A Life Lived Well

When I was in Kindergarten, I had a bit of a breakdown. I felt like I was not moving through my letter books fast enough. The other children were slow to learn the ABCs and I already knew them and we needed to move it along. I dropped out of Girl Scouts in third grade because I got so preoccupied with getting as.many.badges.as.possible as fast as possible that I could not enjoy it. Or get anything out of it.

It goes on. In seventh grade, it was getting to be the editor of the school newspaper and yearbook. As fast as possible. And making them better. Fast. By high school, it was starting to take college classes. Filling out the resume for college. After a full scholarship to my undergraduate school, it was getting more majors. And more awards. So I could go to the best graduate school. After getting into a graduate program at Harvard, it was getting into the doctoral program at Harvard. Then passing exams. With distinction. Then writing a dissertation. I wouldn’t just be spiritual or religious or involved in my church, I would be ordained. Soon it was getting a job. After getting a tenure track job, the big concern has been the getting a book contract. And being the.best.professor possible. I want my students to love learning, love the class, love me, become good citizens, become good thinkers. Somewhere in there: Get married. Buy a house. Have a baby.

I am tired. If I stop to think about what a good life looks like, I hardly know. When I am with my son, who I want more time with, I am worried about when I can clean the house. Or get back to grading. As the trees change and the air is perfect, I look out the window from Starbucks with my overly sweet drink and write more comments on the papers that my students will probably never read. As I apply for grants and funding, my screen blurs together and I wonder what I am doing. I pour over our budget and wonder how we can make what we do and still come up short at the end of every month. What are we doing all of this for if not to be able to pay our bills and have a good, peaceful life, right? A PEACEFUL LIFE, goddammit.

Sometimes it can feel like we are caught in a hologram… but there is no red pill, no way to step out of it, to snap out of it. I think about what I should do to get out – meditate, go to yoga, take time to be present, make better plans, manage time better, get therapy, read more books or better books, and I just add these things onto my to do list and run from meeting to class to meeting, somehow feeling good about myself as I ease the pain with the balm of doing.

I tell my students there are few important easy choices in our lives – as individuals, as citizens. And there may not even be a choice. We are formed over time and our brains develop little pathways and we do not undo this in a day or a night or by getting saved or by making definitive decisions that we really mean this time. We undo or redo this slowly, the way that we have been done up by our universe. Moment by moment. Dragging ourselves back from the chaos into the memory of what we all long for, aware of the cliche and the unoriginality of our desires.

These things are not changed by quotes we tape to our computer screen or put on our pinterest wall, we know, as we hurriedly find better pithy and inspirational quotes and clearer places to post them.

Perhaps this is my draw to God and grace. The idea that we are loved and ok always. From before time and until after time. No matter what we do. We want to believe it, but like the alcoholic who just has one more drink, and feels that emptiness and pain melting away, we put one more good line on our resume. One more grant or book or job or success. And we are good, right? Doing the right things. Right?

9 Responses to A Life Lived Well

  1. naokihan says:

    This was a nice post. I enjoyed reading it. I am not anywhere close to being as decorated as you are, but I do have to say that in the end all of that won’t really matter. What really matters is if we lived the life that we can honestly say we would want to live over again. Even if it meant you had to live through all the bad times again. Keep up the good work.


  2. lydia says:

    I know what you mean. Somewhere along the way, I learned how to turn off that drive to constantly be better, faster, stronger (to use a Kanye lyric) in my head, but that didn’t stop the guilt from not achieving.

  3. I felt exhausted when I was reading and especially when I finished your entery.I may have that same bug in me. I’m retired and have no responsibilities but I wake up each morning with my head pounding with all the things I “should do”. Fortunately I married well and my wife constantly attacks my “shoulds” and I learn to replace it with “I would like to”. Sadly I will take the “shoulds” to the grave. I often blame it on my German mother and the Catholic faith that says that we should always strive for “perfection”. Like you, I am woking on this problem. Sometimes I escape into Nature, which is so healing and forgiving.

    • shorelinedre says:

      It’s ironic — you can sense the suffering associated with striving for perfection, then say, “I am working on this problem.” Don’t work too hard, as it is impossible to perfectly eradicate perfectionism!

      Seriously though, try to just listen to what your mind has to say about what would happen if you were to stop struggling to improve and stop trying to solve these perceived problems within yourself. Then ask if it’s really *true* or just a very convincing *thought*.

      May you be peaceful,

  4. shorelinedre says:

    Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa is a book that immediately comes to mind after reading your post. It seems like you may already have an inkling of the concept of spiritual materialism — you say things like “we hurriedly find better pithy and inspirational quotes and clearer places to post them.” You seem to also have a dawning awareness of the futility in this.

    The trance-like feeling of there being something missing or lacking, feeling “caught in a hologram,” — that is the feeling that seems to be driving your actions. But you can’t solve a problem with the same mindset that creates it. You can’t come to a place of wholeness and peace by way of the “good you” struggling to subjugate the “bad you.” You can’t effort your way into peace. Peace comes through releasing the need to fight and win. Peace comes through the cessation of effort and struggle, not through greater amounts of it. The effort and struggle to be peaceful and happy is like a dog chasing it’s own tail — you never get it and it just tires you out.

    Try to ask yourself, gently, if it is possible that there might already be a wholeness to life that you are wrongly perceiving as a problem to get over. And don’t try too hard to find it!

    May you be peaceful,

  5. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks all for your comments. I especially love the line “you can’t effort your way into peace.” In many ways, this is what I know in my mind. But have yet to translate it to my heart and mind and lived life. Onward I suppose. Deep breaths….

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