“—if you fear you have made a mistake, remember: we were not born to sit on couches, content. To be human is to test your limits, to push yourself, to move beyond the body and the heart you were given.”
-Meagan Cass, ActivAmerica
In the last months—and the last years, really—I’ve been trying to shift my head around so that I can value myself without valuing myself for my work. I have a long history of the “for my work” thing: as a student, I valued myself for my classes, my contributions; as a teacher, I’ve tended to think that I was good when my classes were good; as a writer, I’ve put a lot of my self-worth on how many pages I’m producing, and whether those pages could mean something. This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to move away from a “I’m worthwhile because of this thing I do” mindset: I noticed it in my teens, convinced myself it was a good thing, wondered if it was hurting me, talked with friends about it. All the same, this time feels the most complete. It’s not one conversation or a week of conversations: it’s something I keep coming back to.
A while after I started, I realized I was cheating: I was playing at resting, playing at noticing myself and taking care of myself, so that afterward I would go ahead and work. Part of me is scared that, without the goad of fear and self-recrimination, I’ll stop writing, stop working, stop putting in the effort to be a good teacher. I think that’s silly, but I get it: I’ve used that goad a lot. It’s familiar. I’m used to reaching for it. I also have years and years of data suggesting that, in fact, I tend to give back more when I’m connected to myself than when I’m shoving myself forward/ I write and teach and think better when there’s some grounding in hope and love, for myself, the world, others, than when I’m only trying to keep ahead of the fear of not doing (not being) enough. But that’s a cheat, too. I don’t want to shift my head around this way just so that I finish my book. Sure, I’d like to finish it, but if doing this makes me work less, that’s okay. This whole reimagination project is about seeing myself in different terms. What kind of work is it, anyway, that gets its traction in a fundamental mistrust and hate for here and for me?
The kind of work I see a lot, to be honest. That’s what Cass is pointing out. Her book plays with how we try to transform ourselves and escape ourselves and recreate ourselves and our families through sports, but I think those sports show something deeper. They show how terrified we seem to be of contentment. I’ve been scared of contentment. Hamilton: “I’ve never been satisfied.” Cass’s story shows that cultural emphasis on going beyond, on competing and proving, as it leads parents into tearing their children and then themselves apart. And I don’t want that. And the truth is, I have felt content. I have felt at peace. I have felt connected. That doesn’t mean I don’t get up and move, that doesn’t mean I don’t hope and reach, but it does mean that I’m choosing the heart I was given.