Monday, May 16, 2011

Tragic Flaws and Eggshell Omelets

Last Friday, I wrote a piece called "Extra Lives" in which I proposed the idea that we all need to engage in activities that satisfy us -- activities that cater to the needs of the different elements of who we are: multidimensional beings of tremendous complexity. But when I thought back on it, it occurred to me that what I said could be seen superficially -- that it could seem like I am simply implying that we all need hobbies for stress relief.

I'm not talking about finding diversions. Diversions can be good for you, but they can also be dangerous. Too many years of diversions can set us up for a right cross from reality. For instance, finding an engrossing hobby can mean that while you spend every spare moment involved in that hobby, the rest of your life turns into a messy room you can't clean up without a front-end loader.

The things I am talking about are deeper than diversions, though. And because of that, you may not be able to have to many of them. Rather than diversions, I am talking about, as I said in the last piece, things that really speak to your soul. I referred to our needing to to some archaeology of the soul -- digging to find the things that fulfill us. That's the hard part, but I sort of left it hanging.

My wife, Karen, read a book by Gretchen Rubin called The Happiness Project. In the book, Rubin says that a good way to find out what makes you happy is to connect with what made you happy as a kid.  I'm not sure if I buy that, fully. Or, rather, I would revise that into something more specific: find what made you happy as a teenager. I have said, elsewhere on this blog, that what we wanted as a teenager, revised for added years of maturity, is the thing that makes us happy now. (For me, my old dreams of being a musical star, like Billy Joel, just meant I want to communicate ideas and emotions to people. So I do that . . .)

Other than that, you sort of have to draw your own map. I guess it comes down to questions. Okay, you need to think. X makes me happy. The important thing is not to try to reproduce X, exactly as it happened, but to figure out what it was about X that made me so happy. So, for me, for instance, when I played my first musical gig, it made me happy. Instead of trying to dedicate my life to playing for people, exclusively, in an effort to feel that again, I reasoned out that that gig made me so happy because I had moved people's emotions and and because they and I connected. I communicated emotions and ideas with them. That is what makes me happy, which is why I am happy teaching a class, singing, playing or writing, in equal measure. There are many ways to find that feeling. If I had limited myself to just music, I might have found myself disappointed in the end, as I have seen a lot of my musician friends become.

There it looms again: the fatal mistake. If you put all your eggs in the proverbial one basket, you are eventually going to eat an eggshell omelet.

Hamlet (Olivier) and, well,
all of us, someday.
The key to all of this, I think, is to find the essentials (in the literal sense) of what makes us up and then find things to fit those pieces of who we are. So few of us try to figure ourselves out. It really scares me. When I teach Hamlet to my high school seniors, I have them do a project in which they map out their tragic flaw -- the one thing that could cause their eventual downfall. At the end, I always say to them: "Imagine if you had never done that? Scary, possibilities, huh?" As they stare at me, during the long dramatic pause, I say. "You're welcome." (At which point, I am usually hit with a paper ball from the back of the room.)

We can't quit, my friends. Who are you? Do you really know? Until you do, the process of finding happiness can be like trying to quench your thirst by pouring water over your own head.


  1. I agree with what you're saying, but I wonder if this is a 'chicken or the egg' thing.

    You didn't look at your teenaged performing and reason out "communication and connecting" and then get a job as a teacher. You play/write music because it makes you happy; you write because it makes you happy. But you kind of stumbled into teaching and discovered that it also makes you happy. It seems that after the fact, you looked back and realized what all these things have in common. And so you were able to say, "Right, of course I'm happy as a teacher!"

    But if the epiphany hasn't yet come, examining our adolescence and mapping out our interestes and what their commonalities are is not so easy. It often becomes a matter of trial and error. I liked x, y and z when I was in high school. They have a, b and c in common. Which do I pursue? As an adult with limited time and other resources, it often remains difficult to realize your passion.

  2. Well, the point is, my eventual connecting of the dots can be a task performed earlier. Hence the advice -- especially to those younger than I am. It's not really chicken-or-egg. It just so happens, this chicken laid his egg late and wants to share it with everyone else. (Man, that sounds gross.) But, as I said, everyone has to draw his own map . . . What I do know is that figuring out our essential parts will help. I never dis say it was easy, though . . .

  3. Or, a better version of the metaphor might be that I laid the egg and didn't realize it and then looked back and said: "Hey! Look at that!" But, through it all, I was driven into my decisions by the right instincts and reasoning, even if it was filled with gaps.

  4. "Find what made you happy as a teenager. I have said, elsewhere on this blog, that what we wanted as a teenager, revised for added years of maturity, is the thing that makes us happy now."

    The "revised for added years of maturity" strikes me as insightful. I'd be (and feel) foolish doing at nearly 40 the same things I did when I was 16, but that "warm thrill of confusion" is still out there if you can find an age-appropriate pursuit. I'd feel like an ass if I were to suit up in Laser Tag gear and run screaming through a public park in New Jersey, like I did long ago, but I've experienced a similar thrill while writing, teaching, or traveling in a strange country. As adults, we really only fail when we conflate that feeling of happiness with the mere activity itself.

  5. Thanks, Jeff. And you couldn't have put it better: "As adults, we really only fail when we conflate that feeling of happiness with the mere activity itself."

    Another metaphor I have used is that we adults are just teenagers wrapped up in scar tissue. Somehow, the world convinces some of us that what we wanted as teenagers is silly. But you are right: it's the essence, not the form that we really need. It's whatever satisfaction laser tag offers that is important, not the actual activity. (Yet, I feel I could still be talked into a round or two . . .)

  6. So glad you linked to your wife's blog as well -- I enjoyed checking it out.

    Me in high school: music, learning, friends and family. Yup.

  7. Glad you liked Karen's blog. She's smart cookie. You two seem to be of the same ilk!