Elizabeth Gilbert Reveals the Source of True Joy
I was 16 years old the day I skipped school for the first time. It was easily done: Both my parents left for work before my school bus arrived, so when it showed up at my house on that cold winter morning, I simply did not get on. The perfect crime!
And what did I do with myself on that glorious stolen day, with no adult supervision and no limits on my activities? Did I get high? Have sex? Hit the mall for a shoplifting extravaganza?
Nope. I built a toasty fire in the wood stove, prepared a bowl of popcorn, grabbed a blanket, and read. I was thrilled and transported by a book—it was Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises—and I just needed to be alone with it for a little while. I ached to know what would happen to Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley and Robert Cohn. I couldn't bear the thought of sitting in a classroom taking another biology exam when I could be traveling through Spain in the 1920s with a bunch of glamorous but doomed expatriates.
I spent that day lost in words. Time fell away, as the room around me turned to mist, and my role in the world (as a daughter, sister, teenager, student) no longer had any meaning. I had accidentally stumbled upon the key to perfect happiness: I had become completely absorbed by something I loved.
Please note that absorption is not the same as distraction or obsession. To be absorbed by something is to become it. I became the characters in The Sun Also Rises that day, as I lived and breathed and loved and died with them. When I came out of that rapture, I was richer for it.
To be distracted by something is also to disappear, but not in a good way. It's true, for instance, that when we spend hours distracted by our smartphones, we become nothing at all. We don't get enriched; we just get erased. When we snap out of that electronic daze, all we feel is more lost and empty. And to be obsessed by something, finally, is to become consumed and destroyed by it. (All addicts are obsessives—hungry ghosts, constantly being eaten alive by their addiction.)
So the trick to happiness, then, is to find something that absorbs you and become that thing by pursuing it with devoted attention. In order for this trick to work, however, your only motive for the pursuit must be pure love. As a young person, I devoted myself to reading simply because I loved it. Any other motive (the desire for recognition or wealth or power, for instance) would've turned my absorption into distraction or obsession—and that wouldn't have led me into happiness.
Looking back on it now, I can see that some subtle things were happening to my mind (and to my life) while I was in that state of absorption. Hemingway's language was quietly braiding itself into my imagination. I was downloading information about how to create simple and elegant sentences, a good and solid plot. In other words, I was learning how to write. Without realizing it, I was hot on the trail of my own destiny. My happiness should've been a clue that I was pointed in the right direction; it always is. Writing now absorbs me the way reading once did. (Well, actually, both still absorb me.)
By the way, I totally got busted that day. The principal called my mom at work, and my mom called home, and I—like a dummy—answered the phone. (I am not cut out for a life of crime.) I got in big trouble. Certainly nobody believed that I had skipped school merely to read. So, yeah, I got grounded for two weeks, but it was worth it, because something more important was happening: I was getting grounded—deeply grounded in the sacred field of my own becoming.
I am writing this essay more than 30 years later. Once again I am sitting alone in a quiet house, snuggled next to a fire, absorbed by language. I am just as happy right in this moment as I was on that day in 1986. In the more than three decades since, I have tried so many other things to make myself happy (sex, love, adventures, travel, food, money, wine, shoes, ambition), but nothing works better than this. I cannot be more authentically myself than I am right now.
Soon I will put another log on the fire, and then write another page—or read or study or edit another page. If I ever find anything better to do with my time than this, I'll get back to you. Till then, let the great world spin, because loving absorption is mine, and happiness its generous side effect.