In the Herald Sun on 12 June, 2018, columnist Shaun Carney wrote “SUFFERING IN SILENCE” about the recent, tragic suicides of internationally acclaimed chef, Anthony Bourdain, and fashion designer, Kate Spade asking “What is success, fame? Whatever it is, it doesn’t save you.” Obviously, I didn’t know Bourdain or Spade, indeed, I had never even heard of them, but I am enjoyably and anonymously alive in reasonable health at 68 without fame or fortune. Seemingly there is nothing remarkable or abnormal about that, except I did entertain suicidal thoughts in my late teens despite being subsumed as a success as a cadet journalist after 18 months on the job. Moreover, I also had a good looking boyfriend and some supposedly good friends as well as earning a good salary and a home with supposedly loving parents.
Fast forward 50 years and I have none of these approved societal attributes in my life and surprisingly, possibly even unbelievably to many people, I am happy with my life and consider it successful. Furthermore, I have been, and probably still am, disparagingly perceived as a “failure and loser”, albeit silently, as I never married or had children either. This reality may seem tragic by others and if I committed suicide now, there would be clear and obvious reasons as to why; few people would be perplexed.
But my understanding of success was never about fulfilling others’ expectations or perceptions; rather, it focused on self-acceptance and achieving my own personal aspirations, however contrary, even inimical, to the pervasive status quo.
In 1966 aged 16, I was fortunate to watch a movie at the cinema called Seconds starring Rock Hudson. The sci-fi narrative featured an apparently successful, middle-aged, male banker in a loveless marriage who undergoes plastic surgery to emerge with an entirely new visage and identity as a successful, much younger and publicly acclaimed artist. Ironically, the artist soon becomes unhappy too, irrespective of more creative endeavours and promiscuous sexcapades, wanting his previous life back. Sadly, the surgeon kills him as there’s no point of return.
Nearly three years later, as a second-year cadet journalist on The Sun News Pictorial in Melbourne, I was promoted to third-year level after just nine months instead of 12, applauded as someone who “would do very well in this business.” Eight months later I resigned, to the surprise, even shock of the editor and other senior staff.
Certainly, I enjoyed the job and the people I met and worked with, but this success was unfulfilling as I had many personal problems as well as professional confusions internalised as suicidal thoughts, understanding that I needed to “get away” to clarify the concept of success as defined by my social milieu. It wasn’t success by my criterion as I wasn’t happy perpetually pondering what the “real” problem was? What more could I have wanted at that age, many might ask? The question for me however was more about what did I need to feel fulfilled and content?
This question permeated my solitude on many occasions for nearly a decade, as I resumed working in the media with some acclaim again. Not then feeling suicidal, I did however feel “empty” and unfulfilled too often, walking away from socially sanctioned successful jobs, recognising that success as superficial; a status bestowed by external, materialistic accoutrements that were meaningless for me.
Now, as a woman alone, with only a couple of friends and a home I don’t own but provided courtesy of my far more affluent sister and brother-in-law, I feel more of a success that I ever did. Indeed, this feeling has developed and grown over more than 30 years, still writing a website for whoever wants to read it. Occasionally, I am published in the mainstream media.
I never attempted suicide and haven’t thought about it for decades, taking me several years to appreciate exactly what was meaningful for my self-fulfilment. Throughout my life, I read many books by various psychiatrists and novelists and explored different career opportunities among other things and the meaning I discovered was very simple: loving myself for who I was stripped bare and enjoying my time; be it writing, albeit unpublished, in conversation with interested and interesting people, being alone at times, indulging other passions as I can afford and continuing lifelong learning about everything and anything I can.
I fulfil my own expectations and desires as much as possible without succumbing to others’ expectations of what I should do and more significantly, be; “To thine own self be true”. I try to be a decent human being, doing unto others as I hope they will do unto me, but of course, it doesn’t always work that way. Importantly, I try to live “on the inside” of myself instead of seeking the approval and/or acknowledgement of others for my outside achievements and this understanding has been more spiritually rewarding than I can articulate.
In 1957, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote one of the most brilliant and insightful books I ever read called “The Art of Loving”, of self and others, the former intrinsic to the latter. He wrote “that satisfaction in individual love cannot be attained without the capacity to love one’s neighbour, without true humility, courage, faith and discipline.” In the 1960s songstress Barbra Streisand sang “Gotta Move”, lyricizing about being in a place where she could “just be me”. Perhaps being happy in our own psyche rather than in other people’s places is the significant success. It certainly is for me!