I had dinner recently with someone from my past. We were pretty much in the same places in our lives for a little while. Then our directions quickly diverged. She stayed a while longer in the job we both had; I quit. She got married; I stayed single for many years. She had kids; I did not. She got a new job I might have liked; I started my own business, which is what she had intended to do. Her salary increased; I spent my savings. She became the head of an organization, responsible to her staff, board, and the people who rely on the services of her organization. I live pretty much my own life in my own way, accountable to almost no one.
I have a great life. But being with her rattled me for a time. Who was I then, and what am I now? Should I have been more ambitious? Should I have tried harder to find purpose in that career I had at the time?
I’m pretty sure I made the right choices for me at the right times and for the right reasons. And I know I would not be happy living her life. But still, something nagged. I was surprised to feel some envy.
I haven’t looked it up but I wonder if envy is from the same root as the French envoyer, to send, as if some imagined and unfulfilled future has sent someone back to say nah nah nanah nah. Or maybe there’s some connection to vie, as if envy is to enter in to some competition, some vying for something. Because of course, it takes two to envy.
Or three, rather, as there is the damnable Other person who triggers the whole thing, and the Self, of course, but then there’s the Shadow Self, that imagined person living the life of the Other, endlessly happy, rich, and trouble free. And that’s the absurdity, of course.
Okay, I looked it up, and envy is from the Latin in + videre, to see. So envy is a seeing in, but a seeing that’s through a glass darkly, it seems. Somehow it came to mean to see with malice. But me, I am seeing amiss. The only thing I’m vying with is my shadow boxer, a funny shaped version of me flinging around on the floor. We bounce and dance around the ring, but our punches miss every time.
As happens so frequently, into my inbox popped the latest post from the incomparable website Brainpickings which contained exactly reflective ideas that further enlarged my thinking on this stuff. Brainpickings mastermind Maria Popova stumbled on a book called A Life of One’s Own by Joanna Field, published in 1934. Joanna Field was a pen name for psychoanalyist Marion Milner. Milner decided to spend seven years studying what makes for fulfillment and happiness by examining her own moments, observing her own brain’s movements through the range of discontents and contents.
It turns out the very act of closely observing, both her thoughts and the world around her, brought a widening of vision that itself was joyous. Here are two observations Popova quotes from the book that I found particularly interesting.
Field/Milner wrote: “…what is really easy, as I found, is to blind one’s eyes to what one really likes, to drift into accepting one’s wants ready-made from other people, and to evade the continual day to day sifting of values.”
And this: “I had been continually exhorted to define my purpose in life, but I was now beginning to doubt whether life might not be too complex a thing to be kept within the bounds of a single formulated purpose, whether it would not burst its way out, or if the purpose were too strong, perhaps grow distorted like an oak whose trunk has been encircled with an iron band. I began to guess that my self’s need was for an equilibrium, for sun, but not too much, for rain, but not always… So I began to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know.… that my real purpose might be to learn to have no purposes.”
And I think about the kind of observation and reflection required to make art, particularly (but I am biased here) poetry. Isn’t it great that the very process required to make art is what Milner discovered is the process required to feel fulfilled, once we’ve jettisoned the ideas of fulfillment handed to us by parents, others, society, tradition. This is not to say that fulfillment is not found in all kinds of work, but rather that it is found in moments of quiet, sensory-based attention to what is at hand, whatever is at hand — a meeting with a client, the combining of ingredients for a cake, the resolution of a column of figures, or the act of mustering experience, imagination, and language to write a poem.
Milner wrote: “I had felt my life to be of a dull dead-level mediocrity, with the sense of real and vital things going on round the corner, out in the streets, in other people’s lives. For I had taken the surface ripples for all there was, when actually happenings of vital importance to me had been going on, not somewhere away from me, but just underneath the calm surface of my own mind.”
If you don’t subscribe to Brainpickings, I highly recommend you do. Every post is filled with so much fascinating and thought-enlarging stuff. The only problem is that it lengthens beyond reason the list of wonderful sounding books I have to get around to reading.
Read the entry I cited here.