February 4, 2013

In some superficial ways, I relate to Elizabeth Wurtzel in her essay, “Elizabeth Wurtzel Confronts Her One-Night Stand of a Life”. (I’ve never read any of her books.) The fact that she is my age exactly adds some resonance by default. We went through the same ups and downs of the economy at the same age, which tends to significantly influence the sense of value/money that we hold for the rest of our lives. The fact that she was in the arts is also another resonating factor. But beyond that, I think we are quite the opposite. She actually lived how I now believe I should have lived in my younger years, that is, not delaying gratification. She took all the gratifications up front, and dealt with the consequences later. Not delaying gratification, I think, is a prerequisite for becoming an artist. I love the way she described it:

“If I had spent the money on a mutual fund from T. Rowe Price, I might well have panicked and lost it during the financial crisis of 2008, and I would never have had the pleasure of schlepping my stuff on the IRT in Hermès.”

This is the antithesis of the current wisdom on parenting. How much we are able to delay gratification is supposedly one of the most accurate predictors of our future success. But I think it only works if your idea of success is conventional, unimaginative, and predictable, like pursuing careers/professions that have existed for a long time in which the paths to success are well-defined and well-established (lawyers, doctors, scientists, bankers, etc..).

I think we all consistently underestimate our own capacity to cope with misfortunes and hardships. Instead of actually testing our own capacity, we become good at avoiding them entirely. Our true strengths and creativity come out when we hit the bottom. If we don’t allow ourselves to hit the bottom, we’ll never have the opportunity to test ourselves and to push the limits of our own capacities and creativity.

So, I respect Ms. Wurtzel for having the courage not to delay gratification. She is dealing with the consequences now, and reading her essay, many people might judge her as a failure because of how she turned out. In the West, a story is all about the ending. If the ending is good, we assume that the path to get there was the correct one, no matter how draining, painful, and soul-sucking it was. Everyone is concerned about the ending, being able to retire in style or go to heaven. Life now is always sacrificed for the presumably better future. But, even if they achieve their ideal retirement, the charm is only on the facade. Inside, they have already been dead for decades.