Everything will be perfect, if only I find the right person, if only I find the right job.
I just finished an essay by Whizy Kim: Is That All There Is? Why Burnout is a Broken Promise. In it, she beautifully conveys how passion-for-work seems to invariably land at a final destination: the loss and mourning, not of something in the real world, but a fantasy. To help illuminate what this experience is like, she borrows a song lyric which describes the loss of romantic love – and draws the parallel to work:
“In Peggy Lee’s 1969 anthem Is That All There Is, she sings about the end of a great romance. But she’s not despairing over the extreme pain that came with losing love — rather, she’s disappointed that the end of her relationship wasn’t more ruinous. “I thought I’d die,” she sings, “But I didn’t. And when I didn’t, I said to myself: Is that all there is to love?”
Lee’s disillusionment isn’t just about mourning something tangible, but is also about the loss of a fantasy — that this love was the most important thing to her being, that it was necessary for her survival. For many suffering from professional burnout, there’s a similar disillusionment. When your dream job disappears, shouldn’t you be allowed to disappear, too? Instead, not only can’t you disappear, but you’re also staring at many more decades of meaningless work until you can retire. How do you cope with that? The disappointment can be staggering.”
The reality-shattering insight here: it’s not the loss of a particular lover, or disappointment with a particular professional pursuit that can shake someone at their core. It’s the loss of something even more psychologically powerful: an idea. An idea that there is a version of either of these things, love or vocation, that fosters attainment of modern day nirvana.
I’ve experienced what felt like devastation twice in my life. Once powerfully, overnight, when I found the end of a relationship with a person I loved for many years. A second time, gradually, after reaching a fever-pitch of success in my professional life and still feeling as if something was wrong.
Now here I am today, very content, no longer longing for either of these things. So what the hell was that? — what was the source of all of that psychological pain from these events? The loss of fantasies. It was naive of me to expect either love or work to scratch the itch of my deepest desires. Further, it was naive of me to never clarify these desires. Did I expect to walk around every day in utter bliss – satisfied with 100% of what was unfolding in front of me? And therefore, any dissatisfaction was to be met swiftly with even-more-intense cravings and desires? Even further, where did these fantasies come from? This question is extremely complex – in short am convinced that us humans are driven way more deeply by overt and subliminal stimuli from our environments than we recognize.
Still today – I am coming to understand my own relationship with these ideas as they slowly disintegrate. Somewhere along the way, fantasies were installed in my mind that no human can ever attain. And I never questioned them so closely as I am now.
What a relief.
Just as a child eventually recognizes there is no tooth fairy, I recognize that while love and work can be meaningful for what they are, they are not key ingredients to utopian life.