The Wrong Meaning of Fulfillment

happy baby

Today’s (October 24. 2014) NYTimes Sunday Review had an article about fulfillment by Emily Fox Gordon that might be a literary gem (She is a writer.), but didn’t ring true to me. Here is, as I read it, the story, entitled “The Meaning of Fulfillment,” in the first few lines:

AT 66, I find myself feeling fulfilled. I didn’t expect this, and don’t know quite what to make of it.…Fulfillment is a dubious gift because you receive it only when you’re approaching the end. You can’t consider your life fulfilled until you’re fairly sure of its temporal shape, and you can’t get a view of that until you’re well past its midpoint. The realization that one’s life has been fulfilled is a good thing, but freighted with the weight of many days and the apprehension of death. It’s also quite useless, truly a white elephant. It can never be exchanged or redeemed, because everything has been exchanged or redeemed to make its purchase possible.

I think she has been looking for the wrong signal to assess one’s life. What’s the point of waiting until one is on the wane? And does the assessment that one has been fulfilled mean that it is all right to stop living? I think the economic metaphor used in this paragraph is dreadful and simply a sign of how deep the economic model of human Being penetrates even one belonging to the creative, artistic domain. She appears to have been measuring her life in terms of “successes,” “achievement,” and “accomplishment.” Success is not enough, she writes, “Years are a requirement.”

She seems to have the idea that there is some void inside her body that needs to be filled up at considerable cost. Filled up with what is not clear, but I think she is talking about forms of public acknowledgment. She, like almost everyone in America, is valuing the worth of their life by the wrong measure. If it takes most of a normal lifespan to become fulfilled, does one have to be unfulfilled until that time. Later she asks is their any difference between fulfillment and happiness? Are we condemned to wait until we are old to find happiness? I suppose so if the author is right, but I disagree.

As I learn more and more about existentialism in its philosophic, literary, and pop formats, one can flourish at any time in his or her life. Life is a process bounded by birth and death. Surely we undergo very different and distinct phases as we make that journey, but it is possible to flourish at any time along the way. Flourishing is Being who who choose to be or until we are capable of making life choices fully expressing what self is evolving. Babies flourish because they simply do what all babies do. They are expressing the human potential latent in their genes. Adolescent children struggle with flourishing because they are loathe to make adult choices. One definition of a teenager is someone who cannot make choices about life.

Gordon is focused on life choices that are conventionally measured by public acknowledgments of success. For creative artists like her, it is usually some critical acclaim or economic milestone in terms of sales. For many MBAs and others, it is how much they earn or own. In her terms, could a carpenter be fulfilled? Not according to her thinking. Most human Beings live outside of the public limelight. Only they and a few close friends and family and satisfied clients/bosses and other that benefit from their life choices, that is, who they are, can recognize their “accomplishments.” I find too much inauthenticity here, to much of life coming from the outside.

In what I see as related, David Brooks wrote the other day:

In our meritocratic culture, satisfying and stretching work has become a psychological necessity. More than ever before, we are defined by what we do. If you are of prime age and you are not in the labor force, or engaged in some deeply stretching activity like parenting, then you will begin to feel drained inside. If you are in a dysfunctional workplace with bad personal relationships and no clear purpose, a core piece of you will begin to degrade. If you are not earning enough money so you can feel respected, and live without desperate stress, you will begin to lose confidence and élan. (emphasis added)

I think work that pays is an economic necessity in our market-based system, but to connect it to a psychological need is a grave error. Out-of work people certainly do not often flourish or lead positive lives by other measures, but that is largely due to the lack of resources or capabilities to take actions that would constitute their Being. Obviously you will feel “drained inside,” because you are drained inside.Their situation is an existential, not psychological, failure.

Gordon’s choice to be a writer is both existential and economic. One can flourish the moment such a choice is made. Flourishing is a sign of Being, the fulfillment of one’s human potential. Fulfillment here refers to a dynamic relationship with Being, that will continue as long as one maintains a commitment to Be their choices in actuality. Her fulfillment is an endpoint that fails to recognize that life is a continuous journey. Do you stop living once fulfilled? Do you suffer until you get there, wherever that is?

She throws in this about half way through the column:

At any rate, by now I’ve racked up enough achievements that I feel I can stop trying. Paradoxically, of course, I find I don’t want to stop. Now that not much is at stake, I’m more ambitious than ever, or at least more conscious of my ambition. Liberated from an anxiety I’ve struggled to suppress, I feel a new energy. What is fulfillment made of? Mostly relief.

She is dead wrong, maybe even dead existentially. Authentic life and the flourishing it brings is very much at stake. If she stops being the writer she has chosen to Be because the world has acknowledged her, she risks stopping Being the authentic self she has been. She may bask in the glory of her past successes but I suspect she will find her sense of fulfillment fading. There are points in everyone’s life when new choices are appropriate, but flourishing requires that some authentic choice be made right up to the day on one’s death. Coasting won’t work.

ps. I found this clear, clean definition of authenticity the other day. It’s from a book by Philip McGraw, better know as Dr. Phil. I think Emily Fox Gordon might have written a different column if she had read it. I like this except for his use of fulfilled.

The authentic self is the you that can be found at your absolute core. It is the part of you that is not defined by your job, or your function, or your role. It is the composite of all your unique gifts, skills, abilities, interests, talents, insights, and wisdom. It is all your strengths and values that are uniquely yours and need expression, versus what you have been programmed to believe that you are “supposed to be and do.” It is the you that flourished, unself-consciously, in those times of your life when you felt happiest and most fulfilled. (McGraw, P. C. (2001). Self Matters: Creating Your Life from the Inside. New York, Simon and Schuster, Inc. p. 30.)

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