When I dreamed up the idea for Revel In It Mag, I was reeling from years of having consigned my quest for meaning to the periphery of my life. I did yoga. I took up meditation. I dove deep into the kinds of deep and layered philosophical explorations that have played such an influential role in my life. I dabbled in neurobiology, psychology, history, political philosophy, spirituality and (sheepish grin) self-help, in an attempt to answer deep questions, about the nature of existence and the meaning of my own life. But always, these explorations took place under cover of darkness. They ran on parallel tracks with my actual, material life, the one I lived out in the world, where careers are built and moneys are made and families raised.
The time spent exploring my inner life, and the life of the mind, wasn’t wasted — my quest was fruitful, but eventually, I faced the polymath’s dilemma: I knew a lot, but what was it for?
Finding Answers In The Narrative Of My Life
The answer, of course, was suggested by the narrative of my life. Ever since I was a child, in the early, first act of my life (the time in a movie when the hero makes a plan and sets a goal that drives the narrative from that point on), I’ve wanted two things: freedom, an idea that’s matured as I have, and a level of deep fulfillment that seemed to relate to the life that was within me, the life that came alive in the many hours in my childhood that I spent deep within the recesses of nature, or in the imagined, submersive worlds that I found between the pages of a book. (And yes, submersive is a made up word, though really it shouldn’t be.)
The World “Out There,” Double Consciousness, And The Descartian Split
The world, of course, was focused on what was “out there.” I straddled the fence, shifting my attention between the outer world and my inner one as circumstances required. It bred in me a sort of “double-consciousness,” the phrase W.E.B. DuBoise coined in the early 1900s to describe the African-American experience of straddling two identities, one “American,” the other “Negro.” “One ever feels his two-ness,” DuBoise wrote, “…two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one…body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
As an African-American woman (two facts about me that deeply inform my thinking, though not as people might expect), I can say that DuBoise got it right, not just regarding the African-American experience, but with the very human and very universal experience of straddling any two realities. For our purposes, I am interested in the two worlds we all straddle (though this straddling escapes our conscious notice most of the time): our inner world, wherein we live out our intellectual, emotional and spiritual lives, and the outer world, wherein we live our lives out in the world.
It’s a funny thing, this split, one that’s been with us since humankind came “up” from “the darkness” into what can only be called a partial light. It is an artificial split — and a necessary one at a certain point in humankind’s life. With the Age of Reason and The Enlightenment that followed (and in the centuries sense) human knowledge of the realities of the physical world have grown exponentially — and with it, our wealth, and our ability to develop technologies that may just lead us out of the corner we’ve backed ourselves in, the one that has us on the fast track to destroying the planet on which we depend to survive.
Because I’m not much one for doctrine, and because I’m trying mightily to not be one for fruitlessly looking back, and also because I believe in the grand march of history, I do not consider the Enlightenment era, Descartian split that cleaved us mind from matter, spirit from flesh, was a mistake. I do see, though, that it has left us bereft, cut off from the emotional and spiritual world which might sustain us (and from the unavoidable truth that we are part of the living body of the universe, not its King).
Because here’s the thing. The mechanistic world view is a powerful thing. Heck, it gave us machines (and I for one am not trying to give them back). But machines, lets admit it, are soulless things. They make our material lives easier, true. And that is no small thing. Women freed from the once-crushing labor of the home have at least started to take their rightful place in the world; and all of us, freed from the labor intensive realities of a machineless world are freed up to entertain the higher regions captured in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But the mechanized life alone is not life. We are material beings, but we also beings with souls, a point that was never driven home to me more deeply and beautifully then when I saw my father’s body after he died but before we cremated his remains, My brother and stepmother wept openly when they saw his body laid out on a table in the suit he’d bought to officiate my wedding five months before — a more or less normal response. I, who have always been a bit of an outlier, had a different response. I beheld the scene with wonder. The thoughts percolated up: “Wow… He’s not in there,” and then, “I wonder where he’s gone.” His absence was the thing I noticed, and that’s when I knew, deeply and differently, that we are not these bodies, or even these personalities. These are things we simply use until we go, taking our animating spirit with us.
My father’s was not the first vacated body that I’d seen, but his animating spirit was so alive for me that when it was gone I understood that he was gone. That we were cremating his body — as he’d wanted, and as I also want for myself — may have had something to do with it as well, since cremation destroys the illusion that this body, being lowered into the ground (in a nice outfit and a fancy box), lives on. It’s an idea I never really believed it but that nonetheless took root in my consciousness, this Christian myth of my childhood, that we would raised from our graves on Judgment Day. (A note: For those of you who are religious, I use the word “myth” not to convey falsity, but in the dictionary sense of a myth as “a traditional story without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one concerning deities or gods”).
Seeing this particular body (the body of my father)…, knowing that we would soon cremate these earthly remains…, opened a gap in my consciousness, and I knew. The thing I knew, the thing I hadn’t named yet, is what these bodies, these lives, are really for. And what they are for, what I happened upon while searching for a tagline for Revel In It Mag, is for living The Fully Realized Life in these fleshly bodies and this very material world. Of course, if it’s going to be a realized life — by which I mean a life that’s both successful and fulfilling — it has to begin within.
