The Nature of Epiphanies
[This is “Writing Wednesdays,” #3. Our winner–of a signed copy of The War of Art–is David Cutshall. Here’s the fave quote he sent in: “Our job in this lifetime is not to shape ourselves into some idea of what we imagine we ought to be, but to find out who we already are and become it.” Thanks, David! The following takes off from there.]
How do people change? How do they turn their lives around? An aspiring artist, for example, or a wannabe entrepreneur. What propels someone from sitting on the sidelines to actually entering the arena? What makes a person move from dilettante to professional?
There’s usually a Moment, isn’t there? Something happens. The lightning bolt strikes and nothing is ever the same.
The American College dictionary defines epiphany as “an appearance or manifestation, esp. of a deity.” In common usage, we mean something like a flash, a breakthrough. A moment of insight. I have a dear friend who’s a lawyer. Here’s hers.
I was driving, alone, from San Francisco to L.A. I had a meeting I had to get to. I got to Bakersfield around five and pulled off to find a gas station. I woke up the next morning by myself in a Holiday Inn Express, in the same clothes I was wearing the day before, with an empty fifth of Jim Beam on the bedstand beside me.
We usually think of breakthroughs as moments that elevate us from one plane to another. In my experience, it’s the opposite. An epiphany trashes us, humbles us. We fall on our face. We fail. We flame out. But this time for some reason, we can’t summon our habitual ally–denial. This time the scales fall from our eyes, this time we see.
If you’ll forgive me for quoting myself, the following is from Killing Rommel:
All genuine epiphanies seem to follow this model: their defining quality is the relinquishment of illusion. The initial dread is that you’ve lost something. A cherished self-conception must be given up, and you feel diminished by it. This is mistaken however. One discovers that he has been made stronger by the jettisoning of this sham and disadvantageous baggage. In fact he has become more “himself,” by aligning his self-concept more scrupulously with fact.
If you’ve read The War of Art, you know that the book’s thesis is that what keeps us from living out our authentic lives is a force I call Resistance with a capital R. Internal self-sabotage. Resistance, when it hits its peak, produces the aforementioned debacle. If we’re lucky, this is how we rise from those ashes:
Amid the smoking shards of this ultimate debacle, we come face to face with our own bullshit. We reckon our limitations. We are fallible, we are flawed, we are human. We realize, finally in our guts, that we don’t have the power/brains/beauty that we so deliriously imagined we did. We recognize that the forces arrayed against us–specifically our own interior impulses of self-sabotage–are far more powerful than we are. And they’re playing for keeps. They’re out to bury us, and they will kick our ass today and every night and day into the future.
The essence of epiphanies, we have said, is the stripping away of self-delusion. In that stripping lies power. Because now we know how hard it is, now we know how deep we have to dig. We acknowledge that we are not Spiderman. We don’t possess superhuman powers. We turn this moment into power the same way a recovering alcoholic does. One day at a time. With help, which we are now not too proud to ask for.
In that moment, we see Resistance for what it is and we see ourselves for what we are. It ain’t a pretty picture. But now we have two things going for us that we didn’t have five minutes ago: we have reality and we have humility. These are powerful allies. And we have a third force working in our favor: shame. Why is shame positive? Because shame can produce the final element we need to change our lives: will.
My friend blinking in the dawn outside a Bakersfield motel. The writer (me) who quits ten pages short of finishing his novel. The aspiring software entrepreneur who accepts his boss’s offer of a raise–and shambles, head down, back to his cubicle.
Epiphanies hurt. There’s no glory to them. They only make good stories at AA meetings or late at night among other foot soldiers in the trenches. These soldiers know. Each one has his story too, of that ghastly, mortifying moment when it all turned around for him and set him right.
More Quotes from The War of Art
Please continue sending me your quotes from The War of Art. Rather than closing the contest each week, it will remain open. I will track the quotes that I receive via Twitter (@spressfield), as well as those posted to the wall of my “Writer” Facebook page, and to the comments section following my “Writing Wednesdays” posts. Some of you have submitted the same quotes. The person connected to the first submission will receive credit. Another signed copy of The War of Art will be sent to the person whose quote is chosen next week. Thanks!