Ever since he said it, I have been annoyed by Joseph Campbell’s advice to “follow your bliss.” Perhaps it’s envy of those whose good fairies whispered at their cradle, “Little one, pay no attention to what people tell you. Do what you love and all will be well.” I did not have a fairy bending over my cradle. Instead, I had a guardian angel, who said, “Be a good girl and do as you’re told.” Sometimes I wish that I had had that fairy, or even Joseph Campbell, at my cradle. What would my life have been like? Where would I be now?
The fairies have won out over the guardian angels, and today’s children are encouraged to follow their bliss as routinely as they’re told to eat their veggies. This is not without its problems. For those who were brought up as I was, there was comfort in believing that if we were good and did as we were told all would be well. Within those boundaries, we enjoyed a certain freedom, especially the freedom of not having to make big decisions. A child obliged to follow her bliss has a heavy responsibility on her skinny shoulders.
History is crammed with tales of geniuses who followed their bliss, usually at great cost—a cost often paid by those who loved them. I’m thinking of the otherwise tender-hearted Rilke, who abandoned his wife and infant daughter to dedicate himself entirely to poetry. I’m thinking of Tolstoy, who after his conversion made his wife’s life a purgatory so that he could follow the new dictates of his conscience. I’m even thinking of the good Saint Francis, who did not hesitate to renounce his father in the public square in order to pursue Lady Poverty. And what about the merely talented, the poets and painters in their garrets, the buskers on their street corners—how heavy a price are they paying for their bliss?
Given its uncertain results, it’s surprising that Campbell’s short quote had such an effect on our culture. It precipitated an avalanche of authors, gurus, and graduation speakers who urged the multitudes to look deep inside themselves and find their path to rapture. But perhaps Campbell’s idea came at the right moment, when for the first time in the history of first-world nations the children of street sweepers could become astronauts. And it was also a welcome reaction against the unthinking compliance that religion and society had for centuries regarded as the highest form of virtue, especially for women.
But this bliss advice should be administered with care, or it can produce anxiety in the young (what if I can’t figure out what my bliss is?) and regret in the old (I never found my bliss, and now it’s too late!). Wouldn’t we be better off not aiming quite so high? The belief that happiness is inversely proportional to expectations has a long history, from Buddhists, to Stoics, to some modern psychologists. This is not to say that we should encourage complacency in the young, or even in the old. As Aristotle and my mother advised, moderation in all things.
Maybe the problem lies in the word “bliss,” with its sensuous sibilants, which connote a heaven-on-earth, floating-on-air, uninterrupted felicity such as even Saint Teresa of Avila experienced only momentarily in her mystical transports. Instead of following our bliss as if it were a balloon floating just beyond our reach, a more reasonable practice might be learning to find it right here, today, in whatever is afforded us by the brains, talent, and luck that we’ve been granted, and be content.