The more I study myself and other people, the most I realize that if you don’t find the things you need inside yourself, you won’t find them on the outside. You can’t find the things you need outside yourself.
I’m talking about the things you really need: love, success, affirmation of your fundamental worth. Our physical needs can be met externally. We can find food, shelter. But our emotional needs, our inner needs, can’t. Not really. Or not, at any rate, after childhood. Hopefully when we are children, we feel loved by our parents. We feel as though we are the most important thing in their world, that our successes and failures, our hurts and triumphs, matter deeply to them. This is not narcissistic: it is what a child needs to be healthy. The child then internalizes that love, and it becomes the self-love that he or she will need as an adult. Not having that sort of love as a child is a psychic wound that later needs to be healed. I’ve seen many of my friends with that sort of wound, in the process of healing. It’s not easy.
Once, when my daughter was young, I was sitting in a park playing with her. Another mother was there, also with a young daughter, and a grandmother with her grandson. The grandmother had been watching that other girl (mine was just a toddler at the time) playing in the sandbox. I’m not sure what prompted the comment, but she leaned over to that mother and said, casually, “She’s a little spoiled, isn’t she?” I recognized her accent at once: it was Eastern European. And I thought, I know the culture you come from. I know it so well, because it’s my own. And I know the generation you come from too, because my grandparents came from it. It’s the generation that lived through World War II, and to them, all the younger generations were a little spoiled, their lives a little too easy. You can understand that perspective: they had lived in the worst of times, under the Germans and then under the Russians, through no food and then bread lines. They wanted to prepare children for the reality of the world. Would children who were spoiled, who were too loved, be ready for privation? Starvation, even?
But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. Children can’t love themselves: they can scarcely love other people, at that stage. They are being bombarded all the time by a strange world, a world too large for them, a world beyond their understanding. Their emotions are in a turmoil. At that stage, they need external love, and hopefully there is someone around — if not a parent, then a grandparent, another relative, a friend — to give it to them. Later, that love will form a sort of rock in their consciousness, a place to stand. They will have the knowledge that they were well and truly loved.
But what happens later? That’s what I’m really concerned with here. Now that we are all online, we get constant glimpses into other people’s lives, and I see so many people mourning their lack of certain things . . . emotional support, a partner to love and care about them, success in their chosen fields. They want those things so badly, and they want those things to come to them from the outside. And those things may, but when they do . . . they won’t be enough. That’s the ironic thing, isn’t it? By the time you’re an adult, if you haven’t built that rock to stand on inside you, nothing that comes from the outside will ever been enough. When love comes, it won’t be enough, and you will doubt it. Surely you’re not worthy of it? Surely it’s not real? When success comes, you will want more success, greater success. You will realize that any success can go away, and the knowledge will be like sawdust in your mouth.
When you’re an adult, in order to recognize the things outside yourself, to benefit from them, you must already have them inside you. This operates on a physical level as well: if you are hungry on the inside, no amount of food will make you feel full. You will continue to hunger. (Then you will need to figure out what you’re hungering for.) It’s a strange image I’ve created here, building a rock. You can’t build a rock, not physically. But maybe you can psychologically, the way nature and time build rocks? I thought of using the word “platform” instead, but that’s not strong enough to express what I mean. It’s a rock to stand on, something solid. And it needs to be inside you, because all the things outside you are ephemeral. They can go away. The people who love you can stop loving you. The success you wanted so badly can end in failure. All the external signs of your worth can disappear, with a turn of the wheel of fortune that medieval scholars thought governed our lives. Then what are you left with? What you have inside, that’s all.
So you have to work on what’s inside. That’s not easy, is it? Particularly if after childhood you were left not with a solid rock but with an emptiness, a sort of windy darkness — if what you are standing on is empty space. But either way, the project is the same: you have to build and maintain a rock on which to stand, your own rock. You have to love yourself, and find love within yourself. You have to feel successful, even when your work has been rejected. How do you do that? Little by little, bit by bit, stone by stone. Everyone does it differently, and it’s hard, and it takes a long time. But learning to find what you need inside yourself is the process of becoming an adult. I wondered if I had any wisdom to offer on how to do this, how to build your rock. And I thought, this is all I know:
1. Treat yourself as though you were someone you loved.
2. If you have failed, reward yourself: you are one of the brave ones who tried.
3. Remember Vincent Van Gogh. He failed all his life, and created some of the greatest beauty of which human beings are capable.
For me, finding what I need inside myself has been a very long process, one that has taken all my life. Am I there yet, at perfect self-sufficiency? Of course not, and I don’t think I ever will be. I don’t think anyone is, except perhaps Buddhist monks. I am not a Buddhist monk. But I can say that I’m better at it now . . .
I do know that the process of finding what you need inside yourself, finding love, courage, peace, is one of the most important processes we go through as human beings . . . and as artists, for those of us in the arts. That rock inside yourself is a platform, from which you can jump. And maybe fly.
(I thought this would be the right image for this post. I took it yesterday, while walking through the woods, visiting my friend Autumn.)