The Magic Meatball vs. the Numinous Nugget

I have possibly the most phenomenal day-job in the known universe: I office-manage a small company that provides technical design and production for theme park attractions. In layman’s terms: if you walk into a theme park (or museum or aquarium or other entertainment venue) and see something magical, chances are if we didn’t do the work ourselves, we know how it got done (or, in some cases, how it could have been done better.) One of the many perks of this job is that virtually every year, I get paid to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (Marketing research is a beautiful thing if you do it right. And by “right,” I mean “with Butterbeer.” Sometimes when the concept of gratitude feels far away and impossible to me, I can summon it a little closer to where I live when I recall the existence of Butterbeer.)

A few years ago I was taking meeting notes for a design charette on a proposed new theme park somewhere in China, and the minds around the table were trying to come up with a basic story structure for one of the attractions. One of the story concepts someone brought up was the “Quest for the Magic Meatball.” It’s a common enough story structure. You set out seeking a particular artifact that will grant the bearer… something. Power. Protection. Parsnips. Other things beginning with P.

In my day-to-day life, I am constantly on the lookout for the Magic Meatball. I have this semi-subconscious belief that someday, I will watch the right movie / Oprah special / TED Talk, or listen to the right song / podcast / NPR segment, or read the right book / article / blog post, or attend the right conference / church service / party, and then I will wake up the next morning and my life will have fallen magically, effortlessly into place, meaning that any or all of the following will be true:

  • I will prefer kale salads and fruit smoothies to pasta and cheesecake.
  • I will arise magically before the sun every day and joyfully launch myself into a vigorous exercise/ writing / apartment cleaning / personal grooming routine strenuous enough to convince anyone (even me) that I have earned the right to live on this planet today.
  • I will have a magnetic, effervescent personality; everyone will love me; I’ll throw great parties and be a paragon of hospitality and a witty and gracious conversationalist.
  • I’ll be the kind of office manager through whose fingers no detail, however minute, would dare to slip.
  • My to-do list will be, and will remain forever, 100% under control, and no item that could be accomplished today will ever, ever, ever be put off until tomorrow. …or a week from this Tuesday. …or possibly a year from next Arbor Day.
  • I will have a literary agent, a small fortune, and a man.
  • Etc.

Spoiler alert: I have not found the Magic Meatball. I still prefer pasta to salads most of the time (although I did recently eat a kale-quinoa salad wrap thing that was spectacularly delicious.) No matter how many times I tell myself that I really do function better when I get up and get moving early in the morning, eight or nine times out of ten, the alarm goes off and sleep just seems more important than whatever else I could (or arguably should) be doing. I’m still socially awkward and chronically behind on about four dozen tasks (and those are just the ones I have written down.) I make mistakes in the office; I’m still unpublished, in debt, and comprehensively single.

Rationally, I know that there is no Magic Meatball. Neither Oprah Winfrey nor Jillian Michaels nor Brené Brown nor any pastor; neither my own competence nor someone else’s ingenious new system nor the hot new fad diet nor anything else in all of creation can totally insulate me against the reality that life is hard.

I think sometimes I hang onto the Magic Meatball delusion because it’s easier to believe that there is a Magic Meatball and everyone else has already found it, and that that is why I always feel so tired and inferior… than it is to accept the fact that life is hard. It’s hard for me. It’s hard for you. Research (by which I mean “my own intuition;” “research” just sounds better) indicates that anyone who says they have their life handled and everything is easy and perfect is a big fat liar (and will probably not be invited to any of my Fabulous Parties once I acquire a magnetic, effervescent personality). Sure, I can always find someone else whose life sucks more than mine. Actually, in my case, lots of peoples’ lives suck more than mine. I have a job, a car, and an apartment; those things alone put me ahead of the vast majority of the human populace in terms of ease of life.

And how many times has knowing that information made it easier to get out of bed in the morning?


Not even once.

Know why?

That’s right.

Because life is hard.

