I’d hit the lowest point in my life.
I was so tired of writing books and them not selling, and feeling like a failure, and like nothing I’d planted would grow, that for one, brief dark moment I thought death would be preferable to how I felt right then. I didn’t make plans, I didn’t buy a gun or sleeping pills–I just had that single, suicidal thought. This was enough, however, to get my attention, and as I lay down for bed that night, I said to myself, “I’ve got to do something different.”
The next night I was serving steaks and salmon to Seattle’s theater-going crowd. As I delivered the check to a chatty couple, the man reached for the bill and said, “Thank you. That was wonderful.” I bowed slightly, said, “My pleasure,” and stepped away to greet a table of four who’d just been seated. Yet I was aware that something about the man’s simple, appreciative statement stayed with me. Some part of my mind was still hanging onto it, feeding off of it, wringing it as if it were a damp rag and I was dying of thirst.
I stood for a moment in my section, between tables, and all at once, I saw it: I’d been living my whole life for other people’s recognition and approval. I couldn’t remember a time when that wasn’t the single, sustaining goal in my life, the thing I believed I needed to be happy. And the truth was, I’d gotten it. I may not have published a novel, but all my life I’d been recognized for my athletic ability, my artistic talent, my intelligence, my sense of humor, my looks. Why, I even had a job where my very income seemed based on whether people recognized and appreciated my service. I’d been recognized, and recognized, recognized, and yet I still wasn’t happy.
This moment has always stood out to me as evidence that we always get what we want. My problem wasn’t that I couldn’t get what I wanted; my problem was that I wanted the wrong thing. Or, more specifically, I was looking for something where it wasn’t. Since the approval and recognition didn’t make me happy, I assumed I just needed more of it, which I got, and which didn’t make me happy, and so I looked for more of it. It was a drug addict’s solution without the drugs.
I know it can seem so odious to hear self-help writers and inspirational speakers declare: Ask and you shall receive! You look around at your life and think, I wouldn’t have asked for this. The hard part of this equation–for me, at least–is knowing what to ask for.
For instance, while I still waiting tables, I often thought, “I just want to publish something.” This wasn’t actually true. I wanted to publish something I loved writing and was eager to share with others. Until I let myself write such a book, I had no luck publishing anything.
I don’t think it’s easy for anyone to know what they actually want. It should be. After all, what could be closer to your heart than what you want? The heart isn’t the problem, I don’t think; it’s the eyes. I see cars and houses and sales rankings and contracts, and think, “That’s what I want right there.” But it isn’t. I want a house I love, and a car I love, and work I love. Love is not a thing but a direction. If I can remember that what I actually want is love, is to express love and share love, all that other stuff, including cars and houses and lucrative contracts, eventually comes along.
If I can remember, that is, which I often don’t. I teach this stuff, write about it all the time, and I still forget. The world I can see and touch and taste is so mesmerizing. Some days it can seem like all that actually matters.
Yet to see everything of value outside of me is the very root of suicidal thoughts, for within that quietly insidious idea is the notion that I am nothing. The truth is just the opposite, though it is a truth I will never see, only feel; never prove, only know.