It may seem I’ve been gone for a while, but it’s not true. I’ve been here and there. I’ve just been invisible for a while. You would think I was agonizing over a feature article for the newspaper. I have two or three posts in the queue (not counting countless, abandoned ones) that are “mostly done” but I can’t bring myself to finish/post. You’ve already heard me moan about one of them so I’ll move on.
It brings me to another subject I think about from time to time: what is success? I’m thinking in terms of a whole life lived rather than individual events, a single aspect of someone’s life, or a few blog posts sitting unfinished.
How much of success (so far as it can be defined, measured, or evaluated) is subjective? If we assume much of it is subjective – and I would posit it most assuredly is, how much can we attribute other people’s perceptions placed upon us and our own, independent conclusions? Like most things, I think it’s a combination. We have the capacity to think for ourselves, but our values and beliefs are inevitably shaped by those close to us, particularly when we’re young.
There’s a problem lurking in there, preying on the joy in our lives, and part of it is the concept of potential. You know the equation: if life minus potential is greater then zero then you’re a success! Congratulations! Potential is a quality we’re sure exists, in varying quantities, pertaining to multiple qualities, but is it really only a guess? I don’t mean to argue there’s no such thing, or it’s a creation of someone’s imagination or wishful thinking. Sometimes part of it is based on measurable attributes. Sometimes it’s an educated guess based on a great deal of experience. However, sometimes a guess is still just a guess. If the perception of our potential is propped up my such a guess, it’s a guess that has a profound impact on our perception of success, our feelings of self-worth, and often our mental health.
We live our lives, some of us meeting or exceeding these expectations created by the perception of potential, and some of us not. But either way, do we feel successful? If we merely meet our potential aren’t we just meeting expectations? We’re a culture of “more.” Enough never is. Excess is our culture’s idea of enough. If we merely meet, or heaven forbid – fall short of these expectations – is it possible we sometimes (perhaps even often) suffer disappointment at the hands of a guess that was wrong?
We can’t forget the 800 pound gorilla in the room – the one I left behind the closed door of potential a while back: what is success? Hell, what goes in the recipe? Money, marriage, fertility, social status, professional status… they all weigh heavily on the scale. But what of happiness? Where does happiness go on the shopping list? Can we use a substitute, as if we’re swapping margarine for butter?
Happiness is at the top of my list. I accept no substitutes. I was brought up that way and it stuck (damn nurture). For a long time potential was not part of the equation. I saw myself as an average student, if not a bit slow during my early years in school. I didn’t see potential in myself (which I’ll admit is a sorry state), and a couple fourth grade teachers agreed with me. Eventually standardized testing, my mother’s advocacy, a guidance counselor, other teachers, grades – and the grand-daddy of them all: other people’s perceptions and expectations, tried to cure me of my feelings of inferiority.
But an odd thing happened on the road to having potential: rather than feeling liberated, believing the world truly was my oyster, I felt burdened by a yoke. I tried to hang on to happiness but I put pressure on myself. How exactly was I going to use this potential? Where did I start, let alone end up? What would be my major in college? What would I do for a career? Would it earn me a living? I thought about all of the financial responsibilities my father had, about the day to day expenses: food, shelter, the various forms of insurance, auto loans, and on and on. I though about the huge responsibilities of being a parent, both social and financial. Potential brought possibilities, but those possibilities also brought responsibilities. I felt crushed by it all, and with the benefit of hindsight I see it was the impetus for one of my early bouts with major depression.
I was in seventh grade. I was a fucked up, lazy seventh grader. Some might even say I’m still a little lazy, if not fucked up.
My buddy potential drifted down with me into depression a few times before I graduated from college. However, it turned out potential wasn’t an imaginary friend, and instead of being a burden it was a blessing. I found a job after three months of looking in a bad economy and only two serious interviews (plus one follow-up interview with the director where I was hired). I didn’t look back. My boss told me I was the best counselor or case manager she’d ever hired when I left. She was the kind of boss who never praised anyone for anything the entire time I was there. Of course it could have been inconsequential BS as I was heading out the door, but she did give me a REALLY good reference.
