What Sylvia Plath taught me about Happiness

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

I recently finished reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

It was a beautifully-written, tragic tale of a young woman battling her own demons along with those inherent to all whom embrace this human condition. With witty prose and subtly didactic dialog, Ms. Plath truly created something magnificent before she took her life at the young age of 30. I enjoyed the whole text for what it was. The perspective of a young woman is so foreign to me that I found great value in being able to step inside her mind, if only for a few hundred pages, and see the world through her lens.

The now iconic Fig Tree passage cut to my core. It reads:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

I, above perhaps anyone I have ever met, value freedom.

The ability to sojourn this planet free of attachments and obligations is where I find much of my joy. I rarely make plans, and when a friend asks if I can hang out the following day, I am always hesitant to give a straight answer. I use a lot of “probably” and “most likely” to the chagrin of my closest friends. I appreciate their understanding of my nature. It at times must be trying to be my companion.

But I recognize this is the way I am made. I have reconciled with this “weakness” and have come to terms that this is simply my nature, and were I to fight it too strongly I’d be living a life that is not my own.

I’m about 6 months away from my 30th birthday. Though I feel no socially-induced pressures of having a birthday that ends in a 0, I do feel akin to Ms. Plath. I rest underneath my own fig tree. I am a healthy and intelligent 29 year old with a world of limitless possibilities. I feel this. I know this.

This being said I am acutely aware that this will not always be the case. Time marches on. Figs will plop to the ground at my feet. Many of my life’s possibilities still hang firm on the branches overhead, and for this I am grateful. Yet, my gratitude is matched with an undertone of urgency. I sense that even though I cannot see it with my eye, these figs are decaying and I must seize one before it is too late.

But to choose one experience is to sacrifice all others.

Often, these consequences are thrust upon us by circumstance as the fates make up their minds for us. Financial obligations, marriage, kids, and the like tend to our trees like a gale force wind, leaving only a handful of figs hanging in their wake where there once hung thousands. We complain when this is the case, but we tacitly cherish the fact that the decision was made for us. And if it was made for us, we did not have the opportunity to make the wrong  choice.

But here I sit on the precipice at 29 years young. I have countless figs to choose from, and a choice must be made. Do I continue to teach Jiu Jitsu under my beloved teacher? Do I venture out into the marketplace and open up my own school?Do I begin a new profession? Do I settle down with the right girl? Do I backpack through the Himalayas? Do I channel my inner Thoreau and go build a cabin in the woods?

Each and every one of these figs would bring me great joy. A joy which is rivaled by the frustration of choosing. These are the pressures that come with free will. I do not know what the “right” choice would be, because I seriously doubt there is a right choice. When I think about the future I am reminded of one great truth:

My happiness is contingent upon my ability to be happy.

Happiness is a skill. Ultimately, whichever of these figs I choose will not determine the greatest aspects of my human experience. The forms will change, but a fig is a fig. At the end of my life, does one fig really bring me much more joy than the others?

Some figs are sweet. Some are more bitter. Some large and firm. Some are soft and supple. Some have thicker skin while some have more seeds. Granted, each of us has different dispositions that will leave us more inclined to enjoy one fig rather than another. Our taste buds are subjective, and we have affinity for something uniquely our own.

I have a voracious sweet tooth. Leave the bitter figs aside. But will one sweet fig bring me more joy than another sweet fig? Probably not, and if so, it’s negligible.

The quality of my experience is contingent upon the attention I pay to the fig I choose, and the mindfulness with which I enjoy it. Rather than apathetically feasting on the fig of my choosing while imagining the potential joy of all the figs I let fall to my feet, I must simply enjoy this fig.

Feel its texture. Smell its aroma. Taste its sugars. Enjoy its array of colors. Give myself entirely to the fig. Lose myself in its consumption.

The source of my joy lies in my ability to live well rather than the object of my living.

Quote from Chris Matakas

We will be presented with many figs throughout our lives. The paralysis we feel in choosing is palpable and warranted. There are many major life choices that will dramatically change the landscape of our existence. These are serious human affairs that require our utmost attention.

But I implore you, I beg of you, to remember this simple idea:

Your ability to be happy is a skill. Skills require practice to grow.  Whichever fig you choose, whether it is family, business, or passion, is not the most important factor in the quality of your life. The most important factor is your ability to truly do whatever it is you are doing. To be fully-immersed in a cause you deem worthy of the life you exchange for its practice. This is what matters.

Yes, the figs are important. Yes, they are the highlights on our epitaph. Yes, they matter. But the deciding factor in the quality of your life is the sincerity, honesty, appreciation, and love you express through the fig of your choosing.

They are all vehicles to live, but it rests solely upon our shoulders to live well.

#gratitude #happiness #learning #selfawareness

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