Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project fascinates me. First of all, it proves that I'm not crazy...at least one other human on this planet thinks about happiness obsessively and feels compelled to share her thoughts with the world, and given the popularity of the Happiness Project, lots of other people obsess about it, too. Fortunately, Gretchen is even more obsessive than I am so she provides amazing research and resources in her book and on her blog to promote the idea of happiness as a worthy pursuit.
One theme in her book that resonated with me was her resolve to Be Gretchen. She decided to pursue interests that truly represented her...not the interests she felt she should have. A recent post on her blog explores this idea as she processes her new-found, extremely obsessive interest in smell.
At various times in my life, I've pursued knowledge because I thought I ought to, not because I truly was passionate about it. A perfect example of this was my desire to major in science. Despite the fact that I was reading at age three and never went anywhere without a book, I felt like I should be interested in science because a woman scientist told me that women were discouraged from pursuing the sciences. The surest way to get me to do something is to tell me I can't do it, and I felt outraged that women were under-represented in the sciences because men thought they couldn't do science. Hmmph. I could fix that.
Fortunately, my intellectual hubris encouraged me to take organic chemistry my first semester at Duke University...where half the freshman class declares pre-med as their major. Pride goeth before the fall. Courses like organic chemistry serve as "weeder" courses, designed to weed out those who are not really prepared for medical school, and thus are made to be extremely difficult. Most students wait until junior or senior year to take organic chemistry, but there I was, a 17-year-old freshman, in way over my head.
When I flunked an exam, I was forced to admit that my drive to be a chemist didn't play to my strengths. A very kind aunt pointed out that the world would not end if I quit running down a path destined to kick my ass. In short, she gave me permission to be myself instead of someone I thought I wanted to be. Instead, I changed majors to a subject that welcomed me with poetry and metaphor and litotes and all things medieval.
I included litotes in the list because it's hopelessly obscure and highlights how weird and wonderful my interests are...at least to me. Litotes, the deliberate use of understatement, appears often and interestingly in Anglo-Saxon literature (think Beowulf), but one of my favorite examples comes from Samuel Johnson: "To write is, indeed, no unpleasing employment."
I've already written, not unpleasingly, about my passion for medieval literature, but my pursuit of that obscure branch of literary brilliance never dampened my love for all sorts of reading, from the highest levels of artistic merit (think Joyce's Ulysses) to the least (think People Magazine).
Grandma always had Reader's Digest in her house; I grew up reading it. So when I got a call from the Special Olympics last year to subscribe to Reader's Digest, I did. George is baffled by this. "I just can't imagine you enjoying Reader's Digest." He remembers only too well my years as an intellectual snob. I've gotten over that and am back enjoying a much broader range of reading, including Reader's Digest. So what if Reader's Digest is not PMLA or Medium Aevum or South Atlantic Quarterly. None of my readings in those peer-reviewed scholarly journals ever made me laugh or tugged at my heartstrings like jokes and stories in Reader's Digest do.
While immersed in the academic world, I didn't read Reader's Digest because I was too busy reading Medium Aevum and the works of Dante and Chaucer. There are, after all, only so many hours in the day. I was writing scholarly essays, participating in scholarly conferences, and teaching college classes. Life eventually took me out of university, and after a while, I realized that the artificial narrowing of interest I experienced in graduate school no longer applied.
Life moves on. My passion for medieval literature stays with me, but it's not all-consuming anymore. While part of me is a little sad about that, the majority of my synapses are quite thrilled to pursue new interests. Science still fascinates me, and that has come in handy while trying to deal with the whole autism thing. Children's literature delights me as much as Chaucer and Shakespeare ever could, and Mental Floss introduces me to subjects I didn't even know existed.
The world is no small place, and it's positively bursting with amazing, fascinating, miraculous stuff. Why would we ever think that any part of it would be unworthy of our attention? Why would we suppress our natural interests and inclinations because somehow they seem a little weird or not sophisticated/smart/popular/cool enough?
Why do we try to be who we think we want to be instead of who we are?
This wonderful quotation popped up recently on Pinterest, and it speaks directly to this theme.
Screw the critics--especially the ones that live in our own heads. Pursue what you love, what interests you, regardless of what others might think. Doing so can increase your happiness.
Be you, and see what happens.
Please share your thoughts in the comments. Is there any passion in your life that you pursue despite others thinking you're weird? Is there a passion you would spend more time on if you weren't afraid it would make you look odd to others?