Since then I’ve worked in government, where I’ve received several awards sponsored by a conservative, government watch-dog group (Florida Tax Watch), for things I’ve done which have increased productivity in my department statewide. I’ve been actively recruited to work in the state capital. I’ve been encouraged to go to law school by various folks (including some in the court system) because my knowledge, arguments, and attention to details were superior to some seasoned attorneys. I’ve been asked countless times to apply* for promotions to management. Several times I’ve given them serious consideration, but they didn’t pass my test. Will I be happy, and by extension, will it make my family happier?
(*Many promotions are not selected by management or human resources personnel in Florida government like other organizations. They’re applied for like a new hire off the street, in a process not unlike a standardized test, where the people doing the “picking” don’t always get who they want. However, I’ve gotten every promotion I’ve applied/competed for.)
Some would say I turned them down because I fear change. I can’t deny it without reservation, but I do know my job has changed radically several times without causing any fear or anxiety. In fact, I’ve usually been the calm, reassuring member of the group.
In many ways, including the one most important to me, I’ve been a success on the career front. You rarely hear me complain about work. You may hear me complain about politics, and decisions made by politicians regarding government in general, and my department in particular at times, but almost never about my job or its effect on me. I like what I do. It gives me a sense of purpose, and I’m pretty good at it and all of its nuances. I have a drawer and an overhead cabinet full of awards and certificates that tell me so.
You know there HAS to be a but in here. I don’t usually discuss psychology without a little personal application, and I certainly don’t promote myself without reservation. One might even say all of this sounds a little like I’m compensating.
Here’s where it all boils down. Finally, you’re saying to yourself.
I feel like I made a deal with Cheryl when we were married. It wasn’t explicit like a marriage vow, or even something we discussed. She knew me as a senior in high school, coasting through my last year with an acceptance letter from UF. She dated me as a college student, the guy who she never saw studying, who always had time to ride his bike across north-central Florida… who always got straight As. If there was a measure for potential, some of my measurements looked pretty good. This was the guy she married.
I was by no means perfect. I was still spectacularly shy. I took all of those long bike rides alone. She nurtured me through one of those bouts of major depression. She also knew what gene pool I swam in: really sharp father (perhaps brilliant and at the top of his field), and really odd mother (to put it politely). Still, she married a guy with potential.
This is where my guilt resides. I feel like I didn’t hold up my end of the deal. If you compare potential with the current product, I’ve failed by many (if not most) tangible measures. She makes more money than me, but she deserves it – though I’d argue at least part of it’s because society values law enforcement more than social services. What does that say about us? We value punishment and retribution thinly veiled as “justice” over helping those less fortunate than ourselves.
But I digress.
So here I am. Success or failure? Is the distinction important? Is happiness enough? I’ve been depressed so often the last few years I’m not even especially happy, though it may not have anything to do with success or failure in life. It may be a heaping helping of nature dragging me down to depression’s door. You know what? It’s not fair. Things I do at work bring me genuine joy. (As if there’s another kind.) My kids and my family do the same. At times my heart overflows with the rewards of the life I’ve made for myself. At other times it feels like a heavy cloak masking everything that brings joy, more like something heavy inflicting blunt trauma. However, then it feels more generalized, without a specific cause. No, that’s not completely true. There is one common thread – one specific cause for turmoil. I feel like I’ve failed my wife. I feel like my wife deserves better, like I tricked her by dangling potential in front of her eyes, pulling a bait and switch.
If success is subjective and tailored to our own specific needs and wants, then maybe I’m asking the wrong question or concentrating on the wrong pattern of facts. Maybe all of this suggests the real problem lies in the fact that I feel the need to ask a question at all. No, that can’t be it. Shouldn’t there always be room for questions?
God, I wish I knew. If you’re listening, I don’t even really need to know. If I could just step off the merry-go-round of dumb questions I think I might be able to figure the rest out.