Sound familiar? A Life of One’s Own? Maybe you’re thinking of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, as was I until I learned more about a book published in the 1930’s. I’d never heard of Marion Milner, a British psychoanalyst and writer who embarked on a seven year experiment in living. One aimed at “unpeeling the existential rind of all we chronically mistake for fulfillment — prestige, pleasure, popularity — to reveal the succulent, pulsating core of what makes for genuine happiness.” That is how Maria Poplova at Brain Pickings describes Milner’s book published in 1934 under her pseudonym Joanna Fields.
The phrase is a simple one. Until you decide to actually do it: intentionally create a life of one’s own, that is. There’s a tension, sometimes a razor’s edge, between your desires and those of another. If married, or a parent, then your decisions frequently are mitigated or extinguished by spouse or child. As it should be. As it must be.
Happiness is not dictated by place, money or title. Although many of us spend the first decades of our lives in pursuit of those things, we find, if truthful, that it’s different from all of those things. So different as to be something almost ineffable…too big for this or that word, maybe spilling over all labels.
I think, and therefore write, a lot about happiness. Mostly because it seems to elude so many of us. It’s a mosaic, a composite filled with gifts, decisions and habit. Mostly, our happiness begins with gratitude.
But we get seduced constantly, don’t we? If only we lived there, or owned that, or looked like her, then we’d be happy. We 21st century folks tend to think the struggle for happiness is new: a product of social media, television, advertising…the relentless decline of everything.
But deep down, we know it is not. There is nothing new about the individual struggle for the universal human desire of happiness. Nothing new about seeking it in all the wrong places or expecting another to crown us with it.
The world, in the words of the poet EE Cummings, is constantly trying to make you into everyone else:
“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.”
I look forward to reading A Life of One’s Own when it arrives from Abebooks (an online used bookstore my friend Jeff told me about years ago) sometime next week. Milner is a woman I would like to get to know. Quotes like the one below make her irresistible.
I had at least begun to guess that my greatest need might be to let go and be free from the drive after achievement — if only I dared. I had also guessed that perhaps when I had let these go, then I might be free to become aware of some other purpose that was more fundamental, not self-imposed private ambitions but some thing which grew out of the essence of one’s own nature. People said: ‘Oh, be yourself at all costs’. But I had found that it was not so easy to know just what one’s self was. It was far easier to want what other people seemed to want and then imagine that the choice was one’s own.