We define ourselves by our milestones. If someone walked up to you right now and asked you to explain who you are in just a few sentences, chances are you would wrack your brain for the big things – where you grew up, what kind of family situation you came from, where you went to college and what you majored in (if you went to college), what you do for a living, what your love life looks like. We’re conditioned to give people a bio, a tagline, a summary of our very essence in under 140 characters.
And those things are important. But they’re more like a skeleton, a map around which you build out the details of who you actually are. They’re markers on your timeline, helping you to remember where you were mentally and emotionally during certain phases of your life. But that’s all they are: markers. Looking to those things for an all-encompassing explanation of who you are is fruitless. Graduating from SMU or working as a clinical research associate for a pharmaceutical company does not give you, or anyone else, a solid understanding of your heart, your fundamental qualities, the substance that makes up your soul. It gives some insight into your background, and how you spend your time. Perhaps it provides people with a better idea of your financial background and your quality of life. But these are not the things that determine who you are.
You are made up of millions of tiny moments, feelings, thoughts, behaviors, choices, beliefs, and experiences.
You are made up of the decisions you made in difficult situations, you are made up of the infinite number of emotions you’ve felt so far in your life time. You’re made up of each moment in which you chose the right (and usually, the harder) thing. You’re also made up of the moments in which you chose the easier thing. You are made up of the way you act when you know a loved one is in pain. You are made up of the things you do when no one is watching you. You are made up of the way you treat those you consider your ‘inferiors’ in comparison to those you consider your ‘superiors.’
We forget about these little things. Because they’re so ordinary, so everyday, so seemingly trivial.
They happen constantly, they happen every second, because these moments are what make up our life. Even the “big” things – our family, our college experiences, our careers – are larger things that are made up of endless mini-moments of behaviors, choices, emotions, feelings, conversations, challenges. They are incredibly unremarkable experiences. Half the time, we’re not even conscious of what we’re doing. We think and we act based on our gut reaction. We just do. We just exist. We think without realizing we’re thinking. So wouldn’t it make sense that that is who we are? The everyday, unplanned, instinctive, gut-reactive version of ourselves?
We often convince ourselves that in order to figure out who we are, in order to find ourselves, we have to do something drastic.
We have to quit our jobs, find the one, travel the world. But that’s never the case. For some, the obsession with wanderlust comes not from the pure joy of adventure, but from the belief that to find oneself, you have to go somewhere else. I get it – people are always coming back from trips, pilgrimages, and study abroad experiences like they’re completely different people. And I get why everyone feels the same way about quitting their jobs. For one thing, (most) jobs suck, but more so than that, the people who ‘quit their jobs to follow their true calling’ always seem to be so much more self-aware, rejuvenated, and invigorated.
But I don’t think it’s the pure drastic nature of the act that leads to self-discovery. Traveling, or quitting your job, or finding your life partner does not automatically guarantee all your answers will be solved. But what it does do is it takes you out of your trance. It wakes you up, it makes you pay attention to every minute detail of what is happening to you and how it’s making you think, feel, act, and choose. You pay attention now, to every little thing, because your world is suddenly different. You think about your own thought process; often you write about it. You look carefully at every choice you make and you wonder why you made that choice. You analyze your words, your decisions, your actions, your relationships, your path.
Sleeping on a beach in Thailand will not help you find yourself any better than sitting on a subway train in New York City. Storming out of your office will not clue you in any more than showing up to that same cubicle every day. Finding the love of your life does not equate to discovering the reason for your existence. Those experiences can be incredible, life-changing, and endlessly inspirational. But they are not the end goal, they do not hold all the answers. You’re the same you no matter where you go, no matter where you work, no matter who you date. What matters is that you’re awake down to your very core. You’re listening, you’re watching, you’re wondering why, you’re paying attention. You’re aware that the average lifespan is some 40 million minutes, and that you don’t want to spend too many of those watching mindless tv shows just to pass the time. You know that every minute counts. Because every minute is just another opportunity to further understand the substance of your soul.