The hero’s journey is perhaps our most ubiquitous cultural narrative: the protagonist, our hero, goes out into the wilds, suffers, learns, finds something, and brings it back home to share. Most of our modern day hero stories center around success, like a superhero who stops the bad guy and saves the world, but I would argue that is not the only way we could view the hero’s journey.
We could also think of it as the pursuit of wonder — that moment when you see something you’ve never seen before, or learn something new, and the moment when you share the wonder you have found with another person.
Watching the lights spark in someone’s eyes when they realize what you’ve realized, this is part of the experience of wonder, too. You don’t have to save the world. The goal doesn’t have to be success. It can be wonder instead.
We are trained from birth to consider success the ultimate goal, the alternative to success being failure. But there are other ways to think about failure, too.
“The queer art of failure turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being,” writes Jack Halberstam. He sees failure as a kind of resistance, a rebellion against capitalism’s requirement that we succeed.
By the standards of the Protestant, capitalist culture I grew up in, I am a failure. I have not lived up to the career expectations placed on me by the “academic giftedness” of my youth, I have not married a man, I do not own any assets, and I have not had any children. I am tolerated, but not celebrated.
But success, the kind that this culture recognizes, does not sound like anything I want. My ambivalence about money is perplexing — people can’t understand why I don’t try to make more of it, why I have “settled” for making just enough to survive. But I embrace my “failure” at capitalism because I value other things more, like art, and learning, and my own health. Trying to succeed on society’s terms drove me to illness, and it probably would have killed me early if I hadn’t stopped.
In the ADHD spaces I move through online, we are bombarded by life hacks. How to stay organized! How to plan your week! How to remember to do all the things you can’t ever remember!
At first, I was seduced by these hacks — they gave me hope that I could be like everyone else, if I just found the right bullet journal design or downloaded the best app. But life hacks only help until you forget about them, which isn’t very long when your working memory works like a sieve.
There is no way to “hack” your bodymind — it works how it works, and all you can do is learn its ways, accept them, and figure out how to ride the waves of your being to the things that you want.
Sometimes I use the word “workaround” for this instead. It’s not a hack — I’m not building a quick bridge across the raging waters of my mind so I can hop across, but rather, I’m surfing them in a kayak, and sometimes, all I can do is stand on the shore and wait for the water to go down.
Because here is the painful truth: you have limits. You can’t do anything if you just try hard enough. That is a capitalist fantasy, a clever kind of propaganda for an economy that relies on everyone continuing to work and consume. Self-hatred, anxiety, and shame are powerful motivators, but I refuse to keep operating on such toxic fuel.
I don’t have my shit together, and I don’t aspire to it, either. I aspire to wonder. Every day I want to learn something new, experience awe at the world and my consciousness of it, and keep myself from sobbing on the floor. If I manage to do all that at the end of the day, I try to consider myself accomplished. And if I do find myself crying into a carpet, I let it happen and try not to judge.
We cry because we need to — I consider it an emotional form of puking. I tie my hair back, get that shit out of my body, and then I put myself to bed. It is what it is, it will come out if it has to, and resisting only makes it worse.
Psychologists would call this approach Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, but it’s not hard to see its origins in Buddhist philosophy. I know, in a world of constant stimulation, mindfulness sucks — it’s boring and it’s hard, but I’ve tried all the hacks and the meds and I keep coming back to it.
The Buddhists realized centuries ago that the only answer to the existential suffering of desire is acceptance. You can only ever be where you are, and once you learn to do that, you can start to truly experience, and eventually — slowly — grow.
If success means ignoring my needs, performing as a person I am not, and driving myself into a hole of despair and ill health, I don’t want it. That’s not my success — it’s the success of whoever makes a profit off my labor. I’d rather fail, and wonder.