Let's Not Delude Ourselves, Achieving Success is Hard Work

I'm still fuming a bit from the rah-rah, zis boom bah of the California Women's Conference where at least 17,000 fewer women than predicted gathered to suffer through enough new age nostrums to fly the good ship lollipop to the moon and back.

Don't get me wrong. I believe a mature spiritual life is a prerequisite to a meaningful existence even as, or particularly when, material success eludes us.

But I didn't book two days at a middling hotel in Long Beach to hear the well-heeled suggest to the gathered women that all they need do to meet women's particular challenges is to be here now and trust that life will deliver. 

Life well lived is serious and difficult business

We all have our individual challenges of course, most of which have nothing to do with gender. We were born black into a white world. We had sex before we had ready access to birth control. We were sexually molested as children.

We were raised by alcoholic or drug addicted parents. We were foster children because our father was in prison and our mother mentally ill. We were born to immigrants who'd hired coyotes, travelled under cover of night in the harsh and unforgiving Sonoran desert and eluded the border patrol in a wild bid for a better life. We were, in short, illegal from birth in the only country we'd ever known.

We attended schools whose teachers considered themselves little more than baby sitters. Our brother was killed at 17 by a drive-by shooter as he sat drinking iced tea on his front porch with a single mother who worked two minimum wage jobs. We dropped out of college in our freshman year because our father was laid off and our mother couldn't support the family. We attended the best schools and grew up in a good neighborhood, but our father was a raging despot who beat our mother, leaving us traumatized and emotionally fragile.

Heck, our lives had been perfect but we had a biochemical imbalance that made us prone to depression and panic attacks. We did the best we could, self-medicating and keeping our eyes on the prize, but we succumbed to an addiction that took years from the decades in which others would build a secure base for a successful future.

What, Then, Are We to Do for One Another?

The first thing we do, the very first, is to stop judging one another, a prerequisite to stop harshly judging ourselves. Only then can we get down to the business of serving one another's needs at the same time as we serve our own.

The second thing we do is to take whatever weight we're carrying off our backs and share it with others who have experienced the same heavy circumstances. If we were military personnel in a war zone with a touch (or room-size batch) of PTSD, we seek available medical, psychological and spiritual help and join whatever mutual aid societies may be available to us.

And if we can't access help because the VA is corrupt, we engage in political action to demand immediate change.

If we have burdened ourselves with the medications of addiction, from food to illegal substances to drink to relationships that harm or impede us, we reach out for the assistance of others who have suffered similar maladies and transform our misery into another's salvation.

The third thing we do is the hardest work of all, finding our right occupation. For decades I cynically dismissed Joseph Campbell's advice that we "follow our bliss." 

"If I knew what my bliss was," I was fond of saving, "you can bet I'd immediately get on the task of following it.

If you, like me, have no idea how to translate your "bliss" into action or action into economic security, you'll have to do what the Cheshire Cat advised Alice to do. When she asked which direction she should go, the Cat responded with one of life's great questions, "where do you want to go?" 

"I don't know," was Alice's reply, to which the Cat responded, "then any road will take you there."

As readers of this blog and our column over at Forbes already know, I chose the law because I had no idea what to do with a degree in Literature.

"Success" came in the manner of graph #2. 

To put a little meat on the bones of this chart, I

  1. dropped out of college

  2. worked full-time until I was laid off

  3. went back to college

  4. moved to New York where I did clerical work for two years

  5. went to law school

  6. passed the Bar Exam

  7. worked for a small firm for three years

  8. was laid off from that firm

  9. joined a larger firm

  10. dropped out of legal practice and took a teaching job

  11. went back to practice

  12. practiced law for several more years before I was again laid off

  13. practiced in a one-man firm for 50% of the salary I'd previously made

  14. bankruptcy, foreclosure

  15. was laid off again

  16. joined a larger firm

  17. practiced for several more years before I finally left law to mediate and arbitrate

  18. despite the expenditure of incredible effort and a decently large monetary investment, more or less failed to build a profitable ADR practice

  19. formed She Negotiates with Lisa Gates where, four years later, we're finally beginning to thrive.

If we don't share our failures with our successes we're just selling each other snake oil

Looking back on my life from my sixth decade, I'm often reminded of Joseph Campbell's thoughts on the relationship between marriage - or any intimate relationship - and the wheel of fortune.

"There's the hub of the wheel," he says, "and there is the revolving rim of the wheel."

 if you are attached to the rim of the wheel of fortune, you will be either above going down or at the bottom coming up. But if you are at the hub, you are in the same place all the time. That is the sense of the marriage vow - I take you in health or sickness, in wealth or poverty: going up or going down. But I take you as my center, and you are my bliss, not the wealth that you might bring me, not the social prestige, but you. That is following your bliss.

It's often easier to see the effects of the wheel of fortune in friendships than closer up in a marital relationship where we're often too close to see it.

I have a lifelong friend who has seen me and who I have seen through many successes and failures. Just today, I helped her move a bookcase from my house to hers that she bought when we were roommates many many years ago.

"Should I pay you for this?" she was asking as she stepped into her car to take her leave. "No!" I replied, surprised she didn't remember the bookcase's provenance. "This bookcase is yours. You purchased it in the early '90s. Remember?"

"Wheel of fortune," we spontaneously and simultaneously chortled, remembering the moment, and the circumstances, of this bookcase's purchase.

No matter our material circumstances, my friend and I have always been at the hub of one another's lives and nothing at the rim has ever improved or diminished it.

may you find the hub of your own wheel of fortune

I worked many years to find the hub of my own wheel of fortune. Sometimes the hub is a person, sometimes art, sometimes religion or other spiritual practice, sometimes a group of people, and, for the truly blessed, sometimes work.

Don't let anyone fool you that the adventure of your own life can be reduced to a single "secret," law or person. As Campbell always stressed, the hero in myth and literature enters the forest at the beginning of her journey, "at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there is a way or path, it is someone else's path." Follow it, and you will be lost.

The rim of my own wheel of fortune happens to be "up" at the moment, but I will never again let the rim fool me, either about its longevity or about its importance. There are, after all, no greater challenges to a meaningful spiritual lives than the glittering lures of property, power and prestige.

May your hands always be busy

May your feet always be swift

May you have a strong foundation

When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful

And may your song always be sung

May you stay forever young

Forever young, forever young

May you stay forever young.