“Success. Success, not greatness, was the only god the entire world served.” — Drew Baylor, Elizabethtown
I thought it would be appropriate to start this entry, this internal monologue, with one of my favorite quotes from perhaps my favorite movie of all time.
One of the many things on my mind these days is the upcoming fourth anniversary of my university graduation. I sat there bedecked in honors regalia in my studious black cap and gown, then walked across a stage with most of the people I knew watching to receive my Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. To people looking on, to my professors in the wings, it looked like a bright and brilliant start…A giant step onto the fast track toward the standard vision of success.
Three of my four years I spent obsessively pursuing academic perfection, which led to insomnia, anxiety attacks, night terrors, and various physical ailments including severe migraines that literally blinded me (among other symptoms) and frequent stomach upset (diagnosed as acid reflux disease). After graduation, just soldiering through all that, pretending nothing was at all wrong with me, and ignoring it all in the pursuit of some vision of success finally caught up with me. I crashed. I spent three months in a depressed stupor, mostly sleeping, crying at the drop of a hat, eating too much or not eating at all, and feeling entirely useless because this piece of paper that was supposed to open so many doors actually led to more being slammed in my face.
Why? Because I had to move back to my small hometown and live with my parents. When I graduated, I only had about $200.00 to my name, and that doesn’t get you very far. Here, having my degree made me overqualified for a lot of jobs, but didn’t qualify me for a lot of the rest, so I was faced with a very limited job market.
No one told me, when I chose academia as my path, that there was even the possibility of this happening…That having my degree could, in fact, be a liability. My first conversation about university was in kindergarten. I decided when I was five years old that I was going to get a degree, and was encouraged, told that the world would then, for the most part, be my oyster. Most of everything I did from kindergarten on, as far as school was concerned, was in order to reach one goal: be the brightest and best I could possibly push myself to be so I could get a good scholarship and get my Bachelor’s degree. At university, it wasn’t long until I decided that I needed to be the brightest and best so I could get into a good graduate school and get it paid for, or else get a well-paying job.
I had something to prove, you see. Words from childhood ran in a loop in my head, a recording of various people telling me that I was fat, or ugly, and therefore lazy and worthless. Early on, I figured out that it was unlikely I would get anywhere on looks, so I decided to make academic accolades and “intelligence” my way to prove those people wrong, my way to be successful, and hard proof of worthiness.
Four years out from graduation, I’ve found that well-paying jobs are difficult for anyone to find in the economic climate we live in, even more so for recent graduates, especially here. I don’t have a stellar job to hold up as bright and shining success. I am still living with my parents, saving as much money as I can to finance a leap into life entirely on my own, away from here, in a place in which I will perhaps fit in better, resisting the pushing of certain family members to “settle down” with a local boy of their choice, become Holly Housewife, and make babies. (I do eventually want a husband and at least one child, but not until I live independently first. I don’t think that, even in my worst of moments, I could force myself to form and maintain a relationship solely to make my family feel better about my security.) Along the way in these years past, I’ve decided that, for now at least, graduate school is not for me. I don’t want to have another crash like I did after undergrad, to have to claw my way out of the bottom of that well again, and it would be so easy for me to end up there again, to let rampant perfectionism rule my life, when I’ve made a lot of progress in squashing it compared to where I was four years ago.
However, I’d be lying if I said I was completely over perfectionism. No, I’m not. I am a product of my culture, after all. In this prevailing culture, we want the perfect job, the perfect car, the perfect house, the perfect partner, the perfect body…Even the perfect soul. The list goes on. This sort of cultural indoctrination has to be disassembled a tiny bit at a time, and rebuilt with healthier attitudes.
See, I lack certain visible measures of success: a sizable salary with benefits, independence, a home of my own (even a rental), a spiffy new car, accolades, an impressive resume or curriculum vitae, a successful romantic relationship, success in motherhood, or a post-graduate degree. I haven’t even taken any impressive risks. I haven’t even written that novel yet, or any novel, about which people periodically ask me. That drives my inner perfectionist crazy!
That being the case, every year, as the anniversary of my graduation approaches, I feel tender. I frequently feel like I failed to live up to my potential, that I am failing to live up to my potential. As I said, I don’t have much in the way of outer markers to point to culturally-recognized success.
But…Yes, there is a but…In conversation with a dear friend this weekend, I was reminded that the culturally-recognizable forms of success are not, in fact the only ones. I moaned about being unsuccessful, and she said:
“Maybe the ‘success’ you have attained in the four years since graduation are the areas of growth you have achieved in so many areas of your self-awareness.
“Your knowledge of what your body needs.
“Your awareness of what does and doesn’t work for you.
“Your ability to withstand the pressures of family and social mores where you are and NOT ‘settle’ for marrying some nice, local, Baptist boy and spitting out a couple of babies by now and robbing yourself of the opportunity to make the life you want when the time is right.
“Even the self-awareness to see [at times] how your words might […] come off to other people and take that as a growth experience rather than getting pissy and defensive.
“Personally, I’d say you’ve come a LONG way and are a HUGE success.”
She was and is right.
Plus, I realized this weekend, after finding I am just two to three weeks from another savings goal, one I didn’t think I’d hit, that I am and have been very successful at managing the money I do make. Score one small, culturally-recognizable marker of success.
Oh, and about those migraines and acid reflux disease…I am now down to one or two debilitating migraines per year as long as I take my one-a-day, low-dose preventative, watch my stress levels, and keep up a regular yoga and meditation practice, whereas, before, it was at least once a month (a really good month), even on the preventative. I take an over-the-counter acid reducer, at night only, for the supposed acid reflux disease, and it only flares up a couple of times a year, too, usually during periods in which I’m feeling really stressed out. With these things, as well, I have come a long way.
Another way I’ve grown in the past four years is spiritually. I finally got the courage together to stop trying to force myself to fit in a religious mold that pinched and chafed in all the wrong places. I am learning so much from looking at spirituality holistically, from trying to see the areas of overlap among the world’s religious and spiritual traditions, and setting up my camp there, and thereby learning new things all the time. I’ve even started making peace with Christianity at large, a subset of which is that religious mold that pinched and chafed in all the wrong places. I continually feel like I’m waking up. I fall off into the shallows, consumed by worldly stuff for a while, then I surface again, a process I expect to repeat many times as I am human, after all, and that each time will bring some new realization, which I may or may not momentarily forget and start the process over. I’m really okay with that. Aren’t we, after all, ultimately here to learn and experience?
Growth may or may not equal success. The kind of internal journey I’ve been on may or may not, in the eyes of the world, be a measure of success. But, I’ve decided I will take these over the prevailing cultural definition of success, in which I’ve largely failed, any day. Does that mean I’ll never again be afraid of failure? No. I still frequently fear failure. But it does mean I’ve expanded what can be included in my definition of “success.”
And, to tie everything up in a nice little bow, the way it began:
“You wanna be really great? Then have the courage to fail big and stick around. Make them wonder why you’re still smiling. That’s true greatness to me.” — Claire Colburn, Elizabethtown