Many people today seem to stick around for the better and disappear at the worst. They say to truly find out who your friends are: screw up and see who is still there for you. Then, there are the people who are there for you when you are down but leave when you are up because they enjoy wallowing in misery and simply cannot stand to see other people happy.
While earlier generations seemed to embrace the for-better-or-for-worse notion more whole-heartedly than our own, it is an important concept to apply to all areas of life, from relationships to hobbies to passion.
After spending almost four months on the waiting list for the oh-so-popular Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, it has finally been my turn to have the novel out of the library. I have spent those past four months reading reviews and blogs of people not only mentioning the book but also downright gushing over it.
I finally read the book, and while it is certainly not my favorite, I stuck through the entire novel, for better or for worse, and read the entire thing. There were times in the beginning of the book where I almost put it down and stopped reading because it was not interesting to me, but I thought that there has to be some reason why this novel is now so wildly popular, and I was determined to find out why.
So I stuck through the worst part of the book, and it finally did get better. About the last 100 pages of the novel were okay. Perhaps the idea that stuck with me the most, simply because it so clearly articulated an idea that I have been struggling to find words to describe over the past 20 years has been the idea of the Shit Sandwich.
That’s right, Shit Sandwich.
According to Gilbert, the essence of shit sandwich in a nut shell can be boiled down to how much suffering you are able to endure in order to achieve what you love. Of course, this is an extreme simplification of the concept, and if you would like to have a more elegant explanation, then you simply have to read the book. The pages explaining shit sandwich were probably the most profound part of the novel for me, and I could personally leave much of the rest. Basically, the concept of for-better-or-for-worse applied to all areas of your life, not just a marriage ceremony or some other type of elaborate rite of passage.
I had a brief moment of weakness a few weeks ago when the reality of being retired from spending 20 years as a professional college student finally set in and I completely panicked. It was something like a baby who did not want to be born but wanted to return to the womb. I sat there pleading and plotting about how to return to school, and what type of degree I wanted next. I sat there and thought that before completing my psychology degree, I had started a physics degree. I spent three years as a physics major before deciding, after taking calculus 1,2,3,4 and differential equations, that I had had enough of math and did not want the physics degree anymore.
I was not prepared to eat the shit sandwich that accompanied pursuit of a physics degree. I was in physics for the better portion. I love astronomy and motion and dynamics, and particle physics. However, I was not able to deal with the for worse portion of having another four advanced math classes to take after the five I had just completely suffered through.
I then decided that I could not go back to school to finish the physics degree. Not only am I not committed to eating the shit sandwich, but I also already have four degrees, and while I would not trade any of the degrees or any moment I spent working on obtaining them for the world, I do not, in fact, wish to relive that portion of my life. That is simply not my flavor of sandwich.
But now that I personally grasped the notion of for-better-for-worse and read about shit sandwiches, I started to apply that idea to other areas of my life. For example, I am not a morning person. Pretty much everyone who knows me in real life knows better than to wake me up in the morning. I am a night owl and always have been. I have spent over a decade on either second or third shift; the few brief years I did have a day job was hell on earth for me. I am just not a day person.
However, I have absolutely no problem getting up at 4:30 am and spending hours preparing for and running a marathon. When it comes to running, the shit sandwich that is getting up at 4:30 am is something that I am not only willing to eat gleefully, but also has me coming back for more. There is no other aspect in my life in which I am willing to eat the shit sandwich of 4:30 am, but for running, I am.
You see, running and I have this special relationship. I will wake up at 4:30 am. I will run in the rain, the snow, the cold, and the heat. I will run when it’s hard. I will run when it’s easy. I am in love with running, and over the years, I have definitely been able to take the good with the bad.
Once I found degree programs that were the right fit for me, I did the same with school. I spent years only sleeping from 2am-6am to ensure that I was able to complete all my schoolwork in addition to piecing together multiple jobs to make ends meet. I sacrificed many relationships and much leisure time in my pursuit of education. I swallowed that shit sandwich hook, line, and sinker for 20 years.
The significance of reading Gilbert’s Big Magic for me was the realization that now I am in retirement, I have the option of choosing what flavor of shit sandwich I want to eat next. I have been trying to figure out what to do with the ridiculous amount of time I now have on my hands since I am no longer working 70 hours a week and trying to be a full-time grad student.
I have been trying to decide what type of activities I want in my life. Do I want to join a club? Do I want to volunteer my time? With each option I have considered, I have begun to think of what flavor shit sandwich I want to eat. Now that my time is my own, I am less likely to eat shit sandwiches than I have before. Call it growing up, call it privilege, but I have found myself deeply protective of my newfound time.
What new activity do I want to try for better or for worse? Where am I willing to put my time? I have no problem with failure. It is possible I will decide on a volunteer opportunity and then discover that I am not prepared for that shit sandwich. That is fine. I will find another activity. However, I am trying to make an informed decision on how to not only enrich my own life but also enrich those around me.
Now that my time is my own, how do I want to fill those hours? What fills me with so much passion that it will endure for-better-or-for-worse? As we slow down our lives, this is the type of first-world problem we create. How best to spend our leisure time to ensure that our time is exactly that – leisure. It’s a wonderful problem to have.
When we identify that which we are able to live with for-better-or-for worse, not only do we make ourselves happy, but also we increase the love that is in the world. Relationships, activities, places, employment are all areas of life in which we can apply the for-better-or-for-worse principal. When we identify the areas that we are able to make that commitment, not only does it make the shit sandwich palatable, it also makes it almost delicious.
The people, activities, and relationships that stay in our lives for-better-or-for-worse are those that will likely last a lifetime. I don’t know about you, but that is the type of Big Magic I want to have in my life.