That is the question, and not easy to answer.
A couple installments back, we looked at lawyers whose personal epiphanies led them to break from the profession’s “show me the money” culture .
Epiphanies find us in our ruts, grab us under the armpits, and yank us out. The view from up top is exhilarating at first, but epiphanies fade quickly without new thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors to sustain them. To get all that, we need new brain wiring, which doesn’t come easily. Plus, once we’re out of our professional rut, we’re out of our other ruts, too, which means that our need for new neurons and neural pathways spills over to our relationships with family, friends, employees, co-workers… all the people most invested in the cultural status quo we intend to change.
In her book Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, Anne Lamott writes in her funny-but-so-honest-it-hurts style about the effect our epiphanies have on those close to us, especially when we come from a high achievement family culture.
“The grown-ups we trusted did not share the news that life was going to include deep isolation, or that the culture’s fixation on achievement would be spiritually crippling to those of more gentle character. No one mentioned the peace that was possible in surrender to a power greater than oneself, unless it was to an older sibling, when resistance was futile anyway. Teachers forgot to mention that we could be filled only by the truth that suffuses our heart, presence, humanity. So a lot of us raced around the rat exercise wheel, to get good grades and positions, to get into the best colleges and companies, and to keep our weight down.
“Most of us have done fairly well in our live. We learned how to run on that one wheel, but now we want a refund.
“Most people in most families aren’t going to feel, “Oh, great, Jack has embarked on a search for meaning. And he’s writing a family memoir! How great.” To the world, Jack has figured out the correct meaning. He’s got a mate, a house, a job, children. He’s got real stuff that he should fully attend to. At best, his seeking his own truth is very nice, but it’s beside the point. At worst, one would worry that he was beginning to resemble a native Californian.
“It is not now and never was in anybody’s best interest for you to be a seeker. It’s actually in everybody’s worst interest. It’s not convenient for the family. It may make them feel superficial and expendable. You may end up looking nutty and unfocused, which does not reflect well on them. And you may also reveal awkward family secrets, like that your parents were insane, or that they probably should have raised Yorkies instead of human children. Your little search for meaning may keep you from going as far at your school or your company as you might otherwise have gone, if you had had a single-minded devotion to getting ahead. Success shows the world what you’re made of, and that your parents were right to all but destroy you to foster this excellence.
“So you — I — stuck to the family plan for a long time, because your success made everyone else so happy, even if you made yourself frantic and half dead trying to achieve it. You couldn’t win at this game, and you couldn’t stop trying. At least it was a home to return to, no matter how erratic, which is better than no home.”
Are epiphanies worth the trouble they bring to our close relationships? Enjoy the humor, take the dose of honesty, breathe deeply, and then… you decide.
Next time: some scary cultural stuff — too late for Halloween, but worth a look.