Pri Burford’s questioning #3: Satisfaction


When I was a girl, I could really stare. My family used to travel up to London on the weekend: it was my dad’s idea of a break from his sedentary work in sleepy suburbia. We’d come home late and- this being the early 80s- the technology available to mollify kids in cars didn’t exist yet.

I’d stare out of the window: stare from Kingston where the urban clot dissipates, all the way to deepest Surrey. The night stretched up and out. It wasn’t just that I was figuring out constellations- “How did they get a Ram and two Fish out of THOSE?”-as I learned more about the Solar System and space, I also started to think about Time. I was in the back seat of the Volvo and there were the stars; fixed points apparently. They had been fixed long enough to paint the same pictures for Neolithic visionaries and Spanish conquistadors; fixed through the trudging of the Glaciers and Continental Drift. I found out later that of course, they weren’t steady at all, but moving, living and dying. Travellers all in Time and Space we were: me, the Volvo, and those stars.

As a teenager, I was caught up by this idea that I was staring into their past, or even witnessing their death. The light from some of them had taken so long to travel to my eye, that the information it carried was like the most latent and tenuous pun. All upward gazers realise their smallness. The vastness of the sky is a shrink-ray that delivers context to us at times when we need to step away from the fray. Stargazing also compels us to Make Plans. Looking up, I’m reassured that however stumbling and cack-handed or however momentous and beautiful my achievements, nothing I could ever do would make those spheres chime differently. I still find this a comfort when I’ve lost perspective. The very best that could happen would be that my life, my star if you want to get Shakespearean- might somehow echo out a good story for longer than I would physically exist.

Perspective is essential for satisfaction. I’ve learned this only from spending long periods without either. First, perspective sorts out the terminal Perfectionist in us who’s the enemy of satisfaction. Some people wear their Perfectionism like a badge of recommendation, hoping that it will make us all stand in awe that they have ‘standards’. Don’t be fooled. Perfectionists are blocked and fearful and they need all the help they can get. Perfectionism wants to bludgeon creative endeavor but it’s disguised itself as the washboard- stomached Yummy Mummy of Doing Things Properly. Perfectionists hold the pillow over the face of their sleeping intrepid selves and whisper: “ if we can’t do it brilliantly, we’re not going to try. If we fail, we’re nobody”. That’s the clanging fatalism that Perfectionists live with: that being wrong is the worst thing that can happen to a person; that failure is the end. They can’t tolerate ‘works in progress’. It’s being all about the wedding day and never working on the marriage. It’s treating yourself and others like biological machines that will never ever break down, if you just tinkered, controlled and fixed them enough. Perfectionism tricks you into thinking that it’s all up to you and everybody’s watching. Don’t worry, it’s not and they aren’t.

A friend recently went to a talk on perfectionism in children at her daughter’s school and it prompted her to put herself into therapy. She realized how much and how insidiously her own chronic perfectionism had blocked her from investing in her talents. Satisfaction seems to be found on a journey inwards. It dwells in the personal bests, not the camera flash of public approval, or even peer recognition. With satisfaction, it really seems to hold true that it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts. There’s so much pleasure in bothering to take ourselves on a journey, the ending is only part of the prize. I mean, have you ever read a good book?

On the Graham Norton Show, Matt Damon spoke about the night he won an Oscar for ‘Good Will Hunting’. He talks about that night after all the partying was done, being back home, alone with the Oscar: “I remember looking at that award and thinking “thank God I didn’t fuck anybody over for this!” Imagine chasing that and not getting it and then finally getting it in your 80s or 90s with all of life behind you- what an unbelievable waste of your…y’know what I mean?…It can never fill you up. It can never fill you up and I felt so blessed to have learned that at 27 cos I wouldn’t have known it otherwise.”

I’ve found Satisfaction very difficult to write about because I didn’t want to come across as diminishing the role ambition plays in achieving our dreams. But if winning an Oscar is supposed to be the dream of every actor, and winning one doesn’t “fill you up”, then what will?

Just doing the work, that’s all.

What comes after the stars and the night?

Another day, and then another.

Consider for moment that this story- your story might not have a beginning, a middle and an end. The interplay between beginnings and endings fascinates poets, philosophers and physicists alike, because they seem like they’re opposites, but often you realise how very quickly one can turn into the other and how alike they can be. I went out for a run with my son last week. I thought I’d go easy on him, I’m the adult and he’s the kid right? But I forgot that he’s nearly 13 now. He spent the whole time at least 10m ahead of me and I couldn’t catch him. Then I saw him round a corner and disappear. I felt a splash of worry, then embarrassment then so very happy because I thought, “well that’s just right! You should be faster and stronger and off you should go.” Remember those stars? He’s a part of my story echoing out when I have become just a story myself.

I think satisfaction is joy in perspective: you see there’s more to come, and you know what’s passed by and gone out of view. It’s a kind of wholeness. I don’t think that satisfaction has to mean stasis either- we don’t stop when we’re happy, it’s just that the path changed.