We don’t have to find the definition of fulfillment in a dictionary. It’s as good as it looks: fully filled up.
Filled with what is the first tough question. The second tough question is, once you’re got whatever is that you’ve wanted, why do you want it again, and again?
I was thinking recently about an artist I know who is blaming his lack of fulfillment–artistic and otherwise–on his childhood, his community, spouse, job–the works.
I, too, was that guy for many years. I had a permanent case of the “if-only’s” that began with “if only I got published,” which, after I got published, became “if only I got published there” and “if only I got THIS published.” It continued through “if only I got the girl,” which is one of the most artistically valid yearnings because of the peculiar and frequently agonizing relationship between artist and muse. When I graduated college I said, “if only I could lose some weight.” A few months later I caught amoebic dysentery on an archaeological dig and admitted “if only I had been more careful for what I wished for.”
Having lived in Georgetown, DC, Philadelphia, the Jersey Shore town of Margate, I frequently wished “if only I got THAT parking space.” Am I the only one who, when confronted with the inevitably of home ownership, wanted THAT mortgage? When I lived in an affluent suburb, I wished that I was making enough money to buy one of those “I live in the suburbs” kind of cars that my neighbors owned, little knowing that my neighbors envied the fact that I was self-employed, wrote for some impressive publications, published books and occasionally interviewed famous people.
Now that I am of a that age when senior discounts become possible, my most recent if-only concerns the observation that fulfillment of any kind–that moment when you become a big, glowing, glob of satisfied bliss– frequently doesn’t occur quite the way you anticipate. Or it happens for reasons that have little to do with me or you. Most important of all: it doesn’t last.
And it doesn’t make your insecurities go away.
I wish I could finally, permanently accept the facts that
- I’m a good person who means well, even when things don’t work out.
- My parents loved me (and my brother!) as best as they could.
- I’m a good writer. It doesn’t matter what awards I’ve won, how many copies of my books sold, what critics said, or how much money I DIDN’T make as a professional writer. When I put words on a page, most people understand them and don’t complain about comma placement or mixed metaphors.
- I’m a good husband and father.
- I’m reasonably well-educated.
- When writing, cooking, teaching and making the occasional speech, I can please most of the people most of the time.
- The person I see in the mirror looks good enough (that includes the 20 or so pounds I could STILL lose).
- It really doesn’t matter what car I drive, as long as it works.
- I live in a very comfortable place.
- I’ve been given more gifts than I can know.
And so on…
I wish that I could accept all this so that the urge to do stuff to get confirmation for these things would simply go away and I could focus on more important things.
I understand that some of these urges may come from childhood trauma. I interviewed many comedians who told me that they started telling jokes to get attention or affection from their parents, friends, lovers, the audience. For some, this urge leads to moments of power–that moment when the comic “kills.” I, too, have done all kinds of things to get attention and affection. I haven’t had much desire for the power that controls, but, every once in a while, I did put my journalistic crusader helmet on and fought the good fight.
The mating dance is another great compulsion. Most male musicians I interviewed said they picked up their instrument to “get chicks.” So what do you do when the chicks aren’t there? Or you’ve met someone you really love, and you have the child and the child survives your panicky parenting and now you see him, or her, going through the mating dance’s dizzy delirium of ecstasy and despair. What can you say to your grown-up child that the child will actually want to hear?
Some of these urges come from adult trauma. We all have that. We never stop having it.
A few philosophers have tried to tie it all to a fear of death. We can’t escape it, so we want to do things whose result is an illusion of immortality, a “specialness” that neither time, nor bad weather, will wash away.
Or maybe it’s that rush of dopamine that feels so good when we win something, achieve something, have an epiphany, escape calamity or have merely have fun. It doesn’t last.
And yet, those singular enticements beckon. I have no idea what it’s like to have a book on one or more best-seller lists. I have never taken a bow in Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center or on a Broadway stage (I’ve done it community theater but…). I’ve never been elected to public office. I never, ever won any money gambling, though I’ve seen others win, and fail to leave the casino until they had lost everything, and more.
I have held my first published book in my hands, and it felt very good. I have my newborn son in my arms and worried about every little thing. I have married the love of my life. I have saved a life. I have seen the sun rise, and set, in beautiful places. I have eaten great food. I have driven a car that looks like a space ship.
My annoying respiratory allergies have gone away. I have survived two heart attacks. Thirty years of karate have blessed me with a black belt, aching knees and a tendency to avoid violent conflict and seek harmonious outcomes.
I want to tell my struggling artist that the artistic fulfillment which he thinks he deserves just doesn’t happen. At best, you get a few moments when you feel good about what you’ve accomplished, especially when you finish a work. Maybe somebody likes your stuff and says so in a way that doesn’t make you go crazy. If you’re published, the work hangs around for others to view for a few weeks, or a month or so, and then, unless a miracle happens, it disappears to make room for the next writer’s stuff. What you’re paid is never a measure of what you, or your work, is worth.
In other words (and there are always other words), you don’t get what you deserve. The only thing you can depend on is, if you don’t make your art, or, if making art drives you crazy and makes a mess for the people you live with–nothing worthwhile will happen.
If you start and finish your work, if you do so in a way that is reasonably peaceful and productive, then, like a person who has given birth, you have brought something new into the world.
That is more than enough.