I feel like my life is a treadmill that I can’t turn off or slow down. I’ve been traveling at one pace for so long, and for so far, that if I stop I will get catapulted off, slam to the ground, and break things that might not heal.
But it’s not so much the injuries that scare me. It’s not the idea of being hurt, or the likelihood of being thrown off the speeding conveyor belt. It’s not even the time it would take for the gym injuries to heal that worries me. These are not the things that keep me running. I stay on my treadmill for a very different reason.
But first, let me describe my treadmill…for many fellow 20-somethings, it will be eerily familiar. I went to a good grammar school, where I worked hard, joined teams and participated in clubs. I carried this work ethic through to high school, where I got good grades, was in school plays, volunteered with worthy causes, played sports, developed independent projects, and travelled to new places. I’m a senior in college currently and have maintained a competitive GPA, am a campus tour guide, have worked several paying jobs, have traveled abroad, work at the campus news station, have sustained fulfilling friendships and hold down ever-interesting internships at amazing places. No complaints…I’m very, very fortunate.
To get here, I have days that go something like this: get up, go to internship and work for 8 hours, come back to campus and go to back-to-back classes, do homework for several hours, go to a job, volunteer, spend spare time improving homework, applying for internships/scholarships/jobs, reaching out to friends, and working some more. I do social things to make and keep friends, spend time with my family who I love, update Facebook, go to parties, knock things off my college bucket list and oh yeah, sleep a few hours here and there. Sound familiar?
I’m on a cycle, a treadmill, that is pointing me toward a career, a family, a future…and I’m panting through the paces every day. This is my path – breathe – this is my routine – breath – this is the way I’m going to get there – breathe – to happiness – breathe – RIGHT? – breathe…
I think it’s fair to say that this treadmill analogy is probably something that at some point in our lives, we’ve all been able to relate to. How many people start down a path, in school, a career, a relationship, and soon feel as though this is the path they’re stuck with? Perhaps it has something to do with convenience, or monetary success, or social acceptance. Perhaps parents, friends or teachers chose the path. Perhaps we operate on faith or in hope that the path will lead us someplace worthwhile.
Because the truth is, while that treadmill may be awful and taxing and repetitive, it’s also simple and socially-accepted. The treadmill makes the decisions. All the treadmill asks is that you keep your feet moving – one after the other.
And so I keep up the pace. Because, do you know what’s even scarier than a high-stress and potentially-hollow life? The fear of what will happen when there is no rubber conveyor belt moving beneath me, forcing me to take the next step.
I’m scared shitless of having to decide where I want to go, who I want to be. I’m terrified of having still ground beneath my feet.
But guess what? Lately, thanks to some creeping peripheral vision, I’m starting to realize the truth about the comfy conveyor belt: THERE IS NO END.
There’s a reason it feels like a treadmill, and not a long hike, or a marathon bike ride. And it’s not because I’m tired, or bored. It’s because I’m having trouble seeing an end. I’m just beginning to realize I will never make it to the top of a mountain or break the sash at the finish line, with friends and family waiting to hug me, if I stay on the treadmill. At best, I will be able to say I logged the miles and burned the calories. But will I have covered any real ground or moved my life forward at all?
And so I’m coming to understand I may have to get off my treadmill if I want to make any progress in this thing that is my one-and-only life. And, when I get off, there won’t be a trophy, or a ranking, or even a tangible measure of my energy output. No one is gonna say, “Congratulations, you are in number 614th place in the world.” I’m not going to know if I beat my best time. That’s not how a real life works. A resume wont beat the cancer, a fancy degree can’t assure a happy life, and all the money in the world is still no guarantee of anything.
Why, then, is it so impossible to stop? Why, when we can admit and articulate the fact that success doesn’t go hand in hand with fulfillment, do we all spend so much time chasing the wrong things? Why do we clock the extra hours in the office instead of watching our son’s little league games? Why do we convince ourselves that not getting into a certain school or acquiring a certain job is the worst thing that could possibly befall us?
We do it because it’s hard to stop. That treadmill is a crutch. While most of the time it probably seems like it’s the thing that’s helping us get wherever we think we want to go, it’s usually the very obstacle in our way. And while the alternative can be terrifying, living a life without a preset direction, I’m starting to think it’s the only way.
There are no guarantees in life. There’s no way to ensure that when you get to the end you’ll feel as though you’ve made the most of your years. But how, then, do you measure a life? What happens when you let go of the crutch that is the treadmill? What is the effect of realizing that the tool you thought was moving you forward is, in fact, the obstacle keeping you from who you’re meant to be?
Truthfully? Not a clue. But I do know that getting out of default mode is the first step. And perhaps the second is regaining the sense of discovery that propelled you to here…the risk-taking, fearless, mind-numbingly irrational urge that made you leave the comfort of the crib for the perils of crawling, walking, running, biking, hiking, flying. And the third step? Well, I’m guessing it has something to do with hope and trust and love.