A week ago I was feeling ansty. Restless for paths not taken and parallel lives in which exciting dramas played out on the screens of my mind. A week ago, I admit to thinking: “Is this it?”
My ego, you see, it gets greedy. It’s like Cookie Monster in my brain, eating up any small success and getting bigger and meaner and more demanding (and not nearly as cute). For in that very same week I held in my hands my new book, a product of a year and a half’s work (though much of it pleasurable) and saw the first version of a cover for my novel that is coming out very soon after. And in that same week I looked at a stacked list of articles and essays due to outlets that would have been a dream two years ago. And in that same week I had more than enough in all the ways that matter—material and otherwise—and then some.
But my ego, man, it had the audacity to ask: is this it?
Just like the wise and funny author Anne Lamott warned me once long ago, success (however you define that) does not fill your emptiness. It doesn’t fix the past, or make estranged relatives love you. If anything, success simply makes starker those things that aren’t yet bathed in love and light. And in that way, success can be like a drug. It satisfies you for only a short time, and then it leaves you with a pounding headache, regrets, and maybe with some cheap crap you ordered late at night online that you can’t send back. I’ve heard it time and time again; it’s the cautionary tale of Hollywood—too much success can go to the head, make you sick.
I haven’t had THAT level of success thankfully. I’ve had enough for me. More than enough. More than I thought I would and a great deal of it this past two years. Enough to make me sick.
But I have found myself hustling after it like the next big high—driving myself and my body harder toward these new plateaus, new measures I sorely wanted, trying to keep pace with many talented and achieving colleagues.
So whether you want to say it was the universe or god, or my body or the force, the answer to “is this it?” was a big resounding whopper of an illness. Not something mundane, either, like influenza or a head cold. I had to go and get, as several friends put it, a literary illness: scarlet fever. (Basically strep throat run amok turned to fever with a whole motherlode of nasty symptoms). In a nutshell: I felt like the worst, most feverish, aching, vomiting, rashy, swollen, pitiful creature on earth. I shivered and convulsed in my bed and felt very, very sorry for myself.
Except, in between bouts of fever and ibuprofen consumption, my ego battered into the corner of my being, I saw the truth: life without any flash or bang, without any wild success IS IT! And it’s astonishingly good. In that life you can stand upright! You can swallow without pain. You can turn over without agony. And you can also drink coffee and hang out with people you love. You can read books people wrote for you and do meaningful work. You can watch your child stretch impossibly tall before your eyes and admire the steadfast love of the partner you’ve been with for almost 20 years.
We all have our addictions. Mine is not a substance—it’s the high of praise, the ground swell of validation I feel when I publish a new essay or book. But that is all so fleeting. And when I chase that high too hard and too long, my body crumbles.
So here I am, emerging like a naked moth from its slimy cocoon, humbled, shaky, relieved to feel better, musing on the nature of how to balance these energies that take us over. Our desires don’t always match what our bodies are capable of doing.
But I also know that there is no miraculous, universal balance that you can achieve in five easy steps and that, once achieved, lasts forever. No perfect reform without any hint of slippage.
There is coming in and out of balance.
There is expansion followed by contraction.
There is recognizing when balance is falling apart, tipping to one side, tweaking to the other and attempting to put strategies into place.
There is only recalibrating, resetting. This week, I’m pointing my compass toward gratitude: yes, this now, this life is it. And it is more than enough.