pour some murky-ass water into the top, all full of harmful thought processes, emotional baggage, social pressure. And if you allow yourself to percolate in the pain, you come through the filter a purer version of yourself, closer to what you really are on the inside. You have to go through the filter at least a few times before anybody can drink you without getting violent diarrhea, but . . . you know what, I think I’ve overextended this metaphor, so I’ll just stop now.


Me, before and after two divorces and the final episode of LOST.

The part of this quote I take issue with is the “success story.” It implies success is some kind of end-game goal you’re striving toward. “This hardship is just your plot’s conflict, dear protagonist, and if you get through it, you’ll denouement yourself right into the Happy Ending.”

I don’t believe in happy endings. In fact, I don’t believe in endings. I believe in transitions.

There’s this persistent notion that happiness (or “success”) is an endpoint, an arrived-upon state of being; that if you do the Right Things, you’ll get to a place in your life where you don’t struggle anymore, you don’t have hardship or hurt, you’re just happy and everything is wonderful and Tom Hiddleston wakes you each morning by whisper-singing “You are my Sunshine” into your ear. (By the way, there is MUCH disagreement about which things are the Right Things to do to achieve Eternal Happiness, so good luck picking the right Right Things, anyway. That’s why there is only one Tom Hiddleston.)

This is where the One True Path leads.

There isn’t success, there are only successes. There isn’t happiness, there are only happinesses. And if you want to experience either successes or happinesses, that has to be enough. You can spend a lifetime chasing the state of success and happiness and run right past every single one of the successes and happinesses. Forget “success stories.” Stories with successes and failures and happinesses and sadnesses and all of the things — those are enough.

On Solitude, and Saving a Life

A dear friend shared with me recently two beautiful works, which bear remembering, reveling, and repeating. The first is by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast.

Be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend.

Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust.

And don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.

The second is by Mary Oliver:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

On first read, these pieces are about desolation, the limits of our control, the pain of growth, and the alienation of change. The language Rilke chooses to describe solitude is fascinating. “For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast.” This sounds terrifying. It invokes the feeling you get when you look up at the stars and realize how vast the universe is, and how small you are, and life seems to zoom out at high speed until the distance renders you indistinguishable from the endless matter around you, a pinhole in an infinite tapestry. For someone who values connection and who fears invisibility, that’s some scary shit.

But, it’s also some true shit. It’s been a hard-learned lesson, but in the end, I am all I have. Others will come and go my entire life. No matter how close I am with someone, I will never fully understand him or her; even the most intimate relationships are limited by the space between our minds. In the end, no matter how entwined we try to make ourselves with other people, we are, and will always be, separate. And I will always be small. My life will only ever be but a single step in the endless march of time.

But, believe it or not, there is comfort here, in this vast space around us:

the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company

You are enough. When you hear your own voice, you may be in solitude, but you are never alone. All the world, all the universe, everything you need — it all resides within you. The space between you and others? It may be vast, but it isn’t empty. If you walk through the brambles and let the pain fertilize your growth, you fill that space with you. It surrounds you, cradles you, and provides a buffer between your heart and the often cold, cruel world outside. That is the “love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance” — it is you.  And when you learn that you cannot mend your life, and you begin, instead, to mend yourself — when you begin to save the only life you have the power to save — you move forward on the journey to the love “so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.” And there is no safety net so strong as a love you carry with you.

The Trifid Nebula, an interstellar nursery

The Trifid Nebula, a cosmic nursery

Broken on an Autumn Day

Photo courtesy of Suzann Rodgers Hallman

Photo courtesy of Suzann Rodgers Hallman

It is an almost absurdly beautiful fall day. I stepped out of my car to head into Starbucks (to get a drink with a RED CUP!! …I have no idea why this is such a big deal to people, but apparently it is) and a big slap of delicious autumn air punched me in the face while jolly mister sun poked me gleefully in both eyeballs. It’s cliche, but everything in autumn is so fucking CRISP!