Wherein We [Finally!] Define The Fully Realized Life
The Fully Realized Life exists at the place where our inner and outer lives meet. It’s about form and substance, matter and spirit, the sacred and the profane.
In going on the Revel In It journey, I was very conscious of wanting to break with the idea that being “realized” takes place primarily with, and embrace the very different idea that being realized consists in taking the raw material of who you are on the inside and giving it some actual, tangible form in the world. After all, for now at least, we are in these bodies and we are in this world — so who we are should be reflected there, where we can see it. As far as I’m concerned, the time for the purely spiritual journey is when we’re in a purely spiritual state, and we’re not in that state right now. To not live fully while we are here is to miss the precious opportunity that our lives afford us, an opportunity we can’t get back — not in these bodies and personalities, at least — once it’s gone. It’s why I advocate developing all of who we are and not just the parts that come most easily.
I’ve noticed that people seem to be really good at one side of life or the other. Either they are masters of the external world who successfully set and realize external goals, or they’re masters of the inner world, who successfully set and achieve emotional and spiritual goals. Some people are naturally good at both. I’ve always admired these people the most. They’ve done the harder thing. They’ve built lives that, in a matter of speaking, revolve around them. To be sure, they live inside the same structures we all live inside of, but they’ve found out how to live there in ways that don’t require them to give up who they are. In fact, the more they stick to their guns (that is, the more they hew to their “brand”), the greater their earthly rewards. Turns out, heaven can be here right now.
This is not to say that these people who are living my idea of The Fully Realized Life never compromise (in fact there’s no such thing), but the compromises they make enable them to become more of themselves, instead of less. This is the freedom I longed for when yet I was just a child. It is the deep fulfillment I sought. I am beginning to build it in my life. And lets be clear, this kind of freedom and fulfillment must be built. No one will hand it to you on a platter made from gold.
The Three Major Movements Of One Life
The Fully Realized Life (TFRL) worldview is about embracing a new ambition that eschews the old model of peddling as fast as you can to get some external indicia of “success” as defined by the world in order to prove what you’re worth. It also eschews the new-ish, or New-Agey-ish, model of shedding your ego (and its progeny, ambition) while you pretend that the world doesn’t matter, or that you can get the things of this world simply by passing through the positive thoughts in your mind. I’ve lived both ways, and at a certain point, both approaches failed me.
Movement #1: The Ways Of Old
The old model failed me when, after a year in New York City, where I moved to attend Columbia Law School, I spent a summer in Kenya, and returned with a deep awareness that, however much I loved policy, and however much I cared about and wanted to have a hand in shaping the world, I wasn’t meant to “be” a lawyer (even if, technically I am one). In hindsight, I don’t know where I even got the idea to go to law school except that I’d been a Public Policy major and a leader (I co-founded the Duke University’s Women’s Center, among other things) and didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know how to give the life that was blooming in me form, and so I checked one of the available boxes, (law school, medical school, business school) and set about trying to fit myself to the box.
Had I not gone to New York City, had I, for example, gone to Yale, where I might have stepped on the law professor path, I never would have been in Kenya in the first place (I went there courtesy of Columbia’s human rights internship program) and I wouldn’t have realized that there was more to life than met my super-achieving eyes. Kenya, by the simple act of being different from everyplace else I’d ever known, poked a pinhole in my reality and the light got in. Of course it was only a partial light, just bright enough to guide me into the next movement of my life.
Movement #2: The New-Agey-ish Approach
The next moment of my life was about becoming a screenwriter. Compared to the law, particularly for those of us who went to the most highly rated schools where the opportunities come looking for you, screenwriting and all of Hollywood is the wild, wild West. Of course there are rules there too, but you could follow all the rules and get nowhere and follow none of the rules and wind up on top. In other words, it was the perfect proving ground for someone like me, who wanted a world that was essentially about me, by which I mean a life that has its origins in who I am and what I have to say.
Here’s the thing, though. Building that kind of life, the kind where there is no path except the one you make, is exceedingly hard. It takes drive and hard work, but it also takes confidence in your own internal compass; a faith that life will support you when you step off the beaten; the knowledge that if you stumble, even if you fall far and sustain a serious injury, you will get back up, correct course, and carry on. These are things they don’t teach you in super-achiever school. Which is how I found myself ambling down the New-Agey path — and let me tell you, I got way lost in the thickets.
Here’s the thing about the whole New Age thing. It was necessary. It broke us out of our illusion that all we see is all there is. So thoroughly has it done it’s job that even some of the most traditionally religious people I know have read a New Age-y self-help book, or made a vision board, or repeated affirmations until they were blue in the face or fiddled around with their chakras in a yoga class. In fact, the funniest thing to me is that I’ve never been to a yoga class where they talked about chakras, but two of my friends, both of whom live fairly conventional, fairly or entirely suburban lives, learned about chakras on their first try. I’ve studied Kundalini yoga, by the way, which is all about the chakra system, though mostly I’ve practiced Anusara yoga, which fittingly enough means “flowing with Grace,” “flowing with Nature” and “following your heart.” It is rooted in a non-dualistic philosophy wherein the pieces of who we are (matter vs. spirit and so on) are not cleaved in two.
