During my life I’ve always had the habit of trying to be a people pleaser. Trying to do and be everything for everyone in order to avoid conflict, while often putting my own wants on the back burner. Failing to give people what they expect often leaves me feeling ashamed and guilty. Hell, almost anything leaves me feeling that way. I’ll chalk it up to being raised by a Catholic converted Baptist mother; two strikes against me. Having confidence in my decisions and trying to break the habit of feeling guilty for making what I would consider to be “selfish” decisions is a constant work in progress. I’ve been reflecting on this feeling of self-inflicted guilt these past few months as I was recently put to the test to see just how much I have grown in this past year and if I would easily backslide.
Thinking it was the responsible thing to do, I applied for a job in D.C., which to be honest, I never thought I would get. Yet to my surprise, weeks later I found myself in an uncomfortable position and was tasked with choosing between moving home and accepting (an albeit enticing) job offer or taking a risk by saying no and staying in Spain to follow through on an old promise I had made: to try and establish a career in Europe.
I’m not exaggerating when I say this decision was one of the hardest ones I’ve ever faced, second only to the one made last year to leave my friends, family, job, and a very drawn-out relationship to move to Europe in pursuit of a fresh start and higher education. The familiar feeling of being at a crossroads, unsure of which path was my ultimate calling, though hyper-aware of the fact that whichever path I chose would undoubtedly shape my life in a very serious way, was all too familiar.
On the one hand there was financial security, climbing the career ladder, and being closer to my family, which despite our distant relationship, I thought was the right thing to do. However, on the other hand I was faced with the 22-year-old version of myself, who was practically in tears with the thought of leaving Spain again and prioritizing what I thought I should be doing over what every fiber of my being yearned for.
Naturally, as these types of things go, I had three days to make up my mind; enter the familiar lump in the throat and tug on my heart. The 22-year-old, who from time to time still surfaces to remind me how I used to be, was scared shitless; and so was I. Scared to take the risk of financial insecurity, scared to jeopardize my career, but above all, I was scared of letting the guilt of what I thought I should do once again trump my own self will. However, reluctantly I started to prime myself for the idea of returning home and the accompanying feeling of defeat.
All I could think about during those three days was how I would never forgive myself if I went through with this. I was reminded of the emptiness I felt when I was living in Virginia, Maryland and D.C.; of the bitterness I carried around daily for giving up on what I loved (traveling) in exchange for a stifling relationship, demanding job, and a passionless life speckled with strip malls and fluorescent lighting. I was reminded of the dread of going to bed every night and waking up every morning to monotony, and how the sadness settles in when you realize that your current existence is barely a shadow of your old self.
And while initially, despite my partner’s best attempts, I violently rejected this domestication, over the years it began to wear me down, and I slowly accepted it as my fate. I was following through on a promise, which I had made to him and to my job, and continued with what I thought I should do, rather than what I wanted to do.
But during those four years, it wasn’t the thought of letting down my partner or my boss that kept me up at night, although admittedly there were times when they did. But rather, it was my heavy heart and the lump in my throat, which served to remind me of the promise I had made to a younger, less cynical version of myself, which I had broken.
That promise, which despite my horrible memory has never faded, was made in 2007 over a glass of wine in Barcelona, where I was studying Spanish for the summer. I was having dinner with a girl I had met via Couchsurfing, who would later unwittingly come to symbolize that city for me as much as La Sagrada Familia or Parc Güell. But more importantly, she epitomized an era of my life, which years later would seem so distant and foreign that it might as well have belonged to someone else.
While sharing our aspirations for the future and chastising the inevitability of growing older and the accompanying responsibilities, we made a toast that night: “ser siempre joven”, to be forever young. What this meant for me at the time was to never lose that childlike curiosity which fueled my desire to discover new countries, meet new people, and continue taking fearless risks.
You know those risks. They’re the ones to blame for buying a ticket to Spain even though you’re dead broke and don’t know how you’ll sustain yourself for three months in a foreign country. But you do it anyway because you trust in your own resourcefulness and that you’ll figure it out along the way, because you always do.
Those are the risks you take when you are still unwearied and not yet deterred by painful memories to reference. Memories which over the years help justify why it is better to be overly cautious rather than blazing your own trail. It’s the thought of making yourself vulnerable which keeps you from being open to new experiences, and the threat of failure which wears you into fearful submission.
However, what you should fear even more is the failure of not keeping your word to yourself. For those promises you make to yourself when you are still young and starry-eyed are often the most pure and strikingly simple ones, which speak to the soul of our existence. Yet, we complicate them as we grow older and find that they are increasingly harder to keep, or rather easier to write-off as ignorant dreams.
The others, the ones you make to people who enter and exit your life – lovers, bosses, family, friends– those are usually easier to keep; there’s always someone there to guilt you into following through. However, the voice inside you which exists to remind you of the promise you made to a younger, more ambitious and fearless version of yourself, well that voice can be easily muffled and those unfulfilled promises will quickly fade into the background of your busy life, ruled by obligations and routines.
This story ends following three days of agony, after which I respectfully declined the job offer in D.C. and decided that I owe it to my 22-year-old self to follow through on my promise. In a few weeks I will be moving from Bilbao to Madrid as an English teacher for the next year, while trying to establish my career here.
This is not to say that I’ve regained my sense of fearlessness, have overcome the guilt of making decisions based on my own self-interest, or that I have it all figured out. But rather, I trust that I will figure it out along the way. Because when the best years of my life are behind me, as I once thought they were, and I am left with the task of taking inventory of those promises I followed through with, I am certain that I can forgive myself for the failures or humiliations. But what I cannot forgive myself for is never having the courage to try in the first place. And that, more than anything, is what will keep me up at night.