Wednesday, June 10, 2009

my very own house of mirth

"That was the feeling which possessed her now - the feeling of being something rootless and ephemeral, mere spindrift on the whirling surface of existence, without anything to which the poor little tentacles of self could cling before the awful flood submerged them again. ...[The] old life-hunger possessed her, and all her being clamored for its share of personal happiness. Yes - it was happiness she still wanted, and the glimpse she had caught of it made everything else of no account."

Among the slew of things I'm trying to figure out about my life is how to distinguish what I'm good at from what I like. I've always tended to gravitate toward what is easy for me - in school, in jobs, in general - with the result that I often don't get much sense of accomplishment from my achievements, even if I'm praised for them, because to me, they're no big deal. (A couple of times, when I've been really adrift, I've ended up in a job that I not only don't like, but I'm not good at, either. Those were the lost years.)

Ideally, of course, I want to figure out where the overlap is between "things I'm good at" and "things I like," so I can start living that fuller, richer life I keep talking about - you know, the one that is so emotionally and intellectually rewarding, with depth and luster and perhaps even resonance, and where I can talk to the animals. It would also be pleasant if my vocation-to-be actually paid something, since I've found I enjoy having money in the bank - something I'd imagined would be a given by this point in my life, considering I've had good jobs and have not blown wads of cash on Manolos or sports cars or five-star vacations. That's the way it was supposed to work, right? Work hard, get rewarded, find your situation growing more secure and stable as the years go on. Instead, I get my annual Social Security statement, and the chart of my lifetime income by year looks like the Great Pyramid.

Sometime in the past few years, I started to feel a bit like Lily Bart, slowly descending into the straitened circumstances of genteel poverty, and fearing a sudden tip into financial failure. (I know: dramatic, right?) I've actually been afraid to look at House of Mirth for a long time since, in my memory, it hit pretty close to home. Today, I picked it up again, and guess what? It's a bull's-eye.

Lily Bart has no fortune and no way to support herself, so she must marry. Her doom lies partly in the fact that she feels herself to be better than her circumstances, and she rejects each of her suitors in turn. Each has a fatal flaw: too vulgar, too weak, too crooked, too tradition-bound, too patronizing. Lily always thinks that she will find some other way of living that aligns with her sensibilities, but ultimately, she runs out of options, her charms fade, and she dies in her sordid little room, either an accidental or deliberate overdose.

Cheery, isn't it?

For me (and I would hope for most women in this day and age), replace "suitors" with "jobs." I can pretty much put each of my jobs and/or bosses into those fatal-flaw categories, and I tended to focus on those flaws in the same way that Lily did. Problem is, like Lily, I couldn't really afford such fine feelings, yet my o'erweening pride made it impossible for me to just put my head down and do my work. Instead, I butted heads with the best of them, and painted myself into corner after corner. Needless to say, I've bounced around quite a bit. My reasons for leaving a job are often pretty thin: basically, I get fed up, some new job comes a-courtin', the novelty and ego-boost are irresistible, and off I go. Rinse, repeat.

Thanks to a bit of a windfall, I broke this cycle last spring: I got rid of my pressing debts, put some money in the bank, and quit what was hopefully the last of the soul-crushing jobs. Now, I'm so resistant to the idea of getting back into that grind that just looking at the job listings can send me over the edge. I think what has crystallized for me over the past few months is this: I don't want to start this next phase of my life by first finding a job, and then fitting the rest of my life around that job. I can see myself right back where I was: scraping by in New York, fretting about bills, hating Sunday night. Not quite as dire a situation as Lily Bart's, but still.

Instead, I want to start this journey by figuring out how to be happy, and then building a life that is in service to that happiness. If nothing else, this gives me a framework of sorts in which to think about my wide-open future; it has been overwhelming, honestly, to have a completely blank page in front of me.

It's not exactly an ambitious career plan, and it's probably not too original a concept (I gather it's pretty well covered by a long line of philosophers and self-help books), but for me, at this point in my life, it's a major revelation.

painting: "Mrs. Charles E. Inches," by John Singer Sargent


  1. Amen to quitting the soul-crushing job. Nothing like getting off of that infernal treadmill. The first step to finding out who you are now and going from there.

  2. Haha! I've thought of Lily Bart often in the 3+ years since losing/leaving my job in high tech. I've tried various things since (social services, contracting, volunteering) but haven't quite found my groove yet. I like your approach to this issue; your posts are excellent food for thought.

  3. If you are currently rootless, do rootless things (teach english overseas, peace corps, etc.). Once you get your roots embedded in ordinary, mundane life it will be much harder to make change.

    In that time, you may find out there are more things you don't want to do. You may find what you enjoy doing. You might be just gaining experience for future reference. But it will be interesting. You might have helped someone. And it is not forever.

    And without the immediate pressure of "having to decide now", you will find it.

  4. Sio, for what it's worth I do believe you're going about things in the right way.

    Who cares if your process takes longer than others? From where I sit, it seems you are closer to finding "it" than you think, as you've really done the soul-searching about what works for you.

  5. someone said, "the longest road out is the shortest road home" or somesuch...i'd have to disagree with dorothy "there's a better place than home..." just takes awhile....