Achievement vs. Connection - what choice do we make?
A sucker for the days of old, my husband Ben insists on maintaining a full-on New York Times subscription. Our daily paper (like, real paper) is delivered to the end of our driveway in that precious little blue bag seven days a week, 365 days a year. There's magic in that blue bag, the stroll down the driveway to get it, the way it sits proudly on the dining room table until the day's end, Ben says. We both know he only really reads the paper version of the Sunday Times, but when I've asked him to reduce the subscription to weekends-only, his sweet little heart starts to break. Seeing that little blue bag is too much of a joy, too important to let go of. We're never getting rid of the Times, end of conversation. Every once in a while he lays out all of the Sunday Times sections on the dining room table in hopes that I'll pick out my favorite one and read it with him on the couch. One of his "biggest dreams", he always insists, is to read the Sunday paper on the couch with his wife every weekend.
Occasionally I play along, and I ultimately wind up understanding why he cherishes this dated ritual of our parents' time. There's something undeniably special about that fresh-newspaper smell, the way I have to pick up what I was reading on some extemporaneous page tucked deep away in the back of whatever section I'm on, the way all of the stories are laid out in front of me so I can't read just one - I basically have to sit there and read the whole thing. It pulls me in in a way the online newspaper just can't do as well.
Last Sunday, I decided I'd rather watch Mad Men re-runs than delve into the latest NYT issue, but Ben came across an article he insisted I check out in spite of my resistance to "Times Sunday." I left the paper by my bedside all week without reading it, and then my Dad called to recommend I read the same article. I saw it going around on Facebook a few days later, and finally this morning I took the time to read it. I couldn't keep all of my thoughts on the now-viral piece, "The Moral Bucket List", to myself.
I felt so many things after reading it, but nothing quite overwhelmed me like the conviction that I could have written the same thing if only I had the courage. The courage to say what I really know, the courage to discuss my mostly-behind-the-scenes, quiet yet powerful struggle to listen to my heart, to choose connection over achievement.
I come from a generation that, alongside many wonderful qualities, tends to value achievement over connection. I heard Colin Powell address my graduating class at commencement, instilling us with a fire to live a life beyond our wildest dreams. I know most of us were still looking for jobs while we were sitting in caps and gowns listening to his address. I, for one, sat there during his speech and assessed my own achievements to grave dismay: I'd gone from being an overachieving journalism student to a girl who was at a total employment standstill. I wasn't "stuck" because I couldn't find a job, but because I didn't know if I wanted the kind of job I'd been working so hard towards, the kind that would take up so many hours of my life that I would never be able to have what I secretly craved more than anything: a family.
I have a theory on why it's become so inappropriate to seek connection and so much more socially acceptable to put everything and anything second to whatever it is we want to achieve:
Choosing connection is much, much more vulnerable.
Brene Brown has put shame and vulnerability on the map in the last several years with her viral Ted Talks and best-selling books "Daring Greatly" and "The Gifts of Imperfection." One of the things she studies and writes about are the ways so many of us are medicating ourselves, stuffing our feelings and doing some really crazy sh*t just to avoid feeling vulnerable. Vulberability is f*cking scary.
It's also the only thing that really matters.
If we can't be vulnerable, we can't have true connection with other humans. In order for me to admit my updated priority list to myself and the universe, I had to "Dare Greatly": I had to get really effing vulnerable. I realized that a huge thing that was blocking me from the healthy romantic relationship that I so desired was my lack of willingness to admit I actually desired it. Me? Needs? Pshhhh, I don't have those, I would say to every man that came around whom I was trying to get to meet my needs. No, it didn't make any sense, but so many of us do this exact same thing every day. I wanted and needed connection and love but I was trying to get it by acting like I didn't want or need anything. I was terrified to tell the universe about my true needs and desires. I thought I sounded crazy every time I even thought about them because they had nothing to do with achievement and everything to do with the longings of my soul for connection.
I prayed to be able to let go of my fear of vulnerability in spite of my tremendous fear that my prayers would go unanswered. About a week or so before encountering my now-husband, I wrote down all of the things I wanted to feel in a romantic relationship. Down to the tiniest detail, I imagined my life with this person, how I would feel when I was around them, and most importantly, I admitted that I wanted this very significant romantic relationship in the first place. "I'm not messing around anymore, universe...gimme the real deal."
I meditated on what I wrote down for a few minutes. I sat there and imagined all of the feelings so I could manifest them. I let myself feel what it would be like to be cared about, to have mutual respect with someone, to laugh and build the life of my dreams with that person. I imagined how it would feel if that person were holding me, the sounds of their footsteps when they walked in the door every night. None of what I was naturally imagining had anything to do with achievement. This terrified me, but I kept going. I didn't want to add clutter to my dreams, I didn't want to ask for anything I didn't truly want. So many times I've asked for things because I've thought I should want them, and mostly all of those things were achievement related. This time, I got out of my own way. I let myself go with the flow. I let myself admit what I really wanted. Then I took what I wrote and stored it on my computer somewhere and haven't looked at it since. I handed it over to the universe and ran into Ben at a party very shortly after.
Even in my graduation cap and gown at 22 I had this internal, upsetting conviction, or perhaps more of a quiet inner-whisper, that told me I wanted connection over achievement. It was crazy. Everyone around me was pushing the next big accomplishment. I was totally nuts for wanting to move back to my hometown where I could have more "balance" in my life instead of being like a "normal" young twenty-something and spending "the only years of my life I could really rough-it" in the city that never sleeps. An old college crush called me several months into my time in Houston, astonished that I was working a salaried 9 to 5 job in hopes of having my life take place mostly outside of the office (rather than inside of it.) "You were so balls-y in college," he seemed to imply. "I know..." I thought to myself, "Did I f*ck everything up?"
A few days after I ran into Ben at a party in August of 2013, it took me only a few weeks, or maybe days, to fall in love with him. I was experiencing love - what so many of us are chasing after but don't know how to find in this crazy world - and I was totally upside down inside.
While all of the love and the happiness and excitement was everywhere, I was freaking out. I would have rather spent day after day with Ben than focus on the next step in my career. I was enjoying my life as it happened, I was truly in the moment. Everyone and everything around me seemed to be warning be against that, against letting it all go for a minute and "falling in love." Being with Ben and focusing on the life we could and probably would end up sharing together fulfilled me in a way nothing else ever had. I felt better about myself, better about my relationships, but I was so unsure of what it all meant for me and my achievements. Would I wind up driving kids to soccer practice in no time, forgetting my big dreams and instead being one of those mothers who unconsciously lives out her ambitions through her children? Was I going to be a dance mom?
But here is the question I was really asking myself: If I allow myself to have all of this happiness, how will I sustain my happiness if something happens between Ben and I? What if my happiness doesn't solely revolve around things in my control?
Here's what I've learned: real happiness is about having zero control.We can't be free if we can't let go. We can't have all the joy the universe wants us to have in our lives if we're too busy looking down and pushing forward and trying to get everything done the way we think it should get done. If we knew exactly what we were doing, we would have everything we wanted already and we wouldn't have any problems to shoulder. We're human beings - we're not geared to do life alone. We need help. We need to ask for it. We need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Instead of forcing my will onto the universe like a hammer, I now wake up every morning and ask the universe what its will is for me: Where would you have me go, world? What would you have me do, and most importantly,who would you have me be?
I have tossed and turned and tumbled inside when it comes to these understandings. I have felt awkward, uncomfortable, like a failure: all of the things people feel like when they're living their lives against the grain. I've felt like I was crazy, I've lost connections with people ... but the ones I have built have been indescribable and worth all of the discomfort. I write today from a place of knowing that I wasn't fumbling down the wrong path this whole time: rather, I've been discovering a very magical secret of true and meaningful joy, one I am grateful every minute to have discovered. My relationships and connections, the love in my life, those are everything. Love is the guiding force for the well of wonders that follow. Love doesn't take away from our achievements, either. In fact, it brings us to new types of achievements that are separate from the self and more about other people, more about the most tangible form of divinity we have here on earth: our relationships. Love gives life the kind of meaning I was looking for in all of the wrong places before I decided to start listening to myself.
I'm so glad I made the choice to give my own inner voice more weight than so many of the others around me. It was terrifying. Sometimes it still is, but it's gotten so much easier. It's easier now because I see the life I'm living and I'm so glad it's mine. My little voice did not forsake me: it guided me to places I couldn't have gotten to by myself, places I couldn't experience alone.
I'm even more elated that this little voice could start becoming a part of our collective consciousness by way of a groundbreaking article tucked away inside my husband's favorite relic of the past: the Sunday Times.