I was soaking up sunlight at the Lincoln Center when, to my left, I heard, “Awwww yeah! Work it!” A young man was snapping photos with a DSLR bigger than his face. He suddenly straightened and walked away. To his right appeared a young woman in rolled up jeans and a loose t-shirt that hinted at her figure.
Nice, I thought. Young people can wear anything and look good. But those jeans would look just as nice if they were worn by a fuller woman, if those jeans hugged her curves. I paused: I’ve been both those women.
And that was the zip tie that brought everything together. At last it really sunk in that life is not a series of apexes of which we either fall short, try to maintain or failed to take the right exit. It was Mark Epstein who unravelled for me just how happiness is not the result of our most true and actualized self—indeed, we never are able to stay there—but a few of the stops, same as any other state of being.
As a society, we have saddled ourselves to certain ideals to indicate when we’ve reached the apex of success. None of us buy into the full array, but we’re haunted by some of these ideals regardless of how we feel about them. To name a few:
- Beauty - youth, figure, style
- Success - potential (youth), wealth, status, love + marriage + children, the feminist ideal
- Privilege - white, [Ivy League] educated
A few scenarios:
- A very dear friend and I were recently on the phone discussing careers. In her frustration, she vented, when will I get my break? Meanwhile, as much as I can say so, I’ve gotten a break. But tethered to wonderful privileges are expectations. Do I deserve it and can I deliver? Is this trajectory the life I want? I’m only in my mid-20s; have I peaked? On opposite sides of the same coin, we are each as plagued with anxieties as we are with possibilities.
- Then there are many more successful entrepreneurs who come out of nowhere than those groomed to be super star serialpreneurs. How many less notable jobs did our entrepreneurs work before their status quo was disrupted?
- And let’s talk about race. At least in American society, privilege is most encapsulated in being white and male. But race means different things in different places. In China and Taiwan, I’m an American. Taken literally at face value in Italy, I’m taunted mercilessly as an immigrant who works in a chicken factory. In Lesotho, I’m hated for being “the man,” building wealth by “exploiting” the Basotho workforce.
- And as a modern woman, I don’t particularly bank on being married someday. I love being a free agent, being independent. But do I still see marriage as the best ending? If I’m honest with myself, I’d rather end up with someone whom I love dearly than alone. Backing it up are the studies that indicate this as the zenith of love and well being.
My point is this: We’ve all been some of these different ideals and scenarios. These are the pillars that supposedly make the world our oyster; if you hit every point, you can rest assured that you are at the zenith of success. But let’s look deeper because those narrow indicators are simply one embodiment of what we’re all after: the path with the least obstacles in pursuit of a fulfilling life.
Remember when cryonics was big news? For me, it brings to mind people who are either so in love or afraid of a moment that they can’t let go. Most obviously with beauty, we’ve kept the definitions of success in a cryogenic state. Call it what you will, a waste of energy or a lack of stamina. As much as I would like to be skinny, youthful and in love (in fact, let’s say I yearn to be these things), I don’t have the stamina to pine away my life in pursuit of those apexes. I don’t believe you do, either.