Several years ago, my friend told me that she thought her boyfriend would leave her if she took the job that she really wanted two cities away. On the one hand, I could understand that someone might be in a relationship that takes precedence over their career trajectory. On the other, even the phrasing “He would leave me if…” made it seem like some kind of video game where, if she opened up the wrong door, some kind of terrible monster would come attack her and she would lose a bunch of gold coins. Over drinks, we told her, “Anyone who gives you ultimatums like that is an asshole. You either want to go or you don’t, and two cities shouldn’t be a deal breaker.”
It all seemed so easy and clear when we listened to her problems and had the perfect amount of distance and objectivity on the whole deal. We had become therapists, and the issues that everyone else was facing were math equations that just the right amount of tough love and one-liners could solve. It’s always simple when you’re peeking in at the lives of others, and can remove all of the complicated, grey elements that inevitably involve themselves when you are tied up to the situation emotionally. “Come on,” we seemed to be saying to her, “This should be obvious.”
She ended up staying; they ended up breaking up anyway.
Our 20s are inevitably a time of great fluctuation in every sense. We’re moving, we’re taking on new projects, we’re looking for new people, and we are open to the idea of what could be better out there on the horizon. It’s a time when people can still hold onto each other like moss on a particularly sturdy rock, but they always feel the current of life in general pulling at them to do something more. We can all feel this constant presence of a better life, of choices which we know on some level can only be made at this point in our lives. And when we see people who are so clearly allowing themselves to be held back, it seems the clear solution to encourage them to let go, to be taken by the power of the person they could become if they allowed themselves to be.
But it’s hard to turn the lens in on oneself. Not too long ago, I was in a similar situation to my friend. Though it wasn’t a boyfriend who was threatening me with singledom if I chose to advance my career, I was caught between what I was complacent with and the possibility of something more exciting. Ultimately, I forewent the opportunity. I don’t really regret it mostly because I try not to think about it, but if I allow myself to explore the idea, I am overcome with the gnawing of never knowing what it could have been. It’s akin to missing a color you’ve never seen — you imagine that it’s beautiful, but you’ll just never be able to paint in that shade.
I thought back to my friend and her decision to stay with her boyfriend. Maybe it was more complicated than we wanted to consider, maybe their love was something that made it worth the sacrifice in job prospects. But I can still feel when I talk to her that she sees that moment in her life as a pivotal one, and not only because she didn’t take a certain opportunity. It is the moment — and we all encounter them — where we realize that we are creatures of habit, after all. We desire comfort, and we can’t understand a world in which we only have a chance of getting it. It’s easy to feel ashamed about these moments of fear and complacency, but it’s more important to consider why we have them. And why, more importantly, it is so easy for us to recognize and dismiss them in the lives of others.
Sometimes I get letters from people who are traveling through Europe and are stopping through Paris on a whim. They’re not sure what their plans are, or how long they’re going to be staying, but they want to go grab a drink and hang out. I always go when I can, and I am always blown away by how brave it is to be living one’s life in such an untethered, unpredictable way. “Aren’t you afraid?” I’ll ask them.
“Yeah,” one of them said to me, “But I’m more afraid of how I would feel about myself if I didn’t go.”