The Big Li(f)e

In my early thirties I sat on the veranda of my father’s B&B at sunset and watched a barge move a load of coal up the Ohio River. It was a scene ripe with symbolism that I couldn’t see at the time. I’d just escaped a dangerous, dial 911 romantic relationship several states away, taking nothing with me but what I could shove into my little Mazda, including my two cats.

Safe but shaken after a two-day drive out of hell, I was in a daze when my dad’s wife brought me a glass of wine and sat beside me for a heart-to-heart chat. Little did I know that she would ask a pointed question which would haunt me for years. “What is it that holds you back in life,” she asked.

At that moment, in all my hurt, confusion, and indignation, I truly had no idea. I didn’t see myself as someone holding herself back. It felt like all I did was try and try and try. Try to have a good job, try to pay the rent, try to have a sane relationship, try to look attractive, try to seem smart, try to be happy … basically, just try to be good enough. I was like a barge motoring with all its might against the current of Life. It never occurred to me to ask for whom I was trying so hard. But if I had, my answer would have been “for everyone else.”

Not for me.

The only “me” that figured into the equation was the “me” I imagined everyone else could see. It was all about their perspective, not mine. When I saw myself, I only saw “me” through the filter of “them,” either the imagined public in general or the person in front of me.

And so my answer for a long, long time was that I wasn’t holding myself back. The world was holding me back! The world saw me as not good enough and so it didn’t love me, approve of me, value me, or listen to me. Which meant I needed to try, try, try some more to hit the mark. And, believe me, my inner critic let me know I was missing it, constantly.

Interestingly, it also let me know when others had a worse aim than mine, which was exquisitely comforting; that is, until it pointed out the other ones, the people who were hitting the nail on the head consistently and spectacularly. That sucked, of course, and would often set me back days, weeks, months. Even years. It was devastating to my writing dreams.

“Why bother,” would say the critic, “when Annie Dillard’s grocery lists are probably far more lyrical and insightful than your belabored blog posts and essays, let alone any book you could hope to write.” (I know, what a bitch, right?)

But here’s the thing. Have you ever noticed that the only difference between the words “life” and “lie” is one little f?

It took me a while, but I slowly began to realize that if I wanted to have a Big Life—one filled with joy, love, wonder, gratitude, and purpose—I was going to have to stop telling myself the Big Lie. Namely, that I wasn’t good enough.

I mean, who decides what’s good enough anyway? I’ve lived long enough now to realize that nobody really knows what they’re doing. We’re all throwing spaghetti on the wall to see if it sticks. It’s just that some people have more chutzpah when it comes to throwing wet noodles onto nice, clean walls.

In my family household, doing something like that would get you into some very serious trouble. Autonomous, creative self-expression was largely ignored, if tolerated at all. Which over time led to the formation of the biggest lie of all in my mind, the lie I’ve believed in for nearly five decades: Fear is a truth-teller!

*Cover eyes and cue the menacing music.*

I didn’t even know I was believing in this. Everyone else I knew was believing in fear too, so it seemed natural to me. But then it got worse and worse and fear was freaking everywhere. On TV, in the news, on people’s faces. I could feel it whenever I talked to friends and family. They all had different issues on their minds, but what underlined them all was pure fear. They couldn’t see it when I pointed it out. They’d say things like, “I’m not afraid, I’m just concerned.”

But what exactly does it mean to be concerned? The dictionary defines concern as “worried, troubled, or anxious.” And anxiety as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Then follows the psychiatric definition of anxiety: “a mental condition characterized by excessive apprehensiveness about real or perceived threats, typically leading to avoidance behaviors and often to physical symptoms such as increased heart rate and muscle tension.”

I don’t know about you, but this sounds like fear to me. So what’s the deal? The only way to learn more, I decided, was to look at my own fear. I’ll share that next week. In the meantime, I want to ask, “What would it be like if the f in “life” stood for fun instead of “fear”? Or even better, freedom. What would life be like if I started going with the flow instead of always against it?

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Monica Graff

After two decades of copyediting for scholarly publishers, I decided to put down my red pen and pick up a black one. Now I write essays, some of which have been published on various websites and in print anthologies.