*** Before You Read: Be warned. This post makes me sound like a spoiled, whiny, self-pitying brat. Plus, it’s not particularly well-written. (OH THE IRONY.) So if you are uninterested in joining my poorly-rendered and VERY long-winded pity party, please come back tomorrow for your regularly scheduled frivolity. ***
While I’m not sure if it’s my impending 30th birthday (it happens FRIDAY, ya’ll), or just a general sense of winter-induced blues, I’ve been feeling very anxious about My Life Path lately.
A full-on existential crisis been brewing for a few months now. Probably ever since my husband – with his usual effortless grace – turned 30.
I think it really came to a head recently, when I interviewed an applicant to my alma mater.
As expected, this applicant blew me away. But as I doubt I’m supposed to discuss these interviews, I’ll hurry ahead to something about our conversation that’s been kicking around my skull for weeks.
This applicant had a life motto. (Based on an Albert Einstein quote about miracles, if you want to look it up.) Bright-eyed, brilliant, and more mature than most 18-year-olds, the applicant asked me if I had a motto.
And I was stumped. (I honestly think I’m just as nervous as – if not more nervous than – the applicants in these interviews.) Something tickled at the edges of my brain, but I couldn’t get to it through the fog of nerves and trying to be the kind of ideal ambassador my university would want me to be.
The thing is, as this high school senior stared at me expectantly, I felt small. And inadequate. And fraudulent.
As though, perhaps, my whole life was some sort of farce.
Now, as much as I’d like to blame a high schooler for my problems, this barrage of upset was not the applicant’s fault.
Obviously, I have Deep-Seated Issues that simply bubbled to the surface in the face of this person. This person who is, for all intents and purposes, Me of the Past.
(Actually, she’s Me of the Past Now with Super Extras! including More Experience! and Better Grades! and Fluency in a Foreign Language!)
The thing is, I am nearly 30. I am eight years out of college. (EIGHT. GACK.)
And when I look at my life, I see failure.
* * *
When you’re a bright-eyed teenager, 30 seems so old.
Everything will happen by age 30, you think. (And yes, I know that when you are a kid, you pick some arbitrary age out of the air that has no basis in reality.)
But 30 seems like a milestone. One that I’ll meet in a few days without having Achieved Something Big.
* * *
Objectively, I know I haven’t “failed.” I found my life partner. I do work that challenges me. I help support our household, financially and emotionally and kitchen-ally. I have a bachelor’s degree from a prestigious university under my belt. I’ve earned a Master’s Degree from one of the top programs in my field. I like to think that I am a generally kind, helpful person.
These aren’t the ONLY markers of success, certainly. (In fact, I think “success” and “failure” mean different things to almost everyone.) But I think it would be hard for people to look at me and categorically say, “You are a failure.”
But the thing is, I have had one goal my entire life.
And I’m not anywhere near reaching that goal.
* * *
Have you ever felt as though you were simply treading water?
I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing.
Maybe you even LIKE treading water.
After all, it’s good exercise. It keeps you from drowning. It allows you to look around the pool for hot lifeguards and sharks. It gives you a chance to watch the Michael Phelpses around you and get a sense of their skills and style.
But despite all of those benefits… You’re still treading water.
Which means you’re going nowhere.
* * *
I feel the need to clarify something: I don’t do my work half-assed.
On average, I work six days a week. When I’m absorbed in a project for a client, it consumes me. I think about it all the time, even in my off hours. I’m fully invested in the project’s success. I give 100%.
But I’ve been feeling lately – as this milestone birthday approaches – that I’m not doing what I’m meant to do.
My Something Big – the one thing I’ve wanted to accomplish for as long as I remember – is to write books.
Books of poetry. Books of fiction.
Books that wrap people up. Books that transport you. Books that open up a common subject in a fresh yet utterly familiar way.
Books that – above all else – make you feel something.
Yes, I write for a living. But I’m not writing for myself.
* * *
Listen, I don’t want to seem ungrateful. I feel truly thankful to a) have steady work and b) do work I truly LOVE.
I have amazing clients. They are brilliant, driven, inventive. Each of them has a vision of how to improve others’ lives. They are all generous with their knowledge. They challenge me and inspire me.
I am very, very fortunate.
* * *
Once I got away from the terrifying college applicant, I was able to think clearly. And I realized that I do have a motto.
