The meaning of “Don’t”

In Penang, Malaysia last year, a place where I felt true happiness.

Note: This post includes spoilers from Season 5, Episode 8 of the TV show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

It’s not often that a television show or movie punches me squarely in the gut. Today this happened as I was watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which, incidentally, is not even one of my favorite shows. So that was all the more surprising.

It’s the early 1960s, and Midge is about three years into her career as a standup comedian. She’s incredibly talented and hardworking, but she still hasn’t gotten her big break.

Midge gets a job as the first woman writer on the Gordon Ford show, the number one talk show in the country, hoping that Gordon will let her perform standup on his show. But he won’t give her a shot.

In this week’s episode, Midge returns to her old college campus for a ten-year reunion. She finds a bottle that she had hidden away when she was in college, in which she’d stashed a note written for her future self. The note just says, without any context, “Don’t!” Midge is confused by this single word. She doesn’t remember what it means.

Later, after an extremely successful episode of the show, Midge, Gordon Ford, and all the writers are celebrating at the bar. Ford’s wife, Hedy, comes up to Midge and congratulates her on writing a winning comedic segment. Midge tries to deflect the compliment, saying that it was a team effort, and Hedy bluntly cuts her off. “Don’t,” she says. “Don’t. If the credit’s yours, take it. If it’s not, take it. That’s what the boys do.”

The next thing we know, Midge decides to confront her talent agent, Susie, at Grand Central station, about the frustration and dissatisfaction that she’s feeling about the state of her career. “It’s two steps forward, three steps back,” she says, “and I’m tired of it. This is not enough, do you understand? Call me selfish, but I want more. This, what we’ve been doing, what these last three years have been — this is not a story to tell my grandchildren!”

This was an extremely emotional moment in an emotional episode. Over its five seasons, Mrs. Maisel has had a lot to say about misogyny, ambition, and trying to make it in a world where the odds are stacked against you. But something about this episode was so raw and real that it left me in a contemplative trance for hours afterwards.

By the end, we, the viewers, finally understand the message behind the word “Don’t!”. It can mean so many things, but at the same time, it’s so simple.

Don’t be small.

Don’t settle.

Don’t step back when you should be moving forward.

Don’t let other people take the credit.

Don’t accept what you have if it’s not enough.

Throughout my life, I’ve been obsessed with the meaning of happiness. It’s the one fundamental question that I am constantly asking myself, as well as other people. Can we ever really, truly be happy? Or is happiness just a mirage, a vision that fades?

When I was a child, my definition of happiness was money. I wanted to live in a house instead of an apartment. I wanted to have nice clothes instead of secondhand stuff from garage sales. By the time I was a teenager, my family’s financial situation had improved. We moved into our first house. I got my own bedroom and a wardrobe full of finds from TJ Maxx.

Then, when I got older, happiness was getting into a good college and building a nice career. I ended up graduating from a top 20 university. I worked hard and made very little money, but I was also lucky in my career. I never got laid off. Every job I took was a step above the one before. I spent the bulk of my career working on climate change, on social justice.

After that, happiness was being able to move to Europe. I got lucky again and landed a job in Switzerland. Then things got even crazier, and I got a job with my dream organization, the one I’d been aspiring to work for since I was a kid. Earlier this month, I received a permanent contract. I have a job until I retire in 2056. I’m basically the luckiest asshole alive. I’m happy most of the time.

And yet. And yet. Every day, I have periods where I am keenly aware of how empty I feel. Dissatisfied. Even travel doesn’t spark the joy that it once had. A voice in my head asks, “Is this all? Is this the best you can do?”

And I panic. I have these almost manic hyperfixations. I did a copious amount of research into getting trained as a therapist, even though I can’t practice where I live. I’m learning a new instrument. I wrote a novel and now I’ve started writing another one. I question whether I should have become an actor. A documentary film director. A screenwriter. Should I have tried to become a social media influencer? Should I have gotten more involved in the Asian American community when I still lived in the US? Should I be doing water sports? I bought polymer clay months ago to start sculpting, but I still haven’t opened the package.

My physical health isn’t good. There are days when I’m too tired to leave the house. And on those days, I ask myself, “Is this how it’s going to be from now on? All the things I could have done, the potential I could have had, all wasted away along with my body?” And sometimes that gets me off the couch. Other times, I just lie there, exhausted.

I used to think that I had a quarter-life crisis when I was around 26. But now I’m wondering if maybe the crisis never stopped. Maybe the answer is always changing, and I’ll be chasing after it for the rest of my life.


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