Need need need: it’s a siren that directs my movement, pushing me this way and that, sending me running after horizons and mirages. But it sends me after real things too.
My needs map out my days: I need the fulfillment I get from writing, and so I take workshops and read books about craft and make time to write. I need love and intimacy and longing, so I work (hard) on my relationships. I need a place to live, so I have a job and pay my bills. Need need need.
The problem isn’t about my needs, and it isn’t even always about the places and lengths I’ll go to in order to fill them. Sometimes the problem is just about my expectations of what their fulfillment will mean for me.
I’ve spent a large portion of this past year thinking about getting a new job—and working to find one. I’ve wanted more financial security than I’ve had, and over and over again I’ve returned to the idea that getting a new job was The Answer, regardless of what the question was. I am anxious and I can’t quite figure out why—it’s the money thing. A new job will fix this feeling. When I finally get a new job, I will be different.
And then this past week, I got one. Not my dream job, but one that will definitely alleviate a lot of my financial anxiety. I’m not headed out to the yacht store or anything, but after Labor Day my bills won’t be keeping me up at night. Yay me.
And when I got the call, I was thrilled. I ran out of the bedroom and told my boyfriend, and we decided to put on our dancing shoes and go out for a celebratory dinner. And I almost made it to that dinner still happy about my new job. Almost.
But on the way there, I got this sinking feeling—one that I couldn’t quite identify. Here was this thing that I’d wanted for a while, this thing that I was sure would make me feel different somehow. But it didn’t. Or at least, not different enough.
Why don’t I feel fixed now?
Not that I particularly need any fixing right now. Because even though my life is hard sometimes, the net net of my life right now is really good. I’m actually happy, maybe for the first time in my life. I have a good relationship, I’ve made a lot of progress with my writing this year, I have good friends and a nice apartment and a fairly entertaining and fulfilling life.
And yet still, it’s not always enough. I haven’t made enough progress, I’m not happy enough, I should have more friends, more money, more more more.
What was I expecting a new job to do for me exactly? Was I expecting it to make me a different person? Was I expecting it to preemptively alleviate any feeling of anxiety or discontentment that I’d ever have? I don’t really know the answers to any of those questions, but whatever it was that I was expecting, it did not deliver.
It’s like I bought this shiny new toy last year, site unseen: this perfect idea that once I found a new job, everything would change. Satisfaction guaranteed, I thought. Only, now that I actually have the toy, I see that in very small letters it says, “some exclusions may apply.” I didn’t read the fine print. Because it turns out, the job had to be a better one—it wasn’t any job that guaranteed my satisfaction, it was The Job.
And then, after reading even more fine print, I realized it wasn’t about the job at all.
Because the very next day I decided that I’m not happy with my apartment anymore and I need to move. And there was nothing that eluded me about the timing of this new desire. I’m dense, but I’m not that dense. It’s The Next Thing. The thing that will solve everything. And here’s what makes this idea so dangerous—what makes many of my ideas so dangerous: it’s not about something silly or vapid or superficial. It’s about something real. A nice home.
Don’t get me wrong, I do plenty of pining for superficial things—I like clothes and jewelry as much as the next guy. I spend plenty of my time looking in the wrong places for fulfillment. But also, I spend a lot of time looking in the right places, looking for things that really do matter: my own voice, a fulfilling job, a nice home, satisfying relationships, a little extra money to help me see more of the world. I pine for things that I think will contribute to a fulfilling and useful life. And as I get older, it’s those important things that I turn into The Answers. Those are the obsessions that I endlessly knead day after day after day, and those are the things I expect to make me whole.
But here’s the problem: those things are still outside of me, and ultimately, if I’m relying on them to make me whole, they will fail me.
In her heartbreakingly beautiful book The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, Olivia Laing writes:
If you carry that sense of starvation—for love, for nourishment, for security—with you into adulthood, what do you do? You feed it, I suppose, with whatever you can find to stave off the awful, annihilating sense of dismemberment, disintegration, of being torn apart, of losing the integrity of self.
I think it’s that “integrity of self” that I’m searching for more than anything, and even though I’m not always sure where to find it, I know it has something to do with diminished expectations. That while there are worthy things to pursue in this world—things that matter, things that I really do need—ultimately, real contentment has to come from within.
But in the meantime, I’m going to try to celebrate this little victory of mine. I got a new job. Yay me.
And I’ll wait until next week to start looking at new apartments.