No bitterness, no sneering, no cynicism
reflections on success and failure + a short piece on choices
For those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter, I’ve been posting daily blogs for the month of April on my website. Every week I’ll share my favorite writing from the week here, along with a new piece. Enjoy!
Everyone with ambition has a life that they dream of. Maybe you dream of being an artist in New York, or a serial entrepreneur, or the member of a niche internet social club. I have many such dreams, and for the first time in a while I’m wholeheartedly pursuing them. This is a scary thing. Because I’ve had enough experiences to know that life doesn’t always serve you the storyline you were hoping for. I know what it feels like to hit rock bottom—to believe that the dreams you had so tightly wound into your identity are dead. Such circumstances understandably bring about grief and sadness. But there is one specific response that I don’t want to succumb to: bitterness.
I told a friend recently that one of my goals in life is to resist bitterness, even if I don’t end up with a life I wanted. I know how tempting the tug of cynicism can be, when you feel that the world didn’t give you a chance, or when you feel that you have brought about failures that you’ll never be able to correct for. I know how it feels to believe that you—by virtue of your psychological composition—are simply not cut out to be happy and successful.
All kinds of life experiences can be spun into stories of cynicism. I’ve been single for so long, I’m never gonna find someone, I’ll never have the happy intimate relationships that all my friends have. Or: I’ve been rejected for jobs again and again, no one believes in me, I’m not smart enough or competent enough to work in this field. The part that hurts the most is letting the success of others convince you that you are fundamentally inferior. You feel contempt for those who seem to have worked it out so effortlessly, who trust themselves.
I’m always surprised to recognize when I’ve become bitter about something. It happens slowly, creeping up on me out of nowhere. I remember how as a kid I was puzzled with adults’ tendency to turn a negative personal experience into a sweeping generalization (“don’t go into politics or activism, you’ll only get hurt”, “people are selfish, don’t give too much of yourself to others”). But then on a frustrated walk home late at night it suddenly dawns on me that I’ve been doing the exact same thing with my own failures.
One way to counteract your bitterness is to see it in this perspective: to recognize that you are being exactly like the people that you had once looked down upon, people you had promised yourself you would never become. But I think the true antidote to bitterness is not to be resentful or smug. If you want to protect yourself from ending up in a worldview where everything sucks and I can’t change it and I’ll never be happy, you have to move past your judgement of people who have taken on this view. You have to do the opposite: have compassion for the bitterness.
I try my best to support my friends when they’re struggling. But sometimes, if a friend has been experiencing the same struggle for long enough—if I see that their struggle has suffused their life with a current of resentment towards everything—I start to get impatient. I become frustrated that they keep fixating on the same problems, the same pessimism, and I stop wanting to engage with them.
But a few days ago I had a turning point in one such friendship. In a rerun of a conversation we’ve had dozens of times, my friend was repeating her well-worn story about how a string of personal and career failures have ruined her life. But this time, rather than feeling frustrated with her cynicism, I suddenly felt the weight of her pain pour over me. It is so evident in her face how much she is hurting, how could I not see this? Up until that moment I did not want to acknowledge the underlying pain that had generated her cynicism—pain that she continues to feel, pain that she palliates by telling herself this is the life she deserves. I finally came face-to-face with her suffering, and all I could feel was compassion. Rather than saying you still have a chance, don’t be so glum, I said: I get why you feel that way, I see that it hurts, and I would feel the same way in your position. The tone of that conversation shifted—we both opened up more, and being validated in her cynicism actually increased her hope rather than reducing it. I’ve been a more loving and supportive friend in all our conversations since.
Visa said recently that sneering at those who are low-agency is a self-defeating act, because having agency is always a temporary state. No matter how hard you try, no matter how much you value being self-efficacious and optimistic, there will be a time when the darkness comes for you too. And in those moments you will understand that what you need most in this state is care and understanding, not shame and self-hatred.
I can’t anticipate ahead of time what will happen in my life, and I can’t even control, in this moment, how I’ll react in the future to life’s challenges. Being optimistic is easy when times are good, and a little difficult in the midst of a struggle, and increasingly hard when things aren’t going your way for months or years. But the more I remind myself of how entrancing the spell of bitterness is—the more I remember that it creeps up on you imperceptibly, and that self-compassion is the only real way out of it—the better chance I’ll have of recognizing and escaping it whenever it comes back.
For today’s daily writing, I wrote about how life is a pen, not a pencil.
Viewing agency as fluid and life as a pen - little nuances with big implications. Beautifully said.
Love the artistic piece from your notebook!
Thanks for introducing "low-agency" to my vocab. I've def been guilty of sneering at those with low-agency without considering the things outside of their control that brought them there. This is why discussions around mental health, family trauma, and the pervasive anxiety-inducing phenomenon that is social media need to happen more IMO