Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"A Little Bit of Heaven and A Little Bit of Hell Yeah"

My highest purpose? Well that’s the billion dollar question, isn’t it? Would it be wrong to say that I think I have four? Or five? Oh my God, can one person have five highest purposes? I’ve fallen madly in love with teaching, but I’m not sure that constitutes it as my highest purpose. Running marathons has become one of the most important things I do for myself but, again, it’s not really what I’d call the-greatest-good-I’ll-ever-do. There is something Liz Gilbert’s friend, Linda said that, I think, just might qualify as what I’ve always considered my highest purpose: “Admittedly, I am not the one who looks fantastic in everything, but still I cannot help loving myself” (100). Yeah, yeah that’s definitely it.

The past three years of my life have been big. Huge. We’re talking monumental. I’ve discovered that my parents are human, that dysfunction is pretty normal, that sometimes, things really can just be broken. I’ve found that relationships are not always meant to last for more than five minutes, or five years, or fifty. Whatever. I’ve learned that college changes pretty much everything, that people are mostly good, and that worrying is a stupid hobby to take up in your spare time. Most recently, I’ve realized that peace is a whole lot easier to find than I first imagined. In the midst of the chaos I was being tossed around in, it was easy to cling to things, people, places, and yes, even Sunday morning Mass as though they were life rafts. I wanted tangible comfort so badly that I began using all those things as crutches: my schoolwork, my boyfriend, my friends, the crucifix I wore around my neck (and which I was beginning to wear simply because I feared taking it off would surely lead to some other disaster). But none of those things, I don’t care how little you weigh, can support you forever. You can only lean on a crutch for so long before it, like you, grows warped and oddly, uncomfortably bent with the heaviness of your stress.

I knew a girl in high school who, every Friday night, regardless of anything else, took herself to dinner and a movie. No books or magazines to keep her busy at the dinner table, either. She just sat with herself. At lunch one day someone sitting at our table asked her why she did that. “I like my own company. If I don’t take a second to listen to myself, why should anyone else?” Kara was her name. So I did something radical. Well, radical for me anyway. I did say that I’m the world’s worst traveler, so jet-setting anywhere alone was out of the question. I simply started hanging out with myself. I broke up with my boyfriend of four years (a guy who, it should be noted, supported the weight of my worry and fear the longest), I put down my weekly planner and stopped looking at anything less than an A+ as worthless, I quit giving in to every invitation to parties, concerts, road trips (especially ones I truly, honest-to-God didn’t want to attend) extended to me by friends, and I unhooked the clasp that kept my crucifix around my neck. And I stopped going to church, which was pretty much the only place where I felt I could count on finding any rest.

I did all these things because, and Liz Gilbert said this best, “once upon a time, in an unguarded moment, [I] recognized [myself] as a friend” (55). And I wanted to find that recognition again. All I can say is this: it worked. There are about a million examples of this “Diligent Joy” that I could give. But a recent one seems most fitting. Last Friday, driving home from the library with the windows of my car rolled down, a live recording of the Dave Matthews Band in my stereo, and about ten different assignments due the upcoming week, I felt a sense of peace so absolute, so complete and sincere that I looked around my car as though I would find the source of the sudden contentment I was feeling. It was as though the whole world conspired, if only for a moment, to reassure me, to serve me a sparkling, thrilling, decadent slice of happiness. I was, for the entire thirty-minute ride home, confined to my own confidence and excitement and certainty. I’m pretty sure that this moment was a culmination of sorts. All the movies watched with myself, my golden retriever, and huge bags of Lifesavers hard candies, all the early morning five-mile runs around my neighborhood without my iPod, all the cooking I’d done alone in the kitchen of my parents’ house, all the drives to and from school, all the nights of good sleep and good dreams: it had all led up to this moment, these thirty minutes of just-plain-fantastic. The funny thing is, this peace was greater than any peace I’d ever felt while sitting in church. It was more spontaneous and lightweight and transparent and genuine than the kind of peace I’ve ever felt anywhere. The most self-satisfying and self-defining moment I’ve ever had. And it happens in my car. With Dave Matthews singing about Cornbread in the background. With my yet-to-be-written twelve page paper on Victorian Poetry due in five days. With a lesson on Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House to be taught in three days to a classroom full of tenth graders who seem really unsure as to why I think I have any right to stand in front of them and breathe, let alone teach.

OK, so the point is that “happiness [and loving yourself!] is the consequence of personal effort” (260). Yes, I think that’s true. But I also think that that effort pays off in the most unexpected of ways, that it simply hits you with such force that you’re stunned into acceptance. And then overwhelmed with gratitude, because in my car that day I simply could not help thanking myself over and over. What Liz Gilbert did in her travels seems, as we said in class, gigantic. Who has time (or money) for all of that? But I want to assert right this second that what I felt in my car the other day was as grand as any trip to Italy. I’ve never even been there and I just know. Honesty is the most crucial element of any relationship and it should be at the core of a relationship with yourself. That honesty with yourself is also the biggest step to finding your highest purpose. Admitting her emptiness that night on her bathroom floor, Elizabeth Gilbert started telling the truth. I figure that if at the end of any given day, I can tell myself the truth too, I'm doing just fine.

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