A meditation on bliss

Follow your bliss … and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be

Joseph Campbell

As a high school senior, the Joseph Campbell quote about following your bliss spoke to me. I couldn’t now say where this instinct originated; what about my first 18 years suggested that my bliss would lead me to the best of what life had to offer? Young Liz was a study in contrasts: obstinate but shy; a dreamer who needed a plan; a girl who craved attention and praise but was happy alone. I was yearning to discover myself, but I wasn’t sure how to do it in a small town where it felt like my identity had long since been chiseled into shape.

I flipped through the pages of the Peterson’s Guide to Colleges, paper thin and reminiscent of a very cheaply printed phonebook, or a Bible, and with each new school, my imagination ran wild: I could live in Santa Cruz, California! Lexington, Virginia! The US Virgin Islands! Why wouldn’t I go to Berkeley? To Reed? To Duke? I imagine my college-search process looked a bit like how it felt, to those who would come later, to play The Sims; I was mentally sketching out College Life, and none of it felt particularly tangible. I didn’t realize how not-real it was, though, until my parents gave me a last hug and my dorm room shut behind them. I was utterly isolated from everyone and everything I’d known for 18 years, and I was rattled by the shock of realizing that my fantastical, imagined life had just become jarringly real.

Despite all this, the Joseph Campbell quote I’d chosen for my high school yearbook stayed with me. Even as I had no firm sense of what I wanted — just a pretty sketch of an imagined life that I’d concocted in my head, this idea of How To Design Your College And Career Life that had felt as real to my day-to-day as Mr. Snuffleupagus did — I had this vague sense that if I could just chase what brought me joy, somehow, I’d find a satisfying life path forward.

I’d gone to college after a summer filled with inflection points. The summer before my senior year, I’d traveled abroad as an exchange student, where my perfectionism and deep shyness paralyzed me from speaking French very much, despite a deep desire to achieve fluency (oh, tormenting contradiction, you’re never far away!). I’d spent six weeks on a college campus to broaden my intellectual horizons at Governor’s School, but spent most of my free time sitting in a computer lab, chatting (in French–ah, the irony!) to Canadians lurking in the very earliest Internet chat rooms. That summer, I had my first experience sharing a bed with a boy I loved, but it came about so unexpectedly that I hardly had time to sort through whether I wanted to or what I wanted to happen; in the end, I huddled in the W.C. for a small eternity, psyching myself up to remain chaste and proper, then sleeping on the very edge of a tiny double bed and barely sleeping. (It turns out, French parents really are less Puritanical than your standard southern American mom or dad. Shocking, I know.)

But the throughline was the romantic sense I had of all things French: the language (mais oui!), the Eiffel Tower, the City of Love. I chased that bliss right into a degree program in International Affairs and French language study, only to realize about 3.5 seconds into my first day as an Official College Student that homesickness was a thing, living far away from my family was not my favorite thing, and holy-mother-of-all-that’s-holy-I-am-a-tiny-fish-in-a-MASSIVELY-LARGE-POND in Washington, D.C. I knew the foreign service career path was a cute sidebar in the imagined Future Life of Liz that I’d sketched from my windowless childhood bedroom, but it bore little resemblance to my lived bliss. Now that I had a window next to my bed, I tossed that idea right out into the alley below, to live next to the spirit of my first-ever plant, a cactus that mysteriously disappeared out of my second-floor dorm room window one night, no trace of which we’d ever find again.

I wandered — there really is no better explanation for how I ended up there — into a basic reporting class the next semester; someone had once told me I was a good writer, and I’d worked at a newspaper the summer before (as a receptionist; definitely, I was NOT doing actual journalism work), so I shrugged and decided it would be more interesting than a science class. I fell in love with my professor, a gentle, white-haired reed of a man who everyone called Puff — his last name was Puffenbarger, and the name had been his nickname for as long as anyone could recall. I learned how to write a news story from Puff, but that was only a tiny fraction of what he taught me.

“If your mom tells you her name, ask her how to spell it,” he admonished us. “If you spell someone’s name wrong, they won’t trust you to get anything else right, either.”

I’ve carried Puff’s lessons into every day of my life, including his enthusiasm for my writing and what he saw as my promise in his beloved field. Most of all, though, I grew to love the life of writing as a craft, of inspiring others to communicate as clearly and simply as possible.

