This article is part of a series on resilience in troubled times — what we can learn about it from history and personal experiences.
“You are miserable,” my boss said, as I murmured in faint protest. “Every day you come in here with that grumpy face, and you make me look at it.” Despite the harsh words, her tone was laced with love and concern. And she was right: The job was not a fit.
I was a talent agent at a huge Hollywood agency in my 20s, representing emerging comedy actors. My role was to make my clients’ dreams come true. I loved that part — spotting talent, and getting them started on their journeys to fame and fortune — and I’m certain they would tell you now that I was good at it. But that was the only part that worked for me.
I didn’t enjoy the stuff that was supposed to be fun. One partner noticed I was spending too little on my expenses, instead of schmoozing. After a movie premiere, I got a talking-to for going straight to my seat instead of walking the red carpet with the cast, a ritual that made me want to evaporate, every time.
“There are parts of the job you clearly find icky,” my boss continued, as she watched me curl into a nauseated ball on her love seat. “But you have to think about whether you can tolerate them, in order to enjoy the parts you like.”
Mental health professionals like to say that we’re all floating around the world like little rubber bands: We encounter a challenge, which makes us stretch, grow and bounce back. That’s how resilience is meant to work.
But that all assumes that hard times end. What if there’s always something else? What if you go through a year as relentless as this last one has been for so many of us: illness, death, home-schooling, job losses, systems crumbling left and right? An entire year of hobbling around with two flat tires but only one spare, praying for an uneventful day or two, until the next tire blows?
What happens is that you get used to it — something with which I am all too familiar. Tolerating things I didn’t enjoy was, for a long time, my superpower, one I had cultivated after an eventful childhood. By many metrics my upbringing was blissful: boundless love, laughter, globe-trotting adventures. But I also know change and trauma, having moved over 30 times over three decades, across a childhood punctuated by dramatic loss, including violent conflict in my homeland, Kashmir, and the death of my beloved grandfather. My little rubber band eventually settled, taut and brittle, seemingly forever. In powering through the discomfort of constant change, I became inured to it.
Resilience without any waning period, turned into endurance, and I became adept at snuffing out my own vulnerability and discomfort before I even felt it. I grew into someone who could live anywhere, befriend anyone, be anyone, do anything — the harder, the better.
And it was these exact qualities that garnered praise. “You don’t have to worry about her,” people told my parents, and everyone swelled with pride. If no one understood me, I’d learn a new language. If my accent was a barrier, then — poof! — all of a sudden, I sounded American. If my bank balance was negative $ 900 one month, I’d figure out how to reverse it.
I chased the high of conquering things that seemed impossible, which led me to the entertainment industry. Cracking the codes to its impenetrable world made me think I was winning, then thriving, until those conversations with my boss began to shatter that perception. I realized I had a dream job — it just wasn’t mine.
When she suggested that I could be happier, that I could envision the right life for me and go get it, my mind was blank. I had been ignoring my feelings in favor of crossing off the next goal, through college, law school, a prestigious job. My itinerant childhood wired me to pursue stability above all, but what were my dreams? “Don’t you want to write some books, maybe have a couple kids?” she said, casually, and I froze. It sounded perfect. But the idea of actively seeking happiness was terrifying. What if I failed?
I had spent so long buffeted by the waves of external events that once they went quiet I didn’t know what to do. Technically, a lifetime of endurance had convinced that me I was so tough that I could handle anything. But I didn’t want to. So for the first time, I allowed myself to say so. I didn’t know if there was a professional pursuit that might make me happier, but that one was worth seeking.
I knew only that my true love was reading, and writers. I knew words on a page made me happy, and I went looking for more of that feeling. The joy I felt discussing ideas, helping mold those ideas into a script, then onscreen, became my new pursuit. It suddenly felt so silly, so luxurious, not to be in pure survival mode — to have made the space to think about what was good for me.
I got into producing, and had a baby. But soon I felt that old dissatisfaction creep in again, the one that I was making other people’s dreams come true but not my own. And this time I trusted my feelings enough not to ignore them. This wasn’t the kind of challenge I was meant to power through; it was one that called for looking clearly within myself. The pleasure I derived from work had successfully chipped away at the hard shell of my endurance, and let happiness into the cracks, shining a light on the malaise nudging its way out. But still, I couldn’t admit what I wanted.
So I spent some time flailing about, groaning, wishing out loud that the world — someone, anyone — would tell me what to do next. After months of this charade, my husband, a professional writer, steered me into listing five people whose careers I admired. That was easy. “They’re all writers,” he said. “Do you think that means anything?”
Reading brought me such transcendent joy, who was I to think I might bring that same joy to other people? It seemed insane, at the time, like deciding to be God. I just couldn’t. “Of course you could,” he said. And the new me, the one who was learning that life could be celebrated rather than just tolerated, decided to try.
So I wrote and wrote, thinking: if it’s bad, no one will ever see it; if it’s good, it might change my life. I started with a lot of disjointed, maudlin blog entries. As they became less terrible, I pitched and wrote an advice column for people wanting to break into entertainment. I wrote a short film, funded by my last producing paycheck, and shot it in our home. That got me an agent, and sold my first TV show, and kicked off a screenwriting career. Last year, during the pandemic, I wrote some essays. Those essays allowed me to sell the book I’m writing now.
Ever an immigrant, it’s still difficult for me to say out loud that my dreams are taking shape, without my old self disassociating. “Are you insane? If you talk about it, it’ll all crumble away!” the disassociated me screams, even now. She’s maddening, but I ignore her. I have finally figured out what is good for me: to sit in a sunny room, by myself, typing these words. No pushy colleagues. No schmoozing. No stiff upper lip, while I wait for a happier time that might never come.
And I’m still tough; this last year has reminded me of that. But my rubber band hasn’t snapped or frayed. I know it’s not stuck, and this won’t last forever. I have some other settings now: content, delighted, disappointed, anxious. One might even call them feelings. Feelings I’m marinating in as I write this book. If it works, it might change my life. If it doesn’t? Well, I’ll bounce back.
Priyanka Mattoo is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker. She is working on “Sixteen Kitchens,” a memoir-in-essays from Knopf.