‘The trick is not how much pain you feel — but how much joy you feel. Any idiot can feel pain. Life is full of excuses to feel pain, excuses not to live, excuses, excuses, excuses.’ — How To Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong
As a teenager, I always figured I would grow up to self-destruct.
It seemed like the logical progression.
I was fascinated by notions of addiction, annihilation, intoxication, obliteration, by dark smoky bars and running through city streets at night, bodies hurtling into pockets of empty air, cars skidding down long roads, red lips and smudged black eyes, by noise and movement, by fury and fear.
I wanted to find something that would eat me up. Something that would consume me and ultimately destroy me.
It is the natural step when you are old enough to hate yourself but not old enough to have the means to tear yourself to shreds.
You dream of it. You dream of how you’re going to destroy the self you haven’t even formed yet. The idea of growing into something good seems too overwhelming, too exhausting. You’d much rather opt out altogether. Life seems like a terribly long time to try hard for.
But not really. What I truly wanted was something to write about, something other than the torturous drip-drip of words onto my notebook pages without anything much to back them up. The same few crushes, same few annoying teachers, same few streets. The same aching dissatisfaction.
Self-destruction appeared to be a good option. Plenty of material there.
Judging from, well, the entirety of literary history, there seemed to be no limit to how much you would write about red wine and waking up in strange places and peeling back the layers of self until you lost your links to anything and floating unmoored through the world without the conventional rules to tether you and finding alternate places where the usual logic crumbles.
Why bother trying when self-destruction is much more alluring?
Yet when it came down to it, that seemed a little too dreary.
Aren’t we all bored of reading of cultivated drug addictions and meticulously flippant tales of coming unhinged? Aren’t we bored of the aesthetically pleasing type of misery, the type we always see portrayed? Aren’t we hungry for more representation of people fighting through pain and getting on with it, that aren’t all saccharine-sweetness and false hope?
Aren’t we sick of celebrating self-destruction, of joking about hangovers and sleep deprivation and nose bleeds and debt and bad choices? Haven’t we gone too far with normalising this and glorifying sadness?
We celebrate those who plunge to rock bottom, then claw their way back. We forget about how many of us have lived with that urge — to destroy everything — yet somehow keep going.
For every person joking about getting blackout drunk on an overdraft, there are a thousand of us who don’t have the option and are instead carrying on with life.
Having flirted shamelessly with anything I could find that hurt me, I recognised how easy it was. How simple to opt out of trying to construct a life full of joy. It was much more complex and guilt-inducing to piece by piece, start putting things together and looking after myself. The difference was not the emotions I experienced on a day to day basis or the things I had to deal with, but my willingness to relate to them in a different way.
Willful self-destruction is a pitiful, unenviable waste of energy, a futile attempt to break away from the mundane side of reality we all have to swallow sooner or later.
There is a beauty and a poetry to living a life where you aim to grow, not to shrink. Starving your demons is satisfying. We needn’t destroy in order to create.
Self-hatred is easy. It’s almost the default. Despair is unexceptional, ordinary, utterly mundane.
Self-acceptance is hard work. It requires going against the grain of everything presented to you. For many of us, it is a radical act that can be borderline or outright political. It requires a wrenching stubbornness. We have to unlearn and relearn so much.
To be happy in the face of a laundry list of traumas and a litany of injustices is a form of extreme defiance.
Being happy can require accepting the unacceptable, bearing the unbearable, tolerating the intolerable. It means living with things we shouldn’t have to live with.
It’s so goddamn straightforward to be miserable. Misery is what you get when you’re not aiming hard enough at anything else. Our brains aren’t wired for happiness. Reaching for it is a veritable denial of our nature. We’re not here to be happy, we’re here to survive.
Life is full of excuses not to live at any precise moment in time.
Things never really calm down or just get easier or stop going wrong. There are always areas of our lives that are on fire or at least smoking gently. We’ll never run out of reasons to hide away, to ignore what we care about, to withdraw from people, to scorn love and vulnerability.
We’re never going to be as happy as we think we can or should be.
Something is always out of reach and believing otherwise only sets us up for even greater frustration.
P.S. The title of this post comes from Erica Jong’s How To Save Your Own Life.