One thing I’ve been learning lately, from Brené Brown as a matter of fact—okay, so she can’t fix everything in the universe and organize it and put it in a Bento Box, but she’s still a phenomenally wise and winsome person whom everyone should listen to—is how critically important it is to admit that life is hard, and to let the people who care about you know when life is just especially hard, even if the reason why life is just especially hard seems colossally Stupid and Embarrassing to you.

(Such as, to offer a real and recent example, the fact that a friend and I both recently applied for something and she’s getting it and not me. And I know I should mostly be happy for her because arguably she needs it more than I do, but mostly I feel like a failure and I kind of just want to curl up and die, especially when I remember the (half joking) things I said after both applications had been submitted. And no, it doesn’t help that I know that she’s not gloating; not even a little bit, and that she doesn’t think I’m a failure, and that she didn’t think a thing of anything I said after the applications were submitted. In fact, knowing all of that makes it worse because it makes all my feelings even more irrational and Stupid and Embarrassing.)

Actually, the moments when life is hard for Stupid and Embarrassing reasons are the moments when it is, perhaps, especially critical to admit that life is hard. Because people who are willing to put themselves out there over things that are Embarrassing and Stupid help other people to feel they have permission to put themselves out there over things that are Embarrassing and Stupid. And if you can reveal your Embarrassing and Stupid enough times, eventually you might find yourself able to divulge—to the right person, at the right moment—your Shameful and Terrifying. (Yes. I have Shameful and Terrifying. And so do you. And anyone who claims not to have Shameful and Terrifying is definitely not going to be invited to any of my Fabulous Parties.)

And having the right people to whom to divulge your Shameful and Terrifying—not being alone with it, in other words—actually does make it easier to get up in the morning. And to sleep at night. And to put one foot in front of the other on the days when life is just especially hard—even for reasons that are Stupid and Embarrassing.

And that’s something else right there: Brené Brown may not be able to fix everything and put it into a Bento Box—she neither is nor has the Magic Meatball, in other words—but she does have many nuggets of wisdom to share. In the interest of extending both the alliteration and the meat product idiom, I’ll call them Numinous Nuggets. And partaking of Numinous Nuggets can make all the difference when life is hard. Learning to be; pushing myself to be; giving myself increasing permission to be vulnerable (like admitting that I feel rejected and small that my friend got this thing and I didn’t) is making a big difference in my life. Learning—painfully slowly—to accept love and grace from somebody once I’ve offered them my vulnerability (such as accepting my friend’s words of comfort and affirmation about this thing she got and I didn’t) is making an even bigger difference. Learning to cultivate gratitude for that love and grace instead of feeling awkward and weak for accepting it will probably make a huge difference once I actually get to that point. I’m not quite there yet.

None of these things can make all my problems go away. They can’t change the fact that life is hard. In fact, living this way tends to open me up to feeling the pain of all the problems even more keenly than I did before.


It also makes it possible for me not to be alone with them.

No matter how many places I search for it, I’m never going to find the Magic Meatball because it doesn’t exist. I’m still not managing to get up at oh-dark-thirty every day like I’m getting off the bench at a basketball game, but the Numinous Nuggets that I glean from good books (like Shauna Niequist’s Bittersweet; just started it and I already love it); good TED talks (like Brené Brown’s); the wisdom of good friends—all this makes it possible for me to get up at some point and put one foot in front of the other, and to go to bed that night and sleep, and then to get up the next day and do it all over again, even in the midst of living out the reality that life is seriously hard.

There is no Magic Meatball, but it turns out there are a lot of nourishing nutrients in Numinous Nuggets. And thanks to the people from whom those nuggets come—and other bright spots like my job—sometimes, I even get to wash my plate of Numinous Nuggets down with a flagon of Butterbeer, and I get to eat that nourishing and delicious meal in good company.

Which is a pretty spectacular antidote, when I can remember to / bring myself to take it, to the poisonous gases of despair and bitterness that can be released into the soul when life is especially hard.