There are many, many posts I begin but never manage to complete. Such is the way of life, I think, but hopefully I’ll finish this one because it’s on the important side.
My sister and I had a conversation recently about failure. About how we both live with a constant sense of having failed in our lives no matter the milestones or personal goals we have achieved.
For those of you who know us, you know that rationally-speaking neither one of us has really failed at anything. Moira is a college graduate and, on top of that traditional marker of success, she’s a polymath in her own right: a published author, a chef, a carpenter and upholsterer, a linguist and self-taught polyglot, an anthropologist, a violinist and pianist– the list goes on. She’ll be starting graduate school this fall to become a teacher. I, meanwhile, have also managed to Finish College and score long-term employment with the state. I speak three languages (English, German, Spanish), am learning another (I will conquer French), and have constructed three more for a fantasy epic; I write prolifically whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, or poetry; I know more about neuroscience than I do about anything else I’ve ever studied; I’ve been trained in vocal performance and composition since I was 10 years old.
Yet, somehow, the both of us are wracked with the sense that we are not doing enough and will not ever be able to do enough to be successful in our lives.
Why do we, and so many others, feel this way?
Of course, there are varying factors between us. She compares herself to addiction-prone family members who gained “success” (families, advanced degrees and full-time jobs simultaneously) by replacing addictions with work. I am striving to gain recognition from anyone and everyone around me because of a childhood marked by emotional distance and neglect. These are impossible to attain; my sister is not and never will be an addict and I will never be able to change the fact that I will never be able to impress my parents.
The things we share are familiar to anyone who’s studied social sciences with any sort of closeness. Living in the kyriarchical US we were raised on a reductionistic narrative for how a life “should” go that used impossible goals and shame as vehicles for motivation. This notorious fiverr ad illustrates it perfectly:
Five bucks a click for that kind of overwork? It’s ludicrous. Even if we were to pretend that traditional economic success through social platforms was possible (it isn’t), this is a sentiment familiar to women and people of color across the nation. “In order to be considered half as good as those in power, you must do twice as much. And you need to do it for a mere tuppence because you don’t deserve to be paid.” Glorifying working oneself to death is a great way to end up with a population of depressed, exhausted, sick people. Now, most of the linked articles focus on issues like karōshi in Japan, but recognize their relevance to the US’s current mindset regarding achievement.
Consider this ad from Timberland which is more explicit about informing it’s audience that there is no hope for them:
Everyone who grew up among the working poor is familiar with this idea. Personally, I’ve resigned myself to dying at my desk when I’m 95 because I won’t be having children to support me in my twilight years.It feels disingenuous to tout work-life balance as if it were some new concept that people weren’t a concept of which many people are already highly aware. I don’t know about you, but reading about it in pop psych articles feels a bit like scrolling through Pinterest; I’m left thinking, This is a nice idea… for suburban white women with wealthy husbands, time to kill, and no real need to work their asses off. By the time I get home at night, after waking up at 5:30 a.m., I’ve been awake for something like 14+ hours, spent at least four of those hours on my feet making deliveries, and I still have to deal with household chores and being my mother’s emotional keeper. I’m anemic, mentally ill, in chronic pain– I don’t have much energy left for anything most days let alone the manic level of productivity required to be “successful” in our society. I certainly don’t have room in my schedule of spoon preservation and maintaining a living for much else. Pinterest-esque platitudes for restoring work-life balance are based in the idea that the individual is responsible for the imbalance rather than the society and that is fundamentally untrue.
The solution to the malaise my sister and I experience– the pervasive sensation of failure no matter what personal and social accomplishments we make– lies in a societal paradigm shift toward valuing something, anything, other than meaningless production within the moloch of the white supremacist, capitalist, hetero-patriarchy. The happiest nations in the world (lookin’ at you, Scandinavia!) have mind-boggling things like universal healthcare, living wages and/or unions, and vacation as a worker’s right. In these nations, greater value is placed on social support, generosity, and personal happiness than on goods consumed and income generated. There are governmental and societal tools centered around supporting and promoting these healthy ideas of personhood. That promotes, on the whole, happier citizens.
Realistically, it’s impossible to expect the U.S. to make these changes in the near or distant future. This nation was founded on inequality and shame (thank you, slavery and Puritans) and will continue to perpetuate those ideals long after we’re gone. Anything more than that is expecting too much of the lazy, corrupt powers that be. More reasonable is leaving the damn country altogether. Every year that goes by I’m warming up to the idea a bit more.