Wednesday, January 19, 2011

life: I'm doing it wrong

I used to think that college was the place where you figured out what you wanted. At the time, it certainly seemed to be packed full of important decisions. What will you major in? What will you do with that? Are you going to grad school? How are you going to spend the entire remainder of your life after graduation? Sometimes it seemed like the decisions we were making right then and there were going to set the rest of our lives in stone.

I suppose some people really did do things that way. Some studied material that led them to viable careers, which they began directly after graduation, and then stayed on that path. Some chose graduate programs that prepared them for careers they had a passion for, and worked toward concrete goals so they could have the life they wanted. And, hey, good for them.

I’ve been out of college for nearly three years now, and I still have no fucking clue what I want. Forget a career path; I don’t even know what sort of person I want to be. Not the one I am, certainly, with this accommodating nature that the stronger-minded members of my family find mildly contemptible; this obsession with making a good impression; this caution-first attitude which dissuades me from taking risks; this “everything is hopeless” mentality leading me to set myself up for failure, repeatedly, in multiple aspects of my life, just so that I can continue to tell myself that everything actually is hopeless.

Yesterday I made a crack online about how I wish I could rewrite my character sheet - just erase the whole thing and start over from scratch. Well, I don’t actually want that. For one thing, I’d have to know what changes I’d like to make on it. Besides, in some ways I’m pleased with the way things turned out. I like being bookish, for instance. All those hours I spent as a kid (and later) reading the most interesting books I could get my hands on? Wouldn’t trade them, not even for all the eyesight I’ve lost. Forays into epic fantasy, where you spend over a decade waiting for a single story to conclude? Totally worth it.

You know what, though? I could have done more than that. I could have reacted differently to the world around me. I didn’t have to listen to everything that people told me.

That’s what I’m really disappointed about, looking back at past-me: the number of times I listened to people when I probably shouldn’t have. I also regret some of the times I listened even when I should have. A healthy round of try/fail cycles would have been a valuable addition to my life experience. Instead I stayed very, very safe as a child, and a teenager, and a college student, with the result that I now have a very, very boring life.

Near the end of my college career, when I was in the middle of reading The Artist’s Way and felt like I was finding the key to unlocking all the things that were holding me back from what I really wanted, I wrote a short piece on creativity and God, mostly based on what I had just been reading. I remember being all full of excitement, thinking, “God wants me to be creative!” Like it gave me some kind of license to stop feeling guilty about loving writing so much. You know what I should have been thinking? “How could I ever have believed in a God who would give me desires for the sole purpose of requiring me to give them up in order to prove that I love him more than anything else?”

And yet I wasted years of my life listening to people who told me things like that, believing myself to be somehow deficient for not wanting to behave the way they told me I was supposed to behave. Years of keeping my mouth shut when I disagreed with someone, because it was so important to at least look like I fit in when even I felt like I didn’t. Why did that seem like the right course to me? Why didn’t I just go find someplace where I did fit in? Why, for the love of anything, didn’t I pay attention to how wrong all of that felt?

I cringe a little bit at the list of things I’ve let myself be talked out of, all because it’s too inconvenient/it’s not safe/it’s wrong/I’m a girl/the timing’s wrong/it’s too expensive/I’m too smart/somebody didn’t want me to do it. My parents, in particular, seemed to think I was some sort of faery creature who would wither and die if exposed to the wrong substance, or disappear without a trace if someone wasn’t watching me. Except that my parents aren’t all that into faery stories, so… a more mundane equivalent of what I just said. The thing is, in their efforts to keep me safe they told me “you can’t” so many times that after awhile I believed it.

This isn’t their fault. I’m not trying to say that it is. Like I said before, I do wish that I had reacted differently to many things in my life. I could have been more of a people person. I could have ignored the words “you can’t” and just done what I wanted anyway. Lots of people do that. I only did it periodically, and not usually with good results. In short, I could have lived a bit more, instead of playing out imaginary lives in my head. And I most certainly did not have to continue putting myself in situations that were comfortable just because they were familiar, even when I knew there was something wrong with them.

The thing about the words “you can’t” is that once you start to believe them, they become a mantra that you follow without even realizing it. “No,” becomes the automatic response to everything, because even if you can’t immediately think of a reason why you can’t do something, you’re sure there’s one lurking just out of sight that’s going to come and kick you in the head if you say “yes” instead. Fun ideas are quickly dismissed as crazy and impossible. In fact, you become so used to having everything just out of reach that you invent impossible situations for yourself. Soon you’re not sure if everything you want turns out to be out of reach, or if you only set your heart on the things you can’t get.

This morning I woke up with the same feeling of resignation to yet another day that I’ve had the past several mornings. I distracted myself for about half an hour with my morning writing goal, but once I’d met that, I was back to blah as usual. And then it occurred to me that I am so very sick of starting my days feeling like that. I don’t like lamenting the fact that I’m awake as soon as I become aware of it. All of this reflection about the past, and how I wish people had treated me differently, and how I wish I had made different choices… none of that is helpful. I can’t change the way I grew up. But, you know what? If I wake up most mornings feeling not in the least excited about my life and what I’m going to do with it that day, week, or month… I am doing life wrong. Right now.

That is something I can fix, even if I’m not quite sure how yet.


meagan said...

I think looking forward rather than backward is definitely a good first step. Sometimes deciding to look at things in a different light--and sticking to it--helps immensely.

School sets people up to think that everything is meant to be set in stone. When I was panicking about what to do after graduation, I whined to a whole bunch of people I really respect about how I didn't know what to do and I ended up asking them all how they got where they are... Every single one of their answers, without fail, was "by accident." What they started out with might have been tangentially related to what they were doing in middle age or later--if it was related at all.

It made me a whole lot less worried about failing at the first few things or succeeding at them but failing to find my life's passion--whatever that is (although I'm still not fond of the idea of failing).

Ruthann said...

Well, no. None of us are fond of failing. I wonder if I would be a little less afraid of it if I had failed more often back when it mattered less. Right now, though, I'm starting to think that even failure would be better than the mediocrity I've had going on lately.

meagan said...

So then it sounds like you need a little calculated risk taking. :-)

Ruthann said...

Hello WorldCon! ;)