Art, life and the Happiness Dip


Launch is great. Synthesis is superb.

In between the two, however, is most often an ocean of hell, a vast, tedious chasm between the happiness of just being and the happiness of informed being.

That's way denser than the fluffity-fluff I usually throw out here, so let me back up a moment and tell a story. Two stories, actually.

The first is a story of my happiness. It's something that, despite what a certain tag on this blog might have you believe, I don't think about much these days, although I'm still curious about the mechanics of happiness as I do my work, since so many of the people I align with seem to find themselves in various stages of getting to happy.

Anyway. That story.

When I was a baby, I was a happy baby. Not a touchy baby or a gooey, juicy, hug-me-up baby, but, if eyewitness reports are to be trusted, a shiny, happy baby who was interested in most things and delighted with a large subset of these. Additionally, putting aside my status as Only Grandchild, I was, if these same reports are to be believed, Fun to Be Around, a quality that most of the people I've polled say I was able to maintain throughout my childhood. So fine: a happy child.

If you asked me to pinpoint the time that I stopped feeling happy, I peg it at around age 10. I peg it thusly as I have a memory, not to be completely trusted, as I have a not-completely-trustworthy memory, of standing in my maternal grandparents' backyard, feeling what I now recognize as creeping blues wrap its arms around me. I'm sure there were other moments leading up to it, but the realization of that moment was that the party was officially over, with no notification of when or assurance that it would someday start again.

Thus, I spent the next 30 or so years chasing happiness, or a clue, or whatever I was making it out to be at the time. A feeling of wholeness, I guess, and of being centrally me but able to connect with...what? The other side? "Happiness"? At one point, I named it "Big Colleen," imagining some kind of eternal, omniscient, wiser me who was also the face of the universe. (I know, I know, but these things are slippery-hard to describe, dammit.) There was this feeling that maybe, if I learned the right path or the right key combination or the secret handshake, I could get either back to myself or forward to myself, whichever way it worked. Meanwhile, there was a lot of the psychic equivalent of being out in the rain and cold with insufficient protection, and inchoate longing, and other piece-of-shit states of being.

If you have read other bits of my story, you know I had my real-life equivalent of that moment in the cartoon (or was it Gilligan's Island?) when the coconut fell on my head and I woke up, as if from a dream, to happiness. I've yet to fully explore that epiphany, but I've taken stabs at explaining it in a play I wrote several years back, and have hinted at it an essay here on the blog. Since I'm obviously not going to get at it here, either, it was basically like this: there was a pre-Hospital Epiphany me and a post-Hospital Epiphany me, and the post-me was as astonished that I'd ever felt bad about anything as the pre-me was that something like this could really, truly happen.

The other story is about my trajectory as an actor.

I've written bits here and there about my odd-10 years in the acting profession (including an acting-related epiphany that I was clueless to act upon, but was interesting, nonetheless), and have not shied away from discussing how very, very bad I was for some time. Because I was. For years, even as I felt this obsessive need to pursue acting and become better at it, I was pretty miserable while practicing most aspects of it.

What I haven't discussed is that I was good when I started. Really good, apparently. Couldn't-go-wrong good, where I was an effortless conduit for Real Human Emotion. I believe the teacher's first words upon seeing me onstage the first time were "well, we've got us a live one," but I couldn't say for sure because I was so live, so full of passion and as-yet-unexpressed longing, I could hear almost nothing. I was just Real Energy, up there in front of people. This lasted for perhaps six months, at which point I'd started to accumulate some real, if shaky, technique, and the whole thing fell apart. The whole experience can be summed up in cartoon form as that moment when whichever Warner Brothers character finally realized he'd run past the cliff on sheer fury and energy, and, looking first downward to confirm, then audience-ward for the gag, plummeted to the earth below.

Seth Godin talks about The Dip in business: that long, slow slog between getting an idea and getting it to the place where it works like crazy, where it takes off into the stratosphere, where it becomes that unstoppable rocket to the moon you'd half-envisioned, half-just-hoped it would be at the beginning of the curve.

I think there's a dip in life, a big dip, the king-daddy of all dips. If you were looking at it from a Hegelian perspective, it would be the antithesis phase, where every last bit of every idea put forth in the thesis phase got challenged. What I like to call the Sucks Ass phase. Because here you are, happy and carefree and connected, when all of a sudden, and generally, for a long, long time, things start seriously sucking out of nowhere, and everything you thought was true and possible becomes unclear and maddeningly out of reach.

What I finally realized was happening in those years, for me, it's important to interject, was that the carefree awesomeness of childhood finally got burdened with the icky structuredness of adulthood, or rather, training for adulthood. I went from having my own ideas and minimal external pressure to do or be anything to having my own ideas squished and squashed and sometimes pushed aside as I learned all of the Very Important Things that were necessary to ensure I was able to be a capable adult.

Or, in the parlance of acting, I learned technique.

There's nothing wrong with technique. Skills and knowledge are wonderful tools, both, but mastery of them is a bewildering and not particularly intuitive process. There is a lot of Fucking Up, and dropping your tools on your foot, and breaking things with your tools, and breaking your tools on things. Worst of all, at some point in the process, I think we get so into process that we become process, instead of realizing that process is there to be our servant. That we and process are there to serve some greater good. Like an actor must learn to master technique, whatever technique, so she can reliably and artfully channel the emotions needed to tell a story, we must learn to master these tools so we can bring our humanity to bear in useful ways, instead of just HULK SMASHing our way through life.

I confess that I got back on this tear after reading my friend Gretchen's post the other day about whether artists are unhappier than their non-artist counterparts. I have no data and an uncharacteristic lack of opinion on it, other than "the tortured ones, probably." I think that unhappier people are people in that chasm, or dip, where they're still figuring out how things work. I think that happier people are ones who have either figured it out or, mean and elitist though this may sound, never thought much about anything in the first place. I've maintained for a while that a good indicator of intelligence is knowing that one isn't, really: you have to be a certain level of smart to have any idea of all the things you can't possibly know; people who are very, very certain that they know best scare the crap out of me.

Not much point for a long and winding post, except maybe this: if you're struggling with something, the way is through it.

And if you're through it, try doing a little analysis of the stages you went through. It's not going to speed things up for the guy right behind you, but it might make the tedium more tolerable...


Image by i does tze rue-bot via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.