Here’s the other thing about the New Age thing. Like the rampant materialism that preceded it, it gets it wrong. By placing too much emphasis on the nonmaterial world, it encourages people (and I’ve seen many people do it to their detriment) to pretend that life is a magic trick rather than a complex set of forces that require you to engage and make your home in both the material and nonmaterial worlds. It’s striking the balance between the two that most of us find so hard.
Movement #3: Mending The Descartian Split
I am now in the third movement of my life. Like the third act of a movie, it’s the time when, theoretically at least, everything comes together and I realize my goal. Of course, in the movies, the first, second and third acts are just a snapshot of a life that began before the opening credits and will continue once the closing credits roll. In other words, if I’m hoping that the hard work is almost done, and that I’m fast approaching a place where I can just coast, I can hope on. Life isn’t over until it’s done.
But, but, this third movement is the best by far! I’m in early Act Three and already the view from here is sublime. Here’s what’s happened:
I’ve closed the gap that left me believing that either I could be successful or I could be self-realized. Now I’m realizing there is no gap, that it’s always and/both not either/or. In other words, I don’t have to sell out myself to be a success (in other words, I didn’t err in walking away from the law), and I don’t have to give up the spoils of the world to live from a place of deep connection with my soul. I did have to give up my religion, though. I had to let go the notion that having a strong ego and healthy ambition driven by an internal locus of control and a real desire for success in the world is somehow “wrong.”
To be sure, a compensating ego (the ego we have when we’re not really sure that we’re worthwhile), or an ambition cut off from who we really are, is a costly enterprise. And yet to eschew ego and ambition all together? Well it only works if you don’t need those things to live the life you came here for. But if you do, shrinking away from them will not serve you. What will serve you is meeting those things head on and learning to master them so that they do your bidding, rather than the other way around. I liken it to learning how to use a machete, something that toddlers(!) do quite skillfully among the Efe people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (assuming an 11 month old is a toddler and not a baby, as I suspect). The basic rule of thumb? It’s only dangerous if you don’t know how.
So in this, the third movement of my life, armed with all the things I learned the hard way in movements one and two, I am letting my freak flag fly, and by freak flag I mean my ego, my ambition, my unbridled desire for success equal to my essence, a.k.a. my true self. In my own self-defense (yes, I do care what you think), I offer the dictionary definition of ego, which differs from the one that’s found such purchase in the Kingdom of New Agedom.
e-go [ee-goh], noun
1. the “I” or self of any person; a person as thinking, feeling, and willing, and distinguishing itself from the selves of others.
2. in psychoanalysis, the part of the psychic apparatus that experiences and reacts to the outside world and thus mediates between the primitive drives and the demands of the social and physical environment.
3. egotism; conceit; self-importance (okay, can’t defend that)
4. self-esteem or self-image
5. in philosophy, the enduring and conscious element that knows experience, and in scholasticism, the complete person comprising both body and soul.
Number three excepted, I think I’m gonna need me some of that.
As for ambition…, if we let go the negative connotations, if we abandon our image of the ambitious “man” as one who will step on anyone to reach the top, we discover another possibility. That ambition may simple be a matter of wanting something and being willing to do what it takes. In a world in which there is no split, between matter and spirit, between the other and the self (a gift I carried with me when I left the New Age kingdom), ambition need not mean me or you, because it’s always and/both. This doesn’t mean we’re all nice all the time. Sometimes we’re ferocious, as life sometimes requires. It’s tricky terrain to navigate, which may be why we prefer hard and fast rules. Is it okay for George Stephanapolous to write his book about his Clinton years. My friend Beth (not her real name) said no when we argued the point at the time; I said yes. She saw it as disloyal; I saw it as him telling the truth (assuming, of course, that it was the truth) without hand-wringing over the fact that those truths helped launch the next phase of his professional life. In his shoes, I might have done the same — on the other hand, I probably wouldn’t have. Because I’m no journalist, and I’m a Clinton lover through and through (Hilary Clinton 2016!).
We come, finally, to the final stripe in my freak flag: success. It’s always been an important value to me. After clearing the decks of all the pathological, approval-seeking underpinnings my drive for success once had, I can say that it still is. Success to me isn’t a vain or dirty word. It’s simply the natural outgrowth of the larger product of realizing who we really are in this world. Just as an acorn fully expressed becomes a tree, so too do we fully expressed become the successful, worldly embodiment of who we are.
For some of us that means enjoying successes that the world counts little if at all, like the successes of my slave ancestors, who with their forbearance brought me, brought all of us, here; for others, it means living life on the grand stage; but each of us is called, however big or small the expression may seem, to the life for which we were born. To live such a life is to heal the Descartian split and make our way home.
PHOTOGRAPHY via Pinterest
Tags: Ambition, Descartes, Ego, Healing The Descartian Split, Success, TFRL, THE FULLY REALIZED LIFE