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I think as children, we all inherently know how to chase after happiness. This is why we gravitate toward toys, open fields, hammocks, sports equipment and dress-up clothes and away from bed-making, laundry, stacks of paperwork on Mom and Dad’s dining room table, and math homework. We don’t strive for happiness when we’re young. We simply live, experiencing joy as a result of this living. It’s very simple.
But like most things in life, we get older and convince ourselves we’re doing it all wrong. Life can’t just be about splashing through puddles, hosting sleepovers, and spending our hours drawing and reading and creating. There needs to be more seriousness and suffering in order for life to be real. Martyrdom is the American way. We tell our artists they must experience pain so they can parlay suffering into art. We tell anyone with a dream or a goal that she must work harder than she thinks possible, making sacrifices along the way, giving herself over to the process instead of molding the process with her own hands. No pain, no gain. That’s what we tell our athletes. That’s what we tell our dreamers. You want something? Suffer for it. See what greatness results.
Over the course of three-plus decades, I can’t begin to tell you how much time I wasted on this idea of Suffering As Necessity. I was vulnerable to this idea as a woman (we’re supposed to take care of everyone else), a writer (what is there to write about if you don’t know real pain?), and a human (nobody’s exempt, although being a woman and a writer certainly exacerbated things). I wasted hour upon hour trying to please everyone, worrying what others thought of me, obsessing over food, hating my body, hating my weight, feeling inadequate, wondering if I was an imposter, seeking darkness, torturing myself mentally, getting lost in my own head, depriving myself of fresh air and exercise and adequate nutrition, feeling judged, feeling judgmental, complaining, fretting, procrastinating, feeling jealous of people who were working a lot harder, thinking the world owed me something, feeling self-righteous and indignant, feeding my feelings with food, avoiding real connection in relationships, feeling lost, feeling lonely, feeling like I needed to take on everything, doubting myself as a writer, making everything more complicated than it needed to be, feeling anxious in every possible social situation, thinking I needed to be someone I wasn’t, refusing to accept the person I was, being nervous, being afraid, and treating myself like I’d done something wrong for living life the way I was living it. I could go on and on and on and I know that you could, too.
Through years of life, therapy, relationships and time, I slowly came to a conclusion: I’m happier when I’m happy. Also: I’m allowed to be happy. Also: I can be happy AND healthy. I can be happy AND a writer. Neither my writing nor my life is better when I allow myself to be trapped in some dark place in my brain. Everything improves when I let the light in.
I refuse to hate myself or my body or my shape or my size or my weight or my skin or my hair or my clothes. I refuse to make suffering a part of my daily routine. Yes, I work out six times a week – because I love my body, I love the way exercise makes me feel, and I love the feeling of strength and accomplishment. I only eat foods I love. Anyone who tells me I have to eat certain foods to attain certain results can have a seat; I’m living proof that you can eat foods you love and still be healthy. There are days when it takes me a long time to motivate myself to go for a cold run – but I always get there, and not because I tell myself I have to get there in order to achieve my goals, or I owe it to myself after the last meal I ate, or I need to do it because this is what fit people do. I get there by reminding myself what I love about running: the time to myself, the space in my own head, the music, the rhythm, the feeling of being a part of the bigger world as all the cars whiz by and the leaves change color.
I was always nervous about something when I was kid, mainly as a result of my crippling shyness. I was so concerned about what others thought of me that I let it consume me. I simply couldn’t say my thoughts out loud for fear of how they would be perceived. This is how I became a writer. I came alive on the page. The unfiltered, not-terrified version of me was a force to be reckoned with. I was filled with ideas and dreams and stories. In my bedroom with a pad of paper and a pencil, I allowed myself to live. Writing was my escape, my survival, my friend – and as a result, writing was never a chore. It was never something to be dreaded. It was never something I had to do. That, too, was something I invented for myself in adulthood.
I just finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC and it spoke to all of this in such a big, magical way that after reading it I feel more inspired than I have in years. (Remember when you were a kid and felt curious about everything? Remember how it felt to be alive?) My biggest takeaway from this book is that the idea that one must suffer in order to create is complete bullshit. A person does not need to be in a dysfunctional relationship, drink herself silly, and hate the world in order to write a meaningful book. A person does not need to lock herself inside the darkness of her mind in order to create something beautiful. If anything, the opposite is true. A healthy, happy person is able to think about more than just the confines of her mind. She’s able to look around, observe other people, observe life, and step out of her own little brain to tell a story.
