When I turned 10 or 11, I developed this really deep-seated love of standing in the back. I’d been pretty Renaissance Man for a little girl–I’d paint, dance, sing or write you a story for a handshake–but then I clammed up. No more journals, no directing plays at recess. I wouldn’t raise my hand; I didn’t want the solo.
My father had some thoughts about this, and they were jarring, because we are not religious people. ”If you do not use a talent that God has given you,” he said, “if you don’t go out into the world and use it to make other people’s lives better…that’s sin. That’s a real sin.”
* * * * *
I’ve always done the responsible thing. Not because I’m some orderly saint, but because here’s the path and what’s outside it? Dead grass and fear. If you stay on the path, no one can tell you you’re selfish or unserious. I went to college and then I went to law school, and the whole time I clenched being good in my fist.
And then I got pretty incredibly sad. I was showing up every day at a manicured building in a pretty pencil skirt, and people took my floofy-haired self seriously. They gave me assignments in their giant windowed offices, and I nodded a lot, and when I got back to my own mahogany desk, I wondered if it was normal to want–continually–to scream. The basic operating principle–of proving a point not by logic or compassion, but by finding some case in which an old white man said he thought what you thought–seemed increasingly insane. I wasn’t making anything; there was no room for creation in the margins of the documents to be reviewed. Everyone was very kind, and they spoke seriously about “professional development.” I looked at the other young faces around the conference table, searching their expressions for signs of the same stomach-plummet I felt at the thought of doing more of this. They were mostly smiling.
So I pried open my fist and I couldn’t tell what that thing was, anymore. Being Good. Was it having a career you can explain in one word? Making a lot of money?
Was it refraining from “sin?”
* * * * *
My parents are artists. One of them actually makes art for a living, but the other might as well, given her sensibility. In our house, people have projects. I’ve organized a lot of photos of grizzled pioneer women for my dad’s documentaries, and I’ve yelled in a too-loud headphones-on voice over track after track my brother’s written and sung. They create not because it’s precious, but because it’s an orifice they can’t really screw closed. And why would anyone try?
I’d emerged from law school having traded in my original wiring. Three years of being seeped in ivy and brick and almost vertiginous intelligence had reformatted how I viewed my prospects: if I closed the computer and walked out that door, where would I go? I had an amount of money in loans that sounded more like the haul from a bank robbery than the cost of learning the law. It would be selfish to say that I wanted a life that was radically different from the one I was currently pacing through. And selfish is my boogeyman; I’d rather be accused of almost any other fault. And so I stuck around, clicking through my days. Wasn’t I so honorable, to be holding up my end of the bargain?
But the truth is (oddly enough) no one wants you to fall on your sword. No one who loves you wants to watch you crawl up inside yourself and become irritable and resentful and confused. There are higher-order values than responsibility, and after you’ve spent enough time dancing around the edge and being scared, your crucial humans will sit you down and tell you what they are: a sense of worth and the small, integral fire of happiness that comes from being your actual self.
* * * * *
I quit. Today was my last day.
This is what I’m doing, now: figuring out what I’m doing now. I have enormous dreams spread across a few big buckets, and I’m going to dump them out on our tiny table and rummage around. I’m going to see what I can build that I can be proud of. I want something that I know is good without having to ask.
I don’t believe in sin, but I do know he was right. We are finite creatures. We don’t have to be stunningly happy all the time, but we have to try for north of neutral. Not to be pleasure seekers, but to hone in on what we’re really for. We were all born with the capacity to put something out into the universe that makes it a safer, saner place.
Here’s to figuring out what that contribution might be.