I still vividly remember him scoffing at the weatherman who said, ‘We are expecting shower activity today’ … “Expect rain today,” Puff would say, disgusted. Or his consternation when he heard someone say, ‘At 6:00 am this morning’ … “Say ‘am’ or ‘this morning,'” Puff would say, as he threw up his fragile arms. “You don’t need both.”

I found my bliss in Puff’s classroom, and in (most of) my other journalism classes, delighting in communication professionals who believed their greatest calling was informing others with as little bias and subterfuge as possible. I sought out every opportunity to be around these people more, and I found my future path forming ahead, one brick at a time, never so much a clearly defined road with obvious turns but a slowly unfolding staircase, one where I could really only see a few steps ahead. I trusted my sense of bliss to lead me to the next interesting thing, and I almost always found something surprising and unexpected but utterly delightful coming my way.

In affairs of the heart, though, the intonation to follow my bliss has historically been … complicated. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, wondering what ‘bliss’ means, exactly, when dealing with romantic relationships. Is following our bliss in love the same as chasing contentment? Pursuing passion? Longing for lust?

For years, I thought true love required feeling caught up, somehow, as though the dating pool — you know, the one with all the fish in the sea? — required a net to ensnare your true love. To find the energy that rushes through us when we find a soul who reflects back a heartfelt ‘me, too,’ at some seemingly crucial part of our own. To experience the loss of time when words flow freely until the wee hours. To no longer worry about how much sleep you’re going to get before tomorrow’s wicked to-do list.


Chasing this sensation, whatever it is, breaks the heart. It generates battle scars, reminders that soaring high only gives us more airspace for gravity to do its spiteful work when a crash comes. Mama Brene says that you can’t selectively numb feelings; if you’re going to feel the highs, you’re accepting the inevitability of the lows. Never is this truer than in chasing our conception of love. It can break you wide open, laying bare your scariest truths and oldest wounds. But boy! Those highs are really stupid great.

I wove my way through more than a decade of roller-coaster-esque ups and downs… delighting in the highs, feeling my inner bliss-o-meter vibrate with joy that directed the tuning fork of my attention toward ever-more spectacular corkscrews and plummets. After each re-acquaintance with gravity, I’d dust off my battered heart and try to discern what lessons I’d learned … before, usually, hopping back on the roller coaster to experience the thrill once more. It was hopelessly addictive, the omnipresent hope that someday, my soul might find a ‘me, too’ that didn’t end in a devastating reentry to reality.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Nearly nine years into a relationship with The Math Professor, who is decidedly rational and not at all given to flights of passion hunting, I occasionally find myself reminded — usually because a friend is still on the roller coaster and sharing her occasional plummets — that in choosing to hop onto a bunny roller coaster with TMP, I’ve made a conscious decision to live in a more predictable path of smaller peaks and smoother valleys. Oh, sure, in the first few months we were getting to know one another, there were plenty of emotion-laden ascents and corkscrews, but we quickly smoothed out into a sense of comfort and security. He is calm. We are calm. We are content. We are happy.

A younger Liz would’ve almost certainly found this unsatisfying; where’s the passion? Where’s the rapturous aching? How is it love if it doesn’t feel a bit tortured?

“Follow your bliss,” Campbell exhorts.

When I follow my bliss today, it means that I feel blissfully uncomplicated at home. I feel blissfully supported and loved by a man who doesn’t narrate every emotional bump on his path, who feels like a steely presence in an otherwise amorphous world. My bliss is the security of knowing we are solid. My bliss is knowing he supports my own flights of fancy, that he cheers them on — but from a distance, because someone needs to anchor us to what’s real and tangible and present.

I follow my bliss into new notches of knowledge, chasing a deeper understanding of the world, of myself, of how we relate to one another. I follow my bliss as it shoves piles and piles of books at me, worlds waiting to be discovered and cherished and shared. I follow my bliss to the hearts of others, of true belonging and true love and true presence.

I follow my bliss, and I never know where it will take me, but I am always certain that it will return me back to the contented, even-keeled, practical, non-nonsense, kind man whose bliss requires little more than a steady wifi signal, a happy household, and a hunk of iron to throw around (safely) in the pursuit of strength and good health.

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