Why isn’t what I do “living a life”? Because I don’t consider it to be.
I’m always vaguely apologetic when people ask “what do you do?” I shuffle and deflect and respond that I don’t do much, I kind of write, sort of, it’s nothing really. I dismiss how I spend my days and give the impression that writing isn’t really that important to me.
This self-deprecation is a long-standing habit, in point of fact. It’s self-protection. Don’t let them see where you’re vulnerable. And writing is a potential sore spot; I’m still quite invested in other people’s opinions. I don’t want to be judged and found wanting so I don’t want anyone to know.
It is not, mostly, a paid gig. I make some money from editing; I make some money from contests. It doesn’t pay the bills. I don’t actually do anything to make a living. I am on long-term disability for depression and other issues. An insurance company subsidizes my life now. I worry about it some – the disability coverage ends at sixty-five. After that, I’m on my own and my plan to win the lottery has yet to show signs of success.
But regardless of how I answer, it’s the question itself that leaves me feeling miserable. It’s not that I don’t do things, it’s that I don’t think they’re particularly valuable or worthy. The word “just” figures predominantly in my descriptions. I just write. I just do a little drawing. I’m just working on a book. All in a vaguely apologetic tone, as though I should be sorry that I’m not a well-paid captain of industry.
I realized this morning that part of the problem is standards and part of the problem is definitional. The first is the double standards I apply. I evaluate myself with a much harsher and more exacting set of criteria than I set for others and I haven’t spent all that much time dismantling them. I’ve simply learned to live with the feelings of vague disquiet and marginal disappointment in myself.
The second problem is definitional. What is a successful life, anyhow? What makes a life worth living? Am I applying those definitions to myself?
I never gave much thought to the future. It wasn’t something I thought about, except in abstract terms. They didn’t teach us “planning your life” in school. We didn’t learn that choices matter, time passes faster than you think, and if you don’t set your own definitions, the world will provide them and you may not like the ones they give you.
A successful life can be many things. It depends on what you value as a person, what you believe other people value, and how much you decide their opinions matter. In my head somewhere, there is a belief that financial success is important. That I should be doing “better”, financially speaking. After all, I was a smart girl. I went to school. That I felt out of sync and in trouble most of the time is irrelevant. Financial success feels like something I’m supposed to have and want.
Status too. Status is sort of implied in the “what do you do” question. The answer “I’m a store clerk” would be seen as an unsatisfactory role for someone of my age and apparently socio-economic status. I feel the pressure to have status. To have measurable, demonstrable achievements that show my “place” in the world. To have a quantifiable ranking that can be used to make comparisons.
I feel the drives. They are the unspoken rules I lived with. I don’t want them to be my values and drives. But, unless and until I sort out my own definitions, I’m doomed to use other’s. Based on the parameters I’ve been encouraged, no matter how subconsciously, to venerate, wealth and status, my life is kind of a failure.
I like to think I hold other things in higher regard. I like to think that I consider other qualities more characteristic of a good life. I like to think that I don’t believe we are defined by what we do for work. I believe that for myself, financial success is having enough to get by without feeling deprived. Yes, I love to fantasize about the life of the idle rich but as long as I can putter along as I am now, I’m good. I don’t really need big piles of money and acres of stuff. I wouldn’t mind them, but they aren’t a necessity.
As for status, the truth is, by nature I’m a quiet and private person. I tend to anxiety and depression. A high-profile, high-pressure, high-stress, high-status job would probably not suit me. Plus, there is the boredom thing. I get bored at jobs. I learn them, I perfect them, and then I prefer to be done. Move on to something new. Writing is the only consistent because it can always be different.
The truth is, I feel apologetic for my goals. I’m embarrassed by not being acquisitive, not being driven or ambitious. I’m embarrassed that I’m content to stay quiet and small. I’m content with enough. And all these uncomfortable feelings that I don’t share turn into shame. Shame at who I am and what I believe. Shame that I am different.
If I met me, I like to think I’d like me. I hope I’d think I was kind, and honest, and polite. I might think I was smart and a good parent. I’d think I was creative, probably. I might think I was a good person overall. I wouldn’t think I was a failure because a disability made it difficult for me to hold down an outside job. I wouldn’t think I was a failure because I don’t have a lot of money or an impressive title. I don’t think that of other people when I meet them, after all.
Which bring me to the crux of the problem. Things other people say, fairly innocuous questions such as “what do you do” can only hurt us if they touch on a sore spot that’s already there. The question is not the problem. It’s the answer and how I judge it.
What does a successful life look like to me? What would I have to do differently, if anything, to qualify my life as a success? What do I want to achieve?
Do people’s questions sometimes hit the sore spots, and what do you do about it?