I don’t think I’ve ever consciously thought of it that way – in terms of a motto – but there it is.
It’s a quote attributed to Socrates, sometimes translated as: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
This phrase comes from Plato’s Apology, from a section also stating that the best thing a person can do is to converse about virtue on a daily basis.
But I think, like many famous quotes, the meaning of the excerpt itself has expanded beyond its original context.
I do a lot of navel gazing. A lot a lot. This website is proof of it.
I do it in other ways, too. My work, for instance, requires me to gaze at others’ navels… To imagine what they are thinking… What moves them… What worries them… What drives them to improve themselves… What incites them to buy.
But – while the stuff I write here is often (okay, mainly) frivolous and silly, and the stuff I write for work is persuasive and motivational – I also write about what I consider Deeper Matters.
Love. Loss. Happiness. Fear. Life. Death.
I think about these things a lot. In isolation. As related to one another. As two sides of a single coin.
It’s important, I think, to take a deeper look at these things that drive us… that affect our decisions and our lifestyles and our life’s work… that hiss and sputter deep down in each of our cells… that make up the core of what we call humanity.
To examine these things, hold them up to the light. To gain a deeper, fuller understanding of ourselves and each other. To use what we find to better ourselves and improve the lives of others.
This is what I love about my favorite books. The Count of Monte Cristo. The History of Love. Incendiary. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The Namesake. Love in the Time of Cholera. The Time Traveler’s Wife. The Handmaid’s Tale.
They examine life. They put a chunk of The Human Condition under the microscope. And in doing so, they illuminate something in a new way. When I read them, I find myself overcome with agreement: “Yes, that is how I feel. Yes, I recognize that in myself. Yes, I could never put that into words before.”
Sure, I could go through life without these things. I could work each day, come home, watch TV, eat, sleep, and someday die. I could refuse to delve into the shadowy corners of my mind. I could bob along on the surface, basking in the sun, ignoring what’s swimming in the depths.
It’s possible that I could get a great deal of enjoyment out of living this way. I would probably experience a lot less worry, a lot less angst.
But that’s an unexamined life. And to me, it’s not worth it.
* * *
Let us delve briefly into the existential part of this crisis.
Right now, my work is personally and financially fulfilling.
But it’s not satisfying my soul.
I’m not saving lives. I’m not moving us closer to world peace. I’m not feeding the hungry or housing the homeless. Or doing – in my work – any of the other countless things that seem to Give Life Purpose.
And guess what?
Writing novels does none of those things either.
Yes, yes, examining life blah blah blah.
Maybe you’d say Nabokov or Melville or Foer made your life better. Maybe even helped give your life meaning.
But come on. When it comes to Making the World a Better Place, I don’t think novelists are at the top of the list.
And let’s face it: I’m no Nabokov or Melville or Foer.
Sometimes I feel like my purpose in life has no real value.
* * *
For Christmas, a friend gave me a book.
It turns out that this book was written by a classmate of mine. I didn’t know him very well, but I knew of him.
Instead of feeling grateful to my friend for sending me the book, or being impressed that this book had been written by a person I know, I became consumed with jealousy.
Isn’t that the ugliest of all emotions?
And yet, there I was, hating on this guy for Making It when I haven’t. I couldn’t even read the stupid book because I kept having sour thoughts about the quality of the writing. Justified? Maybe. But maybe just the product of my envy.
There’s a little voice in my head that thinks I lost some sort of competition. “What have you been doing all these years when you could have been writing a book?” it demands. “What are you waiting for?”
But there’s another little voice – one that’s fearful and strident – that says, “But I can’t just drop everything and write! I’ve got responsibilities!”
* * *
Instead of whining about this on my blog, shouldn’t I be writing my book in my spare time?
Something is better than nothing, right?
The fact is, I DO write in my spare time. I contribute a paragraph here, a line there to the two “novels” I have started.
I devote even more time to thinking about them… Dwelling inside the minds of the characters… Turning over plot points and motivations in my brain.
But it’s not enough to be called Real Writing.
I write every day for work. As much as I enjoy it, it drains me.
Sure, I can dash off a silly little blog post. (Although some of them, admittedly – and I feel sort of pathetic telling you this – take weeks of tweaking until I deem them “publishable.”) (I KNOW.)
