Do you find yourself sometimes feeling jealous of other writers’ success?
Feel like life would be sweet if you could just have their career?
If so, I have a story for you…and some things I need to share with you about my own life.
First, the story:
The tale of the bag of troubles
Once upon a time in a tiny Eastern European shtetl, a woman was feeling overwhelmed with her life. Let’s imagine she’s a writer.
She took her woes to her rabbi.
“I feel like I can’t go on!” she tells him. “Life is just too hard. My mother-in-law lives with us, my children are ill-behaved, I have so many responsibilities, I’m often underslept and don’t feel so well…what can I do? I can never get any writing done!”
“That’s no problem,” the rabbi replies. “Bring all your troubles in a sack to the village square tonight, when the moon is full. I’ll tell all the other villagers they must come and bring their bags.
“You can take a look in all the other ones, and then pick someone else’s bag. You can take it and go live that other person’s life instead.”
As you can imagine, our writer was excited. At last, she might find some peace and writing success!
She found a sack and gathered things that represented all her woes to put inside. She waited excitedly while the moon slowly rose, thinking of all the people in the village who were better off than she was, whose easier lives she might claim.
When she arrived at the square, she found all the villagers assembled with their bags, just as the rabbi had promised. She strode eagerly and directly to the bag of one of the wealthiest women in town. She seemed to lead a charmed life with lots of idle time. Their children were so well-mannered! Surely if she could have this woman’s life, she could write the Great American Novel in no time flat.
But when she peeked in the bag she got a shock. Inside these bags, thanks to the rabbi’s Kabbalistic powers, was the naked and complete truth of each family’s life — the troubles and travails each kept secret.
Her wealthy family’s bag was made of rich red velvet on the outside…but the inside was black as coal. It even smelled bad. Gazing into the bag, she could see that the family’s father was a violent alcoholic who was beating his seemingly perfect wife behind closed doors. The children were quiet because they were terrified. The writer quickly lost interest in swapping her current life for the contents of this bag.
Shocked, she tried another well-off woman’s sack, only to discover her husband was planning to leave her, and she had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. She was deeply depressed and had suffered several miscarriages she still mourned. The husband also had been hiding financial losses, and in fact they were broke and would soon need to sell their impressive home.
Suddenly, the writer had an idea. She turned this bag upside down and shook it, hoping to empty out its terrible contents and just keep the good part, the good things everyone knew about this woman, the beautiful home and fine clothes. But nothing would come out — the contents seemed woven into the fabric of the outside of the bag.
This wasn’t turning out at all as the unhappy writer had hoped. Who could have imagined what terrible things were hiding inside these beautiful bags! With growing anxiety, one by one, she peeked into the bags of all her neighbors.
Why we envy
I tell you this story because jealousy happens to all of us, and this is why it happens: Because we can’t see what’s inside other people’s sacks. We don’t know the whole story.
We see the public face of other peoples’ lives, and we think we know what it would be like to be them. But there is always more that’s hidden from sight.
For instance, I remember as a young writer thinking the novelist Louise Erdrich was so amazing. She won prestigious writing awards, had these beautiful daughters and was married to another successful novelist, Michael Dorris. What a charmed life! Or so it seemed to me, looking at the glittering outer wrapping of her bag.
Until it all came crashing down in 1997, when allegations arose that Dorris had molested his children, and he committed suicide. It came to light the couple had already been separated for a year.
Another example: I’m sure quite a few people were envious when top blogger Jon Morrow recently revealed he earned $500,000 from his blog in its very first year. I’m thinking the same people probably wouldn’t be as enthusiastic to take his place if they knew he can hardly move a muscle in his body.
What we really want is just the good part of someone else’s life. But along with that good comes the whole messy rest of it.
To get that life, you have to take the whole bag — all the experiences, good and bad, that shaped that person into the writer they’ve become.
What’s in my bag
It’s come to my attention recently that there may be writers who feel jealous of me. My blogging bag is looking nice and shiny on the outside these days, isn’t it?
So I thought I’d give you a peek at the inside of my bag. Because now that I’ve had some success, it has truly brought home to me how money cannot buy you happiness.
I don’t want to intrude on the privacy of my family, so I’m not going to say which of these relates to which of my family members. But here’s a list of some of the issues I am grappling with right now:
- Verbal abuse
- Memory loss
- Sleep apnea
- Failing grades
- A major gastrointestinal disease
So many days lately, after I switch off my computer and turn to trying to be a mom and a wife, it’s like a trip through the looking glass.
In one world, I can impact thousands of writers and help them earn more. People beg me to talk to them, and tell me I’m competent and helpful and wonderful.
But at home?
It’s not exactly all happiness and rainbows. People shout at me and call me names. No one seems to appreciate what I have to say. In fact, they tell me I’m an idiot or call me a liar on a regular basis. “Mom, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” is a common refrain.
And after nearly a decade of trying mightily to create peace and joy and family harmony, I don’t seem able to make much of an impact. All I can do is pray and keep searching for answers. I’m learning to let go of what I can’t control, and just try to be the best me that I can.
My life is not perfect. But it’s the only life for me, and the only life that could make me the writer and writing coach I am today.
It would never be the same outside of the bag without what’s inside. We’re each a package deal, and the product of all our experiences, good and bad.
We can’t skip the unpleasant parts and only have the good ones, because they are all mixed up together. All we can do is use what we’re given, and write our truth.
The end of the story
Have you guessed what happened to our shtetl writer?
After carefully examining each bag, she gazed across the square to the spot where — in her eagerness to cast off her own difficulties and swap them for someone else’s trouble-free life — she had hastily tossed aside her own plain burlap sack.
She ran fast as she could to her bag.
After seeing the truth of her neighbors’ lives, she had a new perspective. Her life was blessed and wonderful. Her husband was a loving man who truly cared for her. They were poor, but they had enough.
And in her bag was a special gift — she could write.
Then she did the only thing there is to do, for each of us. When we see the whole truth of others’ lives, we always pick up our own bags and take them home.
What’s in your bag? Leave a comment and share what you’re struggling with right now.