These past two weeks, I have been a bit of a disaster. Not as in real disaster, like the people who, as I tell the kids, have “super big problems,” like those people who lost their homes or much, much worse to a tornado or a flood or a war these past few weeks. Fortunately for me, the real disasters have passed over my house. Unfortunately, I have managed to make one up all by myself.
I’ve known for some time about my fear of failure. How could I not know about it? It follows me around, telling me I probably shouldn’t bother trying because what are the odds of success? How many zillion people have tried and failed? And those people were probably better in person. More charming. Better with their spoken grammar.
But fear of success? Now there’s a new one. I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never experienced it before. I guess, because, I haven’t really had the opportunity.
But then I got a tiny bit of it, success. Two weeks ago, I got an email that blew me away. An article I wrote and submitted last August is going to be published in a magazine called Hip Mama. (Sorry if you’ve heard this one before.)
Now, a little backstory. There was always only one thing I really wanted to be: a writer. The actual logistics of this were always a little blurry in my mind; I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. I always felt like a writer. Even as a little kid, I can remember hearing this constant stream of words in my head, the voice of a narrator.
I remember in college, dreaming of the day when I would see my name in print, as a byline. Then I got married and took my first husband’s name, and the thing I was the saddest about was that I had never been published with my maiden name. When we divorced and I was reunited with my old name, one of my first thoughts was, at least now if I get published it will be with my real name.
All this is to say that this is something I’ve always wanted. So when I got the email that this long-time desire was about to, maybe, possibly, barring some sort of city-sized earthquake-induced earth gash that swallows Portland whole, come true, I kind of freaked out.
At first, I did nothing. I barely thought about it. This was perhaps because the arrival of the Great Email was immediately followed in rapid succession by my husband turning 40, my youngest son getting an ear infection and having a harmless but scary eyes-rolling-into-the-back-of-his-head seizure, my doctor calling to tell me I have a low-functioning thyroid, my daughter running a fever, and my oldest son throwing up everywhere.
But when all that stopped, I had a chance to think about it. And I got SO EXCITED. So excited that I went to the coffee shop and wrote an entire blog post about how fantastic it was, and perhaps, I was.
I immediately spent the entire next day feeling horrible about it. Had my ego just blown up like one of those child-sized Dora balloons at the grocery story and floated up into the stratosphere (where it would surely pop any second)? Was my deep self-centeredness finally being revealed to the world? Would everyone hate me now that they could see my true nature? Oh, the drama.
And so I took the blog post down. I felt better, but only sort of. Mostly I felt confused, since I no longer knew which voice in my head I could trust: the one that said I WAS FABULOUS or the one that said I sucked. And I felt ashamed for being such a loser. I mean, another non-losery person would surely not have this problem. Another non-losery person would be happy about their accomplishment but would be able to balance their pride with a true, deep humility that kept them from acting like an idiot.
At one point, I cried into my husband’s shoulder, “I just wish I could be truly humble.” We had been talking about the tornado I had created in my head. I had been telling him how I knew humility was a hugely important characteristic in a person, but then I go and do one thing I’m proud of and suddenly I feel like I don’t have a humble bone in my body. False humility, while better than acting like a jerk, seems a shallow cover-up to the real thing.
He replied, “Yeah, well, that’s the whole spiritual journey thing, right? That’s great if you can get there, but in the meantime most of us can just settle for not wanting to be that guy.” My husband is so often good to me like this; he bears witness to my anxious hand-wringing, and then he extends compassion and relief in the form of pragmatic perspective and advice. In this case: “No, Amy, you are not enlightened, but don’t worry, you’re not alone. Just don’t be a total jerk and you’ll be OK.”
Not too long after that, the reality finally came into focus for me that I had just heard some really amazing news, news I had been waiting literally years to hear, and then proceeded to spend the next chunk of my life feeling horrible about it. Absurdity! Seriously, brain, come on. You can do better than that!
I told a friend about all my crazy ricocheting from inflated ego to self-loathing, and she said she thinks these two extremes are just two sides of the same coin, and that this is a common problem of too much focus on the self, or “self-consumption,” as she called it. Unfortunately this was one of those incomplete mommy conversations, occurring in starts and stops over the heads of a table of kids and a craft project, so I didn’t get to hear the full version of what she meant.
But her words do make me think of some of the rare moments of mental peace I have experienced these last few weeks, when I went outside to feel the breeze and hear the sound of the wind in the trees. Sitting in my backyard, I imagined my sight traveling upward, high into the sky, so that I could look down on the earth below. I could see tiny people moving around, some being kind to each other, some being hurtful. I could see the weather patterns, some gentle breezes and sunshine, some tornadoes and endless rains. I wasn’t sure what it all meant, but just getting outside my head like that, even in my imagination, helped to calm me.
I’ve been reading a book by a Buddhist monk named Pema Chödrön called Start Where You Are. She describes a Buddhist principle of “poisons as medicine.” The idea is that the poisons in our life, such as depression, anxiety, craving, violence, anger, fear, and denial, are also in fact our medicine. They can help us heal ourselves by giving us ample opportunities to grow, every time one of these “poisons” comes up in our life.
Each time we experience a sadness, anxiety, etc., we get the chance to wake up to the damage these feelings have on our lives, and how unnecessary this damage is. We have the opportunity to see how we are the ones causing these poisons, and to realize that we create them by resisting the change or reality that life is presenting to us. And finally, we get the chance, if we let ourselves, to get underneath all that surface suffering to really experience our deep vulnerable center. If we can allow ourselves to feel this “soft spot,” Chödrön says, we will begin to soften the hard exterior walls that barricade us inside this overblown concept of “self,” keeping us separated from those around us, and ultimately, from love.
All of that is a little tough to fit into my brain. But one thing I come away with is that I guess I’ve been resisting my own success. Go figure. Any change is scary, as they say, even happy changes. A happy piece of news shows up at my door, and I immediately turn it over and start shaking it until some kind of potential downside falls out. I then pick the downside up and hold it over my head, triumphant, for everyone to see: I’ve got it! My head might get bigger than a watermelon and no one will like me anymore! I am, apparently, terrified of watermelons. And being not-liked. I did know that last part.
In the last couple of days, I’ve been thinking a lot about this “poisons as medicine” concept. I figure, I should be pretty much healed by now. I have been drinking up quite a bit of medicine lately—as much, you might say, as my youngest son, who’s just finishing up his 10-day course of antibiotics from his ear infection. His ear no longer hurts. Ah, if only it were that straightforward with me.
Final note: Sitting here, I just heard this haunting song by the Fleet Foxes, whom I’ve never heard of, which probably means they have a song on the Top 40. The lyrics seem custom written for my thoughts and this post, so I’ll leave you with a few of them:
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me
© Amy Daniewicz