“Take the happiest man, the most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure.” -William James
A few years ago, I received a great birthday gift from my family: tickets to a football game. I had been to several games before attending this one, but for whatever reason, it was an eye opener. It felt like I was in an Indiana Jones film, with a level of anticipation akin to that of the protagonist on his quest for the lost ark of the covenant. I was going to enter this hallowed ground to become enraptured in its majesty. And, just as if I had discovered the ark, I was greatly disappointed. I realized, while up close, that the game comprised of a bunch of men throwing a ball around, that my hopes were shattered by the mundane. I wasn’t sure what I expected, but what I received was far from my ideal.
I think this happens to most of us. But, I feel that it happens to me the most. (Yes, I’m aware of this being an example of emotional reasoning.) Idealization fuels my obsessive drives, whether I’m chasing literary success, a girl, or recognition in the podcasting world, I expect my efforts to engender extraordinary outcomes. But, I’m disappointed… every time, because most of the events that we’re certain will confer great joy are just as ordinary as the ones we believe won’t.
I often have this reoccurring dream of watching my favorite football team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, play backyard football against a division rival. On the surface, the dream doesn’t make much sense: why would professional teams play against one another in someone’s backyard? But, what I take the dream to be telling me, if anything at all, is that although I idealize what it’s like to play in, or even attend, a game, in the end, it’s only what it appears to be: just a game.
Most of the people I’ve met have their lives wrapped up in the notions of what could be, envisioning worlds far greater than their own. And some of them can, and should, be considered as success stories. So, if the most successful people I know aren’t happy with their lots, how could the rest of us ever be? What’s the real culprit of our distress, the lack or the anticipation?
At least for me, I’ve come to accept that it’s the latter. I’m reminded of The Great Gatsby, specifically the part of the story in which Jay Gatsby tells Nick that his life is supposed to be on a perpetually upward trajectory. The tale is one of rags to riches, of a boy reared in the dustbin, who yearns to climb the social ladder to a world of bottomless prosperity. And, as always, deprivation created excess and obsession, fueling an idealized image of what his life was going to be as long as he harbored the passion to chase it.
In obsessively attempting to become what he wasn’t, the opposite of who he was, to escape from defining poverty, he ran after a dream life and an idealized person that continually eluded him. Ultimately, his ideals and his thoughtlessness ended one life and left another one empty. As he pursued his vision, his life passed him by, bereft of the joy he so vehemently desired. Like many of us, he fell into the trap of: I’m unhappy now, but I can become happy later. However, success isn’t an end state, and neither is joy. And, the perpetual climb is a perpetual delusion. Daisy, Jay’s love interest, asserted that he wanted too much; yet, that didn’t stop him.
All of this isn’t to imply that I’ve decided to discontinue pursuing success, whatever that means, but that I possess a clearer internal image of what it can and can’t do for me. I often return to the quote from the film, Cool Runnings, where John Candy’s character tells Derice, the team captain, that a gold medal can only take him so far: “If you aren’t enough without a gold medal, you’ll never be enough with one.” The reason being that winning a gold medal won’t eliminate your imperfections, won’t fully negate the external, and internal, doubt and rebuke, and, thus, if you’re attempting to develop a sense of your life (and yourself) in a state of perfection, can’t foster self love. Even if victory momentarily shatters your insecurities, the doubts, nitpicking, and comparisons eventually creep back in.
When self-acceptance is conditional, you’ll always be one step away.
Through my disappointments, the failures and successes, maturity taught me that nothing will ever be as good or fulfilling as I want it to be, and that seems to be life’s fundamental secret. It’s as though I went through the rituals of some secret society to discover that they only knew a bit more about life than I did. But, although life beyond that last rung, whatever that is, isn’t going to be everything I envisioned, I’m not saying that it isn’t worth pursuing; just that isn’t worth obsessing over.
My writing, our show, and even my sessions aren’t close to what I wanted them to be. They haven’t revolutionized psychology or even saved anyone’s life, and that’s okay because they constitute small contrnibtiioons to my clients, my readers, and the field of psychology. After that football game, I realized that my lack of joy didn’t stem from the ordinariness of the game but from my expectation of what it was going to be like. And, if I had allowed myself to, I could have enjoyed it for what it was.
Maybe some of what I achieve will be exceptional to some, but it will never be so to most. The problem isn’t my inability to be great; it’s believing that I, and my life, should be. We often try diligently to make the world into something it can’t be, to pursue the American dream. Instead of continuing in our fruitless attempts to change it, we can focus on changing ourselves. Success is only success because you’ve labeled it so.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald