For me, the spiritual life has to be about finding a viable, sustainable, functional way of life that delivers intrinsic worth. The quest for these things has long been part of what philosophy does, while we often use the methods of religion to create a sense of peace and meaning. I often find I need to poke my life and experience to try and find better ways through things.
I’ve been through some really shitty situations, and there is a pattern. I notice how reluctant I am to name and acknowledge the problem. Part of it comes from a desire not to complain, or blame anyone else. Part of it comes from the insane belief that if I keep slogging away and working hard, I will magically get there. When there is a problem, naming it has consequence. You have moved from denial to acceptance. That acceptance implies a need for change and may well create the momentum for it. Based on experience, owning and naming the problem is often the most frightening and painful part of the process. Once that’s done, everything gets easier.
The most recent example is a simpler one because it is not tangled up in relationships with other people. It is underpinned by my whole history, though, by how others see me and see my work, by a desire to validate myself through my work and to make a point. It’s underpinned by not wanting to admit defeat or to acknowledge what I’m not. There’s a second strand, too, which was a belief that I wasn’t really good enough for anything else and that I would not be able to get a proper job anyway. Make it as a professional author, or be thrown on the scrapheap. I’d convinced myself this was all I had.
Last week I said ‘enough’. I can’t make a living as an author. It may well be this is because I’m not good enough – not commercially minded enough to be a Dan Brown, not creative genius enough to be an Ursula Le Guinn. Going through that naming process was agony. It took days, in the midst of burnout and exhaustion. I cried a lot, and I felt like my whole life was falling to pieces around me. But rather than reassure myself that somehow it would all magically be ok, I started looking hard at how I was feeling, and why, and what was going on there.
I got to a place of saying ‘this is not ok and something needs to change’. That really helped. Deciding that it is not ok to slog away, striving and exhausted and not earning enough to live comfortably and not having time, energy or resources to do the things I want to do… that was important. Recognising that I don’t deserve to be worked to death in a state of miserable exhaustion. That helped. Maybe the failure is mine. I accept that, so be it. In that acceptance, eventually came peace and relief.
After a while I started feeling able to let go of the dreams and aspirations that had kept me on the treadmill for so long. Realising that I don’t have to achieve anything specifically, was a relief. Realising that maybe I could just spend a while going after things that would make me feel better, and that I could find work that I also find meaningful – that was liberating. Once I got past the pain of naming the problem, the pain reduced. I became able to think. I started making decisions, and choices, and being able to see a way forward.
Change is scary. Owning a problem is scary because it means facing the things, people, arrangements, aspects of self that aren’t working. It can seem easier to deny the issue, and keep going as though it was all right really. Toxic workplaces, dysfunctional relationships, destructive peer groups, depressing homes… we tell ourselves ‘better the devil you know’ and we stay. The comfort and security of staying where it hurts and doesn’t work, is a myth. Sometimes the novelly of a new and unfamiliar devil is at least a bit of respite and a change of scenery, even if ultimately you do end up with the same old shit. And sometimes, the alternative is better.
I don’t default to tearing everything down for the sake of it. Sometimes though, tearing everything down is the only way to go. Then you can see the painted scenery, the strings on the puppets, the fake moonlight, and you can get out of the carefully built illusion and find something else. Maybe a new illusion, but possibly something real and worth having.