01.10.2008

After the Triumph

The Olympic Games tell us that perfection is possible: that one man or woman can be faster or stronger, or more skilful in some peculiar way, than any other on Earth. Of course, some champions on the winner's podium just look like dorks. Others, however, shine with an ecstatic radiance that testifies how far they have come.

Before they crossed that line they were just human. Now they are gods. All the others, just a fraction of a second behind, are merely the also-rans. For the rest of their lives, the champions will carry the prestige and memory of being an Olympic gold medallist. What more could they possibly want?

They could want that godlike feeling to last longer than it does. They may have achieved their dream, but fulfilment is a feeling as transient as any other, and not a lasting possession. I'm sure many Olympians, back to their desk job a few weeks or months later, look at their medals and wonder, "What was all that about? And was it worth it?"

Every day we seek fulfilment and often attain it. Any incomplete task can bother us enormously, and we can get great satisfaction from finishing it, however small. We complete the crossword, or the "to do" list, or post off the difficult letter. We say exactly the right thing in a conversation. We fulfil our obligations towards family or friends, or get the tax return in on time. I feel very happy with myself whenever I manage to tidy up the kitchen properly.

Many of the above activities require sustained effort against lethargy, disinterest and the fear of failure. Yet our sense of fulfilment rarely lasts for long. No matter how important it seemed, it is destined to fade, sooner or later, into the evasive underworld of memory.

Nor do the triumphs resolve everything. Unlike the Olympians, we hardly ever arrive at a final finishing line. Picasso said, "I paint because I am unhappy." His masterpieces arose from his discontent. He knew would have achieved nothing without it.

In fact, the symbiotic interplay of struggle and triumph never seems to stop. After completing a painting, the cycle of discontent and fulfilment continued for Picasso. The next work was already calling him. Partly because he understood this dynamic so well, he seems to have led a very satisfying life.

As Picasso knew, fulfilment is possible but it does need to meet certain conditions. We rarely achieve anything without hard work. Success requires sacrifice. We can't focus well on one thing without surrendering other things we could be doing. Writers typically neglect their families. Olympic champions give up relationships, careers, leisure, junk food and much more.

Many activities require a certain amount of clock time to do halfway properly. Family therapist and author Steve Biddulph said, "You can't be a good dad if you're working 55 hours a week." It is not possible to make up the shortfall with so called "quality time". Actress Meg Ryan made a similar point recently when she said you can't have a good relationship and a good career at the same time.

Achievement is expensive, and it invariably takes far more time and energy than we first anticipate. Fantasy on the other hand is cheap. We can easily imagine pursuing our dreams, and reaching for the stars. It takes no effort to imagine having a husband and a child, a job in the city and a mansion in the suburbs. The dream can be beautiful, even addictive, but how much will it cost?

Supermum is always likely to fall short of her aspirations, no matter how good the daycare centre and the sympathetic husband. In a recent TV program, one woman said she spends more time in Sydney traffic each day (three hours!) than she does with her daughter. She is probably getting very good at negotiating traffic, for whatever that is worth.

Those who think they can have it all if only they try hard enough are likely to be disappointed. Trying harder than our bodies and minds can take, even with the best of intentions, only works well in short bursts. Over time, it is more likely to lead to exhaustion, stress, sickness and depression than to a gold medal or the perfect life.

Of course, many people will always feel unfulfilled. One huge disappointment can seem so much larger than all their achievements. Even when they apparently succeed, they may feel they've climbed the wrong ladder.

In fact, there is a whole philosophic tradition of "sour grapes" cynicism and grumpy despair. "All is vanity!" said the author of Ecclesiastes, surrounded as he was by his palaces, orchards and slaves. "Everybody dies, just like the animals do. No one remembers you after you are dead, and your wealth will be squandered by your worthless children." Nonetheless, he gave us good advice if we find ourselves in this predicament: "Enjoy the companionship of your wife whom you love. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die."

Yet even those spiritual traditions that despise the world still believe that perfection is possible. The secret is detachment, and lots of it. In theory, we could avoid all possibility of disappointment by wanting virtually nothing at all. If we aim very low, we're less likely to fail. If we choose to become a monk or a yogi, and resolutely turn our backs on wealth, love, culture, knowledge, self identity, and the past and future, then we really could become very peaceful indeed.

Many spiritual traditions regard this state of serene deprivation as the ultimate goal. Of course, they don't describe it that way. They call it Nirvana or Liberation or God Realisation instead. They say it will fulfil us completely, and in one sense that could be true. At least that state is going nowhere. Unlike most triumphs, it can be stable. It wouldn't plunge us into the next cycle of discontent and struggle.

Few of us would aspire to this kind of perfection, but there is still some wisdom in this approach. So much of what we strive for is beyond our reach, or unlikely to satisfy us anyway. Shopping has its limits. We may have to scale down our goals to match our character and circumstances if we want to succeed at all. I could conceivably get my golf handicap down to 12, but never to a handicap of two. I'm not keen enough and I'm too old. No matter how strongly I visualise, it is not going to happen.

When we are young, we often have a rather naive, idealised view of what would satisfy us - "If only I had this, this and this, I would be so happy." The university degree, the lover, success in sport, the world trip, the good job, the car, the house, all seem like tickets to Paradise when we don't have them.

We assume such things will fulfil us and it can be quite surprising to find that they don't. Or at least, not in the way we expected. After the white wedding, what then? How many people are shocked to find out what being a wife or a husband, a father or a mother, actually involves? In fact, how many are not shocked? Yet how many would want to give up the messy reality, and return to the naive purity of the dream?

Even uncomplicated triumphs can soon fade into the background. I remember how elated I was when one of my books was accepted by a British publisher. Then I "broke into" the vast American market. I was that one out of a million "wannabe" writers who had finally made it.

But do I feel fulfilled by it? Thirty years ago, not more than 50 people would have known who I was, even by sight, and most of them would have thought little of me. Nowadays, probably two or three million people have read my books in places as far afield as Siberia, Argentina, Sweden, China and Israel. Whenever I think about it, I feel a little proud. But I hardly ever think about it.

Because our triumphs often occur without cheering crowds, we may not realise their value. We raise a child, establish a good career, learn to be true to ourselves and helpful to others. These are big achievements. We also have negative victories over poverty, disaster, exile, illness or depression. "It doesn't seem right," said the bank manager, as I quietly paid off my mortgage. "There should be trumpets playing." I assured her that I could hear them in my head.

Our defining achievements are important - where would we be without them? - but they tend to sit below consciousness, half-forgotten, taken for granted and barely recognised. They may create a warm glow when we bother to think about them, but that's all. We are far more likely to be aware of today's quite different issues.

Nor does this need to be a problem. Picasso got it right when he implied that discontent is essential for happiness. If we rested on our laurels, they would rot beneath us. We always have to seek and find solutions, but the ongoing process is more important than the periodic breakthroughs.

The climax of the Odyssey is when Ulysses, after 19 years of struggle, finally manages to get back home. He is washed up on the shore, alone, naked and barely alive, but he still manages to slaughter his domestic enemies and reunite himself with his long-suffering wife. This is what heroes do: great struggle and great triumph.

But the story doesn't end there. A year or two after the glorious homecoming, he'd had enough of the peace. He gathered his old companions, kissed Penelope goodbye, launched his boat once again onto "the wine-dark sea" and vanished forever into the west. We certainly need to arrive and complete the circle, but don't expect that to be the end of the story.

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