Recently, I had a really shit week.
It was one of those weeks that you think only happen in bad films. It’s normally the opening to a romcom featuring Cameron Diaz or Adam Sandler or maybe Jennifer Aniston.
I bumped into my ex-boyfriend. The one I once thought I might be with forever and ever. As we nervously sat opposite each other in a pub (of course I was wearing neon cycling gear, red-faced and sweaty), he told me he was getting married and moving to New York to be with someone else forever and ever. I did all I physically could to keep my facial muscles in the same position.
That was Monday.
On the Wednesday, I realised I was short on my rent and had actual dreams of being destitute. While this might seem like a classic anxiety dream, it was actually a premonition. On the Friday, I had all my belongings stolen.
As I moped around my flat on the Saturday, wondering what heinous things I must have done in a previous life, I filtered through the pile of “to read” books in a corner of my flat. Short stories about strong independent women felt extremely out of sync and long rambling mediations on love made me feel sick. And then I saw Brené Brown’s new book, Rising Strong. Brown is a New York Times bestseller, has one of the most watched TED talks ever and is best friends with Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed. In other words, she’s part of a girl gang that is as close to religion as I will ever get: middle-aged Charlie’s Angels who slay with sentences that stick in your throat because they are possibly the truest thing you’ve ever read. (I can’t even begin to comprehend their conversations with each other – the secrets of the universe unlocked over fresh coffee somewhere in California.) Brown made her name researching and writing about vulnerability, shame and courage. She translates emotions from these suffocating, invisible wire nets that we so often get trapped in and slowly untangles what is going on, carefully explaining why we feel what we feel. Crucially, she thinks that the difficult things we feel are essential to feeling happiness.
Cycling away from my ex to the life I built for, and by, myself was a pivotal moment: empowering and validating
When she was researching Rising Strong, Brown met with the president of Pixar animations, Ed Catmull, and some of his senior team, including writers and producers. (Obviously, Pixar films are another fountain of wondrous, human truths.) Over lunch, Brown, Catmull and the Pixar team talked about the power of telling stories and the conversation came to the “difficult second act”. The writers told Brown that in the classic hero narrative arcs, which are the basis of Pixar movies, the second act is always the difficult one, not only to write, but also for the hero. In the first act, the hero is introduced, the adventure presents itself and the hero accepts the adventure. In the third and final act, there is some sort of resolution and redemption. But the second act is basically a shit-show. Everything goes wrong.
Brown then compares this to some of her teaching courses which are, by uncanny coincidence, three days long. On the first day, participants arrive enthused, but on the second day, they are exhausted, emotionally drained and irritable, but it’s too late to turn back.
As I sat there, reading this chapter, I realised I am in my own Difficult Second Act. I’ve accepted my adventure: a new job, life in London, being independent and I know how I want my third act to look – Margate loft apartment with a dog named Frank (after Sinatra) and enough savings to spend six months a year in Santa Monica when I’m 90, thank you very much. But, right now, I’m in the messy, confusing, tiresome, disorientating Difficult Second Act.
I can’t turn back – I can’t run home to a time when I don’t have ex-partners, or when I don’t own belongings that can get stolen. I can’t give up on my career and move home. I’m too far in. And I don’t think this is just me, either. I would go as far to venture that, for most of us, most of life feels like the Difficult Second Act. The bit we’re constantly renegotiating, rethinking, trying to improve, trying to get past, trying to compromise, getting knocked down and then somehow finding the energy to get back up again. The first act is always far too short – perhaps just that summer after uni, when you accept the adventure and life is full of possibility. But the second act is long.
And yet, for Brown, this is actually the good bit. She writes, “What I think sucks the most about day two is exactly what Ed and the Pixar team pointed out: it’s a non-negotiable part of the process. Experience and success don’t give you easy passage through the middle space of struggle. They only grant you a little grace, a grace that whispers, ‘This is part of the process. Stay the course…’ The middle is messy, but it’s also where the magic happens.”
And it is. In the chaos of our difficult second acts, in the lopsidedness of life, in the anxiety of the everyday, comes the magic. When the Difficult Second Act throws us characters and cameos and plot twists we weren't expecting, we realise our own resilience and our own strengths. Cycling away from my ex to the life I built for, and by, myself was a pivotal moment: empowering and validating. In the agony of being robbed, I felt completely overwhelmed with kindness and support from friends and family.
Brown says: ‘We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t choose both’
As Brown points out in her book, if we’re prepared to accept the challenges of the Difficult Second Act, learn from them, be honest about the stories we tell ourselves and embrace the act – not sleep through it or skip over it – we will be happier. “We can choose courage or we can choose comfort,” she says “but we can’t choose both.”
So, as long as I’m in the Difficult Second Act, figuratively and literally falling flat on my face, I choose courage. Courage to stand by the decisions I made in the past, courage to get back up when I’ve had the World’s Worst Week and keep going.
And if there's one thing is for sure, we’re all in this Difficult Second Act together.