Special Gloating Issue
So here's the thing - the essay at right, just the other side of this little blue bit, was recently long listed for the CBC Creative Non Fiction Writing Prize. It was NOT short listed.
Did you know that George Orwell owned a wiener dog?
Wanted: eager self-motivated individuals to start their own businesses and then hire me and my friends at really great wages. Box 30.
Limited time only: Authentic Tupper Wear Hats, coats and a mitt once worn by Charles Tupper (not the former Prime Minister and Father of Confederation but the Charles Tupper who used to live downstairs from me). Great Prices!!! Box 1867.
Wanted: very large sandal or loafer to accomodate a sizeable family. I am a single mother who is looking to downsize but I have so many children I don't know what to do. Box 276.
The Passion of Pamela
George Orwell and the State of My Personal Happiness
Recently (within the last hour) I had occasion to look back upon my life and I paused (very slightly – you would not have noticed unless you were watching quite closely) to consider the question of my personal happiness: its past history, its current state and what (if anything) the future might hold in store for it. Let me tell you this, it was not what one could call "a fun little exercise" and, rather disappointingly, it burned far fewer calories than I had been lead to believe (I won't say by whom).
I have tried, in the course of my many years on this planet (I refuse to name a figure), to keep to a minimum the number of times that I have undertaken such a task. Looking back on one's life, I have found, is an activity best reserved for those special moments when one has a qualified health care professional standing by (preferably one well-supplied with a powerful sedative) or, barring that, an uncritical pal of the endlessly supportive type (pets count although I sincerely doubt that any of the many varieties of tropical fish currently available are up to this task). Why am I so cautious you ask?
I am under the impression that it was George Orwell (Eric Blair to his mum) who said that any life viewed from its interior was nothing but a series of failures. Ouch. In pyschological circles (whatever those are) this kind of thinking is generally known as "projection" and it is roundly considered to be a pretty bad thing, but I don't believe that he was entirely mistaken.
Personally, I would want to insert the word "honestly" between "life" and "viewed" with the aim of eliminating from the argument all those relentlessly uncritical folks who seem to be convinced (despite all evidence to the contrary) that everything they do is somehow both unique and wonderful. I think if we do that it would be very difficult to deny that a great number of us have fallen pretty far short of the marks we once (upon a time) set for ourselves.
Indeed, a lot of us, if we were so inclined, could probably trace the source of our personal unhappiness to the discrepancy between what we thought was going to be the deal and what the deal actually ended up being. Anticipation is greater than realisation as my grandfather used to say (although I don't think this is what he had in mind at all). Think back to when you were a kid. Didn't you think you were going to be an Olympic medal winning space cowboy or a Nobel laureate basketball star or an antelope-ranching world-class chef or a super-model UN ambassador? Did you manage to pull any of that off? No huh? Me neither.
I don't care to speculate how the above mentioned folks, (that is, the space cowboy or cowgirl, the super model et al.) feel about their personal states of happiness. Or maybe I do a little bit. In fact, I strongly suspect that at least some of them aren't completely satisfied either. Perhaps they too had bigger plans for themselves at one time. Achieving world peace? Curing cancer? Who knows? Sadly I can take no comfort from the dissatisfaction of those who are clearly so much more successful than I am. I just don't know what's wrong with them. There is no pleasing some people.
When one is a small child a lot of things seem possible. After all your life, to this point, has been nothing but an unbroken string of successes, triumphs and advancements (Sorry George). You stopped pooping in your pants, you learned to walk, to feed yourself and to speak a foreign language, all without spending a single day in school. The implication is clear: you must be a genius! (Nevermind that almost every other person on the planet managed that too. Who the hell pays any attention to other people?)
And, when you embarked upon your more formal education, you met up with other like-minded individuals of a similar age (mostly) and you were suddenly exposed to their dreams and ambitions and the power of their little imaginations. The world opened up into a vast panoply of possibility. Previously you had never even heard of a card sharp or cetologist but now these both seemed like pretty cool jobs that you could aspire to, once you were all "grown-up". Why not? Given your many accomplishments to date these careers could seem like reasonable options.
But they weren't then and they certainly aren't now. It's much too late for you. I hate to break it to you but hardly anyone makes a living as a card sharp these days (if, in fact, they ever did) and a cetologist, well, who even knows what they really do? (I guess the eleven years of study, or whatever it is, if you could manage to struggle through it, might enable you to understand a few more of the odd references sprinkled throughout Moby Dick but this would only serve to make you even more boring at parties. Who needs that?)
However if your greatest ambition in elementary school (or whatever it is called these days) had been to one day become the third best clerk in the stationery department (that's the one that never moves) in some unnamed store then no doubt you would be a good deal happier right now. That would have been an achievable goal for you (at least I think so, it is difficult for me to say as we have never met).
I have said before that the key to happiness is inextricably bound up with the question of expectations and it now appears that I am about to say (write) that again. I guess it bears repeating: happiness is an almost direct result of your managing to successfully meet your own expectations (or possibly the expectations of someone whose opinion matters deeply to you for some unknown reason) and this is, needless to say, a hell of a lot easier if the bar for those expectations isn't set too damn high.
What I mean to say is this, if you really expected that Olympic Medal and some quality time in the International Space Station, then chances are more than pretty good that you were disappointed. If, on the other hand, you hoped to someday manage to more or less successfully stock some shelves with the goods that were actually supposed to be on said shelves and to make a somewhat less than adequate wage whilst doing so, then I guess congratulations are in order!
The short version of this advice is – aim low. (This can easily be embroidered into a sampler that can be hung on the wall of your home or office, assuming you have either of these things).
It might be a good idea to try to ingrain this corollary in the kiddies (Is this actually a corollary? It was never my ambition to own a dictionary). If we could get them to think in more mundane terms about their future lives then if they actually do end up becoming Olympic medal winning space cowboys (or cowgirls) they'll be over the moon! Both literally and figuratively.
So where does this leave me? Well, it is far too late to lower my expectations of myself downward. I am more or less in the sub-basement as it is but what I can do is this - I can stop asking myself if I am happy.