Sometimes you aren’t who you used to be anymore. It can be a physical change, you take a look in a mirror and see a layer of fat that wasn’t there before. You start to wonder: What’s happened to me? Have I let myself go? How did this creep up?
You get a leaden feeling in your stomach. You start to admonish yourself for getting lazy. Letting life get in the way. Indulging too many times in those croissants you love so much… but the change isn’t only cosmetic.
It is also a change in values or interests. You take a look at your clothes. Once upon a time, you used to pride yourself on being fashionable. Now? Although you still appreciate fashion and personal style, putting together a unique outfit that feels “just right” is the last thing on your mind. There are more vital things to worry about.
The change is also subtler. Something you can’t even put your finger on, something that you can’t even name yourself. That’s the scariest change. You feel it like a mist hanging over you. But what does it mean? You know that time has done something to you, taking you away from who you once were, and towards something that is too new to define, something still emerging. You fear that maybe you won’t like it once it fully presents itself. Is this what people call getting older? Is this what aging is cracked up to be?
You tell yourself to not be so dramatic. That age is just a number, you are only as old as you feel. Over-used sayings that you always believed to be true but now seem to be annoying jesters, all snazzed up and mocking you. You look back. And you see with a flash all those crazy times you stayed up dancing all night or did something downright foolish and fun. It was only a few years ago but it feels light years away. You want that back. Why can’t you have that now? It feels within reach, yet when you go to touch it, hard shiny plastic meets your hand. Something stands in the way. It’s not the same.
And then your thoughts go on. You read something the other day that made you go “Yeah! We are all just being narrow-minded. Who said time is linear anyway?” This limited conception we have of time will, one day, probably be just as dated as the idea that the world is flat. You aren’t on a straight timeline hurtling forward. Every present moment can surround you and connect you with your past and future, all at once. Stop being so one-track minded, you say. Yeah. You really told you.
But when it comes to these existential crises, logic, even bass-ackwards fluffy notions of logic, usually fall short. The driving purpose of your college years has left you like a bad boyfriend. Fun while it lasted, but what do you ultimately have to show for it? A piece of paper, many regrettable drunken moments and, if you’re lucky, a few good teachers who made you think. A time where you were frozen in this false sense of adulthood, not really on your own, but the illusion was strong, and one you clung too fervently. It seemed like you had it together, like you knew what you wanted and what you were doing.
And now you are in that dreaded thing people like to call the “real world.” You hate yourself for even typing those words out. Real world. Your logic screams at you “what the fuck does that mean anyway!?” But somehow it’s the best description that you can find. Your mind searches: is this what a quarter-life crisis feels like?
You are drowning in ideas, not sure which direction to take first. You get on Facebook (bad idea) and everyone else seems to have a clear idea. Yes, you know that Facebook presents a false reality where people only put their shiniest selves forward, but still, you feel the sting.
But hey, you know what you don’t want. You don’t want to spend your days in a tiny office cubicle getting the life sucked out of you one drop at a time. You don’t want to commit yourself to another’s cause that you don’t care about. And you know what you like, but you like so many things, and maybe those things you don’t like are just limiting ideas that your idealistic self clings to. But, in any case, committing yourself to just one thing seems like an impossible decision.
So you just go on, with your quasi-sense of direction, doing things that make sense to you, trying to hold yourself accountable and responsible and all the “bles,” but you really just hope that the non-existent life fairy will hop down on your shoulder and tell you what’s in your heart of hearts to do. “Just do you.” “Follow your heart.” You suddenly resent any half-wit with those sayings stuck on their wall. What do they know? Life isn’t so simple.
So what does this leave you with? Swimming in ideas, trying to manage all of the life things that need tending to: job, money, cooking healthy meals, working out, being a loving partner, and working hard on your passion, all while traveling the world. Well, shit, when you write it out you see the ridiculousness of it all.
Now that we have it all out on paper, what now? What silver lining can be gleaned? What lesson can be learned? It was E.B. White that made the point (highlighted by the illustrious, Maria Popova) that it’s the role of the writer to uplift, when he said:
A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.
And I’m wholeheartedly with Mr. White. You hung in there with me so far, so let’s figure it out together.
First, let’s take account of where we’re at. You realize that, maybe, though your life circumstances have changed, and gone with them your feeling of order and control, the feeling that everything in your life is in its custom-fit compartment, like a Zenon space station, despite all that — the core of everything remains untouched. The same little child-self, that always is and always will be, is in tact — it simply needs to learn to swim in the midst of all the uncertainty and unfinished projects that surround you. After all, it’s the new norm. A blog post from Seth Godin sums it up well:
… The challenge is to level set, to be comfortable with the undone, with the cycle of never-ending. We were trained to finish our homework, our peas and our chores. Today, we’re never finished, and that’s okay. It’s a dance, not an endless grind.
So, with all this in mind, what can be done? Perhaps, instead of seeing all of your efforts and wonders that don’t produce results as failures, be gentler to them. They made an impression in some way. Your firm but moldable core-self has been shaped, however slightly, by their weight.
Yes, maybe you spent too much time searching grad programs on Google, trying to find a perfect course of study that doesn’t exist. Yes, you even may have searched the same thing a couple of times, hoping new results would materialize, and yes that may be the technical definition of insanity, according to Einstein, but you still moved ahead. You still found a way to answer your inquiry. Even if the answer wasn’t as tidy as you were hoping. And if you haven’t yet, you have to hold onto the faith that your efforts won’t be in vain. That if you keep searching, an answer of some kind will come to you, if you pay attention. Everything looks impossible until you’ve done it (maybe the only clichéd phrase that hasn’t lost its luster quite yet).
Because whether we are hurtling forward towards our deaths or swimming in the nowness of time that surrounds us, life is going on, and if you want it to be grand, you got to keep juggling the balls, knowing that even if one falls down, you can pick it up. And even if it falls down, rolls into the street and gets squashed by a car, you can always go buy another one. And even if the store is out, you can go to their other location 15 miles away and buy another one. And even if you are juggling with heirloom balls from your great great grandpa (not sure why you would be, but that’s a problem for another day…) well you may just be shit out of luck, and you will just have to go on juggling with one ball less. But, hey, you still juggle. So I guess the point with this ridiculous metaphor is something along the lines of: just keep doing and creating, only with one big caveat.
When we put it like that, “just keep creating,” it seems like a trudge, like a huge effort to keep the balls in the air. But if we understand that creating and action is already at the core of us, then it seems like an impossibility not to do it.
If we say “creating just keep,” it may sound like terrible English and people may look at you funny if you say it out loud, but the reversal produces a helpful sentiment. We already have what we need in us, and we just need to keep carrying it out. It’s the creating in us that we just keep alive. And how could we not? We would be doing a disservice to ourselves if we didn’t. We would be stuck in jelly, frozen in time, something that, even at our worst, is unlikely to happen. We will always continue to do, to be in the world. Even in between my fuzzy logic, it appears the odds are in our favor, so I say to hell with what comes from the doing.
Even if the meal you make isn’t Instagram-worthy or the blog post you write only graces your boyfriend’s computer screen, it’s out there. You created something, and in the act, you start to shed the mist and emerge from the fog.
In no time at all, you will have a flashback to this period of your life, untouchable in its hard, shiny bubble, and you will think, “Oh, what a time.” And so the cycle will start all over again. But, in all likelihood this time around, the fog won’t be quite as dense, the suds not quite as thick. You wash, rinse, repeat but the process doesn’t remain unchanged.