And my very first thought, standing there in the light and the air and the crisp, was, “It’s far too beautiful a day to feel so broken.”

A relationship I was in ended recently and, while it wasn’t particularly long-lived, it was meaningful to me.  It’s not abysmally bad, but it has been difficult.  I did the usual grieving routine over the past two weeks (it was almost comical how textbook the process was, actually), and now I just feel a kind of soreness, like my heart went back to the gym for the first time in a few years and decided it could, like, totally bench 250, bro. Which, in a sense, is pretty much what happened.

So I’ve been feeling broken…until it occurred to me that, no.  Just no.

Heartache, confusion and sorrow are all natural, healthy reactions to loss.  They’re just as normal as the excitement about what may come next and the tiny twinges of relief (because, let’s face it, being in a relationship where you actually allow yourself to be vulnerable can be exhausting, and it can be nice to step back from that for a moment).  I spent a huge chunk of my life avoiding the act of feeling my feelings, and if I didn’t feel pain now, it would mean I was right back to suppressing the part of myself that’s able to feel.

Pain doesn’t mean I am broken.  Hacking off big parts of who I am so I didn’t have to hurt?  That was broken.  Pain means I am whole.

The Fear of Having a Torso

When I was young, they told me I could be anything. So I was someone else.

Young Krista, who still had a torso.

Young Krista, who was still mostly Krista.

I used to believe it was impossible to *really* be something that you are not.  You can’t fake wit, intelligence, charm, motivation. I mean, I suppose you can try — study what those things look like, and then emulate them.  But it doesn’t really work.  We probably all know someone who *seems* really nice, but you walk away with a weird taste in your mouth, like a spoonful of sour cream when you’re expecting vanilla yogurt.

In those days, though, I thought the Self was the way your mind worked, your personality.  I never considered myself a very emotional person.  I had emotions, but I mostly bludgeoned them with my thoughts until they ran whimpering into a dark corner.  I believed I was — and wanted desperately to be — a logical, rationally-driven creature.  Emotions were messy and refused to fit into the neat little boxes I’d labeled “What Krista Is.” So I rejected them, rationalized them, and, when all else failed, shoved them into another box labeled “Anomalies” and forgot about them.

The problem with that, I eventually came to find, is that it was like amputating my torso.  Oh, I’d done a terrific job reconnecting the neural pathways from my brain to my limbs afterward, and I could make myself dance like a world-class marionette.  In fact, I had to.  My performances were vital to my survival (said my brain).  Because when you remove the heart from something, what does it become other than a series of mechanical, empty performances??  And what’s left to be loved other than what you do, how well you perform?

I was so afraid that if I stopped dancing, I would effectively not exist; there would be nothing about me to love. It was a powerful, paralyzing fear that ate my life for years.

This is the place where I was going to write that you probably wouldn’t know my life was consumed by fear for years, if you were looking from the outside, and cite all of my success as proof. Trying to write that didn’t work out as expected. I dropped out of college at 19, ultimately because it challenged my view of myself as a world-class “performer.” I’ve collected two failed marriages, in no small part because I married men who in one way or another propped up my torso-less perfection dance. I did manage to get a good job, despite not having a degree, because I’d gotten really good at that perfectionism thing. I started school again about three years ago, and I’ve been collecting achievements left and right.

But…the happiness felt from an achievement is temporary. It’s like a drug, really. I get it, I feel tingly for little awhile, and then I just want more. Wait, maybe it’s more like sex.

In any event, a torso-less Krista is not a happy Krista (which, when phrased that way, sounds like a big “no duh”).  The truth is, despite what I always believed, it’s actually really easy to be somebody else.  All it takes is not being true to who you are.  Who you *really* are.  And who you *really* are is how you feel.  And feeling how you really feel, for reasons I’ll discuss later, is scary. As. Hell.