I love the novels of J.P. Marquand, and over the weekend, I re-read The Late George Apley. (I love to re-read.) I thought I remembered that it touched on the issue of happiness, and it does. The novel is terrific — funny, poignant, and very thought-provoking.
The first, and most important, of my Twelve Personal Commandments is to Be Gretchen. Why is it so hard to know myself? and to act in accordance with my own nature, my interests, my values? It would seem that nothing would be easier and more obvious — and yet it’s very, very challenging.
The novel describes the life of the late George Apley — a man who does not manage to “Be George,” and instead allows himself to be pushed by his parents and others away from the choices he wants to make, and who in turn tries to push his children into choices they don’t want to make. With very clear happiness consequences.
One point made very clearly by the novel: just because people truly love you, and are very well-intentioned, doesn’t mean that you should follow their direction. In the end, though people can be helpful, only you can know what’s right for you.
Many of the things that have brought me happiness since I started my Happiness Project came directly from my attempt to do a better job of “Being Gretchen.” This blog. My children’s literature book group. My Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island project.
But being Gretchen, and accepting my true likes and dislikes, also means that I have to face the fact that I will never visit a jazz club at midnight, or hang out in artists’ studios, or jet off to Paris for the weekend, or pack up to go fly-fishing on a spring dawn. I won’t be admired for my chic wardrobe or be appointed to a high government office. I love fortune cookies and refuse to try foie gras.
Now, you might think – “Well, okay, but why does that make you sad? You don’t want to visit a jazz club at midnight anyway, so why does it make you sad to know that you don’t want to do that? If you wanted to, of course you could.”
It makes me sad to realize my limitations. The world offers so much!–and I am too small to appreciate it. The joke in law school was: “The curse of Yale Law School is to try to die with your options open.” Which means — at some point, you have to pursue one option, which means foreclosing other options, and to try to avoid that is crazy. Similarly, to be Gretchen means to let go of all the things that I am not — to acknowledge what I don’t encompass.
But it also makes me sad because, in many ways, I wish I were different. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” I have a lot of notions about what I wish I liked to do, of the subjects and occupations that I wish interested me. But it doesn’t matter what I wish I were like. I am Gretchen.
I was reminded of Christopher Alexander’s observation: “It is hard, so terribly hard, to please yourself. Far from being the easy thing that it sounds like, it is almost the hardest thing in the world, because we are not always comfortable with that true self that lies deep within us.”
A good reminder of the importance of self-knowledge.