I was a stay-at-home mother when my kids were little. Having children was a life-changing event for me, something I’d always wanted, and I loved them beyond all reason.
And yet, I longed for more.
I longed to write, to tell my stories on the page, to spend hours absorbed in penning different worlds.
But there never seemed to be time to work on my dream. And besides, I asked myself, what was wrong with me? I should be happy, I told myself, over and over again. I’ve got everything I need — a wonderful family, a cool old house, good health. Everything I’ve always wanted!
And so I’d put away my longings again. Shelf my quest to make time for writing, set aside the idea that I could even write. These four words stopped me for a long, long, time:
I should be happy.
I should be happy because I have what I always said I wanted, I’d think. Isn’t it selfish to ask for more? I have so much, and so many people have so little. It is definitely selfish to ask for more. Forget those dreams, because,
I should be happy.
Going Your Own Way
There’s a scene in the blockbuster memoir Eat, Pray, Love, where Elizabeth Gilbert, the author, is married to her first husband. She has a big old house in the suburbs, a thriving career, what to others looks like a good life. But she was unhappy. She wanted more. In the middle of the night, she sobs on the floor of her bathroom:
I don’t want to be married anymore.
In daylight hours, I refused that thought, but at night it would consume me. What a catastrophe. How could I be such a criminal jerk as to proceed this deep into a marriage, only to leave it? We’d only just bought this house a year ago. Hadn’t I wanted this nice house? Hadn’t I loved it? So why was I haunting its halls every night now, howling like Medea? Wasn’t I proud of all we’d accumulated — the prestigious home in the Hudson Valley, the apartment in Manhattan, the eight phone lines, the friends and the picnics and the parties, the weekends spent roaming the aisles of some box-shaped superstore of our choice, buying ever more appliances on credit? I had actively participated in every moment of the creation of this life — so why did I feel like none of it resembled me?
And so, as we know, Gilbert went off on a year-long sojourn to Italy, India, and Bali, met a dreamy man and settled down with him back in the states. (Never mind that a couple years ago she left him for her best friend, a dying woman, and subsequently partnered with the male best friend of that woman.)
Some readers, obviously many, many, many of them, because it became a huge bestseller and a movie, loved the book. But others couldn’t stand it. They felt the narrator was whiney, ungrateful, self-centered. Because, you know, it is selfish to want to go on a quest for self-realization. Why? Because it costs money. And not everybody can do that. She’s just a spoiled rich girl who wants to be happy. She should be happy with what she has, like everyone else.
Elizabeth Gilbert dared to buck convention and go her own way. She dared to say, I’m not happy and I’m not going to “should” myself about it. And that made a lot of people unhappy. I’d wager a guess that the people who screamed the loudest about how self-centered she was, how spoiled she was, how irresponsible she was, were the very ones who had squashed their dreams by telling themselves they should be happy.
The Role of Gratitude
I’m a big believer in gratitude. Often, now, I look at my life and ponder in awe that it is fabulous. Full of writing, creative pursuits, travel, good friends who I see often, satisfying work, and family. And I do my best to remember to be grateful.
Gratitude has become one of those buzz words like self-care, or morning routine. And that’s a good thing — sort of. Because I worry that some people — like a younger me — might hear the gratitude message and use it to keep themselves away from their dreams.
As in, I should be happy with what I have. Okay, I’ll just be grateful for it. And then everything will be okay.
But it won’t. Because if you have a dream, say, to write, or paint, or travel the world, and you don’t honor in some way, it will not go away. And those four words, I should be happy, will not make it go away. Trust me, I know this.
Getting Over It
It took me getting sick — really, really, sick — to get over thinking I should be happy with what I’d had and not try to go for more. My illness started out as the flu, and then got worse and worse and worse. I couldn’t keep food down. I could barely walk from one room to the next, when until a week before I’d been a lifelong walker, covering several miles every day.
I was tested for every virus my doctor could think of (when you test for viruses, you can only test for specific ones) and nothing came up. Gradually, I came back to life, though it took nearly two months. I’d never been so sick in my life and it caused me to think deeply about what I wanted to do with the time I had left.
What I wanted to do. Not what I thought I should do.
As I was recovering, I noticed an ad for a newly opening MFA in Writing program. And I realized that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to devote myself fully and completely to learning to write fiction. I wanted to create new worlds for readers (and myself) to enjoy.
I applied to the program, was accepted, and it changed my life. I published a novel, began teaching and coaching writers, and started a business running writing workshops in France.
And all of that happened because I finally got the confidence and courage to quit telling myself that I should be happy.
And now I truly am.
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