But the kind of writing I want to do requires immense amounts of emotional and creative and intellectual energy.
At the end of the day, I just don’t have that kind of energy to spare.
And if I do… well, I feel like I should devote it to the kind of writing that pays the bills.
* * *
One of the other big causes of my existential crisis is money.
It’s difficult to contemplate the huge financial burden Writing a Book would put on my husband and me.
Now, my parents have been super generous about this. They have offered to help. More than help, really. Which means more to me than you can possibly imagine. I mean, not just the relief about money… But the incredible gratitude I feel that they BELIEVE in me.
Plus, there’s my husband. Who said to me the other day, “My goal is to make enough money so that you can stop working and write.” Which made me all teary. What have I done to deserve such kindness?
Seriously, I wouldn’t blame you if you are rolling your eyes right out of your head. How can I be fretting about ANYTHING when I have such an amazing family who supports me so fully?
But with their generosity comes guilt.
How could I possibly take my parents or my husband up on their offers?
It seems selfish… and irresponsible, somehow, to allow them to bear the weight of my flight of fancy.
I mean, what if it turns out I am a terrible writer? What if I can never publish a book? What if it’s just a big waste of time and money?
What if I disappoint these people who love me so much?
* * *
The thing is, I have no idea if I can write a book.
And, if I can, who knows if I can make it be what I want it to be?
What makes me think I have anything to offer people?
What makes me think I can differentiate myself from all those other millions of authors out there?
What makes me think anyone – editors, publishers, let alone the reading public – will want to read what I have to say?
Oh the doubt! Internet, it is eating me alive!
And yet, I am so sure this is what I’m supposed to do…
(Of course, if you’ve ever seen American Idol, you know that all the applicants are so sure that singing is what they are meant to do. Even the ones who sound like lovesick seagulls.)
What if my writing sounds like a lovesick seagull?
* * *
Of course, the flip side of the coin is:
What if I disappoint these people who love me so much?
Because if I don’t write a book… If I don’t at least give it the old college try… Isn’t that the real failure?
If I let my fear and doubt and sense of familial and financial responsibility prevent me from even trying to accomplish that goal, well, what kind of person does that make me?
And then I’m right back where I started: Staring into the clear, expectant eyes of an eighteen-year-old, telling her that my alma mater is the place where dreams begin… And yet I haven’t moved more than a few thousand words toward my heart’s desire.
* * *
When I told my mother, a few weeks ago, about this existential crisis, she was full of kind words and wisdom.
When I look at my mom, I see a woman who has accomplished anything and everything she wanted. She had a successful, high-powered career for decades. When it stopped fulfilling her, she retired.
She raised two kids who – not to toot my horn or anything – are on the whole Good People.
She dedicates a large portion of her time and money and expertise to helping people in need.
She’s traveled the world.
She’s also extremely artistic, and prolific in her painting and writing.
I admire her so much. So when she talked me through my crisis, I listened. And her take on the situation helped.
My sense of crisis hasn’t fully subsided.
Sure, I no longer feel constantly on the precipice of tears…
But I still feel… incomplete. Stuck in some liminal space between Fanciful Child and Responsible Adult. Left to tread water for the foreseeable future.
Still, I’m beginning to learn how to live with that. To remember that 30 is an arbitrary finish line set up by a naïve teenager. (A teenager who was certain – CERTAIN – that she’d never in a million years get married or even entertain the IDEA of having kids.)
My mom reminded me that even if I’m treading water, I’m learning. I’m growing. I’m gathering fodder for my writing. And all that is useful and worth something.
Plus, I’m getting something out of this. Maybe I’m not working toward my goal. But I’m challenging my brain. I’m working with people I respect. I’m learning how to be a better, more persuasive write. I’m contributing to my family. I’m supporting my husband as he works toward his Something Big.
Not too shabby, for a nearly-30-year-old.
Maybe this isn’t the only thing the universe has planned for me. Maybe I’m not doing exactly what I’m meant to do.
But – god willing – there’s still time.
* * *
I recently read a quote attributed to theologian Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who are alive.”
In moments… bits and pieces scraped up in times of quiet… small bursts of inspiration… I feel that Aliveness, bubbling inside me… It may be hibernating, but it’s there, breathing quietly, just below the surface.
Three decades is a long time to wait to join the ranks of the living.
I hope it doesn’t take me another 30 years to get there.