Sometimes I realize that I’m actually just learning the same lesson over and over again because it’s the lesson I need to be learning. That’s certainly the case here: this idea of suffering not being a prerequisite for art echoes the idea that suffering does not need to be a prerequisite for eating, which is a lesson I learned through years of hard work and therapy. Society tells us in a million different ways that in order to be healthy and happy, we must hate ourselves and want to punish our bodies. We’re “so bad” if we ate a highly caloric meal and we must take ourselves to the gym to repent. And we must repeat this cycle over and over again until one day we wake up with a perfect body and the self-esteem to match. This makes no fucking sense but it’s preached to us all the time.
I refuse to take part in this. I refuse to be a martyr. I refuse to make life harder for myself. I refuse to take life so seriously that whatever time I spend working on my writing feels frivolous. I refuse to believe I’m not successful unless I have the insanely over-packed schedule to show for it. I refuse to believe I have to force myself to do things I hate in order to receive the results I’m after. I refuse to believe that hating myself or contributing to my own suffering will somehow result in me being a better artist, a fitter athlete, or a more interesting person.
Here’s what I find much more interesting: saying no to doing things the way we’ve been told to do them. Saying no to self-inflicted suffering. You don’t want to go for a run? Don’t go for a run. Do you think the world requires you to be a writer? It doesn’t. Is this talent of yours a burden because you’re not making any money from it? Stop trying to make money from it. Does cooking three different meals for your family every night because nobody wants to try your healthy cooking seem like the only option? It isn’t. Do you feel like you have to sideline your own goals to focus exclusively on the dreams of your children? You don’t. You hate Brussels sprouts? Keep passing the bowl at Thanksgiving. You think writing or art or creativity requires you to be miserable? Stop trying to be a writer or artist or creative person because you’re operating from a very false notion.
Here’s something I remember from childhood: writing always brought me joy. So, too, did running: I used to run home from my friend Laura’s house after play dates and since it was all downhill, it felt like I was flying. I loved to fly. I never once said to myself, “Ugh, do I really have to fly home again? I think I’ll just walk today.” I loved to write. It never felt like a chore or a burden or a responsibility or a drag and it never would have if I refused to let it. But of course as an adult I let it get tied up with other ideas – ideas about career and money and livelihood – and it stopped being fun. When creative ideas visited me, I’d get annoyed. What am I supposed to do this with this insane, never-to-be-sold, never-to-make-any-money-whatsoever, possibly never-to-see-the-light-of-day idea? I forgot I was supposed to have FUN with it. I forgot I was allowed to lock myself in my office for three hours and write about something absolutely silly and insignificant simply for the fact that I am alive and I’m a writer and I’m allowed to write anything that brings me joy. I forgot it has nothing to do with the outside world or other’s expectations or marketability or that way I assume everyone is looking at me and thinking, What is she doing with her time? With her life? Who does she think she is?
Elizabeth Gilbert suggests we answer this voice whenever we hear its question pounding through our brains. Who do I think I am? I’m a writer. I’m a deeply creative person. I love fitness. I love food. I could write an entire book about fitness and food. I’m a woman who is afforded more privileges in my young life than my mom was in hers, and my mom is a woman who was afforded more privileges in her young life than my grandma was in hers. I’m a perpetual student with a BFA, MFA, and hunger to learn more. I’m a person who loves myself fully and appreciates all that my mind and body are capable of doing. I’m a person who’s not interested in sitting around and complaining about my very, very privileged life and all the exceptional things I’m given the opportunity to do. This body of mine runs 100 miles a month. This brain of mine writes her thoughts down every day. This life of mine feels huge and spectacular and none of my success or happiness is contingent on being a certain weight, selling a book, or hiding in the darkness. That’s who I think I am.
So here’s my next question: Who do you think you are? What gives you the right to be here? (Hint: Yes, you have the right to be here!) What have you been holding onto for the sake of suffering? I implore you, whatever it is: life is too important (and also so not at all important) to hold onto it anymore. Whether it’s pettiness, self-doubt, chemical dependence, or the persistent belief that you need to crush your soul in order to survive in this world, let it go.
I hate the phrase “Choose happiness” because I think it negates the pain that is so necessary to feel in certain circumstances, like the pain of grief and loss. Telling someone who just lost someone to “choose to be happy” feels like a terrible insult to me.
Here’s what I suggest instead: Choose to be resilient. Choose to be brave. Choose to say yes. Choose to try. Choose to work hard without feeling resentful. Choose to stop thinking the world owes you something because it absolutely does not. Choose to stop lusting after a certain outcome because we don’t have control over the outcomes – only the process itself. Choose to view creativity as a separate entity from business. Choose to learn to love taking care of yourself so it doesn’t feel like a drag. Choose kindness. Choose forgiveness. Choose rising above drama and pettiness. Choose joy. Choose play. Choose silliness.
And whatever you do, for the love of goodness, refuse to believe the narrative that equates suffering with success. If suffering is the way to success, then trust me: I don’t want success. I’ll take a happy little life instead.