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Life Lessons from Sylvia Plath

In many ways, Sylvia Plath did not have a charmed life. She suffered from severe depression and was treated with early forms of electroconvulsive therapy, a method that has come a long way since first being introduced in 1940.

In The Bell Jar, a semi-autographical novel she wrote the year before she died at the age of thirty, she sought to fictionalize “how isolated a person feels when he is suffering a breakdown.” It is essential a memoir of anxiety.

One of the more popular passages from the book describes a vision that Esther, the narrator, has of her life as a series of mutually exclusive choices.

I saw my life branching out before me like a green fig tree. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked….

…I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

When I first read this story, illustrated in comic form by the artist Gavin Aung Than, I felt a profound sense of sadness. When I came to the end, I wanted to start again from the top and re-read, but found myself unable to do so. For months I thought about the implied lesson: better make some choices, before there are no choices to be made.

And indeed, that’s a worthwhile lesson. But as I learned later, the story doesn’t end with this popular passage. On the very next page of The Bell Jar, Esther goes to lunch and resumes thinking about the fig tree. This time, however,  she has a different outlook.

“I don’t know what I ate, but I felt immensely better after the first mouthful. It occurred to me that my vision of the fig tree and all the fat figs that withered and fell to earth might well have arisen from the profound void of an empty stomach.”

This produces another lesson: Maybe it’s good to have lunch before you decide about the rest of your life.

Later, after having had lunch, Esther seems to have made more of a decision. She observed that in the traditional relationships she’d known, the man was the arrow and the woman was “the place where the arrow shoots off from.” Not surprisingly, she wanted something more.

“The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket.”

This desire—the longing to break out of what was expected of her, to choose for herself before other people chose for her—can be just as motivating as the fear of making the wrong choices.

What are wrong choices, after all? Perhaps this is the third lesson: The wrong choice is the forced choice. The wrong choice is living out of fear, feeling regret or worry or a sense of dread. Anxiety manifests in lots of ways, but for me it’s often connected to that sense: I’m making the wrong choice.

Life’s tree has many beautiful options. It’s not that there is “no wrong choice,” because clearly there are some. But there are also many right choices, and one right choice is to live in the space under the fig tree.

Oh, and don’t forget to eat lunch!