I’ve been thinking a lot about Joan Rivers lately. After her untimely death, I watched a Joan Rivers documentary on Netflix out of nostalgia. I loved her spirit, sense of humor, and dogged work ethic.
Joan allowed cameras to follow her around, and record her private moments. It was fascinating, and felt brutally honest. There was a moment during the documentary, where we see her fuming, in a torrent of anger as her daughter, Melissa, was voted off The Apprentice, while Joan remained, and ultimately, won that season. Her daughter was in tears, and Joan said something to her in that moment that stuck with me.
I paraphrase, but recall, “You don’t understand Melissa! You don’t need this! I do! It’s a curse, but you don’t—you’re free!” Joan went on to describe that her life on the stage and off was out of some guttural need that boiled up and couldn’t be ignored. Melissa, for lack of a better phrase, was normal she could live without this needed geyser of call and response—putting her safely back from the edge of a daily need for acceptance and sense of near defeat—the rush. Joan, on the other hand, was doomed, by her habits, lifestyle, and deep, psychological need for the give and take with the audience to go on, until the life was literally gone from her. She came alive when performing; to stop would literally have killed her.
It’s the same with many of the best in each field, they’re driven, demon-crazy in a way, towards and then far beyond success, for reasons that exceed our limited view of what’s guiding them.
People mistake this for a seething, forced march towards material wealth, but I believe it goes to this place beyond that—far more life and death, far more psychological, deep, from childhood that can’t ever be filled, without intervention. As Joan said, this level of celebrity, success, is a curse.
“How much is enough?”
We might ask them if they were our friends. Don’t you have enough Joan? But there she was, leaving her palatial penthouse in New York to catch the redeye to Peoria for a show at a steakhouse with an auditorium before a Middle America audience—she needed it, her fix. We might ask her, but Joan, how much is enough?
It’s the wrong question for this type of person. “Be still, you are loved and cared for, its been arranged, you have all that you will need and far more, you’re proven and accepted, you can rest,” would perhaps be the approach I would use.
But it would likely be of no use—Joan wouldn’t have believed me, wouldn’t trust me or the concept of enough, suggesting the internal drive simply didn’t have a downshifting gear built in.
What is enough? What is happiness? How much do you need? How do you feel most loved? What do you need from this life and from those you’re in relationships with? What’s driving you?
There is so much about psychology and people we don’t know, can’t understand, can’t divine—we must just love those that come into our path and let go of those who can’t be tamed in this life.
I came across this in a trip earlier this year to William Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oaks, and in so much of the town, Oxford, Mississippi, devoted to his memory.
Taking the last tour of the day, the shadows of the branches grew high on the plastered, bone-colored walls, leading down the hall to his back room, the study, there on the left. A small twin bed for rest, then, an oak desk in the other corner that his mother gave him that he would lift and carry to the yard to write on when it suited him. The plot for his last book could be seen wax-paper-pencil-written onto the actual walls. Exorcised thoughts, listed out, so he could finally rest.
The pulsing quote of Faulkners’ came beating up, reminding me of Joan Rivers—“An artist is a creature driven by demons. He doesn't know why they chose him and is usually too busy to wonder why.” And then there is this one, Faulkner said at a later time, “I think if he’s demon-driven with something to be said, then he’s going to write it. He can blame the fact that he’s not turning out work on lots of things. I’ve heard people say, “Well, if I were not married and had children, I would be a writer.” I’ve heard people say, “If I could just stop doing this, I would be a writer.” I don’t believe that. I think if you’re going to write you’re going to write, and nothing will stop you.”
Sometimes, if it isn’t written, that too can be a gift, a release to live an external life in the service of others. Those that must write or perform, we should appreciate, but not aspire to be them—the pressure and rush of just normal, daily living break so many as it is. Perhaps less drive is a life with fewer demons?
There is a cure for this relentless push. In the recently released movie “Unbroken” we see a man competing in the Olympics, shot down over enemy waters, taken prisoner, savagely beaten, and triumphantly returning home from WWII.
He’s banged and bruised. He’s angry. He drinks and smokes a lot. He’s mean and physically abusive towards his young wife. He’s an absentee father. The caged, abused performer without the rush. Like Faulkner between novels.
What can put to rest those demon-drivers, the anger, the unanswered, pulsing questions?
Not inserted into the movie, but true, is at this point in the Unbroken story he attends a Billy Graham revival in 1949 in Los Angeles. Cool waters emerge and coat him. This drive is channeled into understanding and acceptance of the world and his place—both small and infinite.
His conversion gave him deep spiritual peace, quietly enabling him to forgive his brutal captors, return and love his wife, appreciate the air and sky free of substance abuse—less performance art and more service to others.
Not perfect, never perfect, but peaceful.
P.S.: This should not be listed as an excuse to dream small dreams, achieve less, or watch more TV. Here’s a test: Is the thing that’s being pushed out of you, the dream, the art, the business—what purpose is it serving? Is it for you or beyond you? What’s your Why? The Why, if big enough, if beyond self enough, may be worthy of the sacrifice. You’ll know if you’re getting close by the monuments left behind—contentment of spirit, grateful children, or the compounding interest of improved lives of those around you.
P.P.S.: I miss Joan Rivers, and William Faulkner. In the case of Faulkner, imagine a postal clerk, in the depressed, deep South, creating, in his head, a fictional county in which to work through a series of conflicting emotions about family, defeat, gender, hierarchy, power, and hardship. Then imagine these books going all the way. Into the hands of the world’s intellectuals who then give him their best prizes. Then imagine the President inviting him to dinner at the White House (and not just any President, but a fun one—Kennedy), remember, the postal clerk with a drinking problem. And then imagine his response from Charlottesville, "Why that's a hundred miles away. That's a long way to go just to eat." His assessment of Virginians also stands out, "I like Virginians because Virginians are all snobs and I like snobs. A snob has to spend so much time being a snob that he has little time left to meddle with you.”