Monday, June 14, 2010

Reflections on Life, The Universe, and Everything

Note: I write these days for my own enjoyment, satisfaction, and analysis. Forgive me if I get a little sentimental - this one's a long one. All of these thoughts are subject to change, at any moment, because they are only my interpretations of the world this morning, which seems to be something that is constantly shifting for me these days. No judgement is implied here towards any of my friends, loved ones, or anyone else for their life choices. We all have to find our own way in the world, and live for what we know to be true for ourselves.

As I look back now, I see a world full of contradictions that I've spent my life trying to navigate. No wonder my generation is confused. No wonder we are skeptics, not willing to believe anything until we've seen it with our eyes, performed it with our hands. We grow up being told that we are free, that the world is ours, that our nation is great, that justice prevails. Until for many of us, one day, that world comes crashing down. Sometimes it is a gradual change. For some, they barely notice the transition... They may wake up one day, and wonder where their life went wrong, and why they always feel disappointed. Sometimes it is a drastic event, sometimes we lose our faith. This is how it was for me.

I will probably never understand all of the how's and why's that led me to this point in my life. My long-term memory, notoriously vague, leaves the past before the last few years a rosy glow. I remember being optimistic, cocky almost - knowing I could take the world by the tail and it could be mine. I remember having moments of searing doubt - what was the point? I persevered. I tried not to think about the doubts - maybe they would go away. I convinced myself that if I could just get everything right - if I just followed all the rules, and jumped through all the hoops, and stayed positive, happiness would be mine. That was what I was taught. It had to be true.

Looking back now, from a different state of awareness, contradictions that run deeply through the fabric of our society are painfully obvious. They caught my attention at times, especially as a college student, but I pushed them out of my mind. Why was there so much injustice in the world? Why do people say they want something, but act in a manner completely counter to that objective? I didn't know, but I was trying to focus - if I could just finish school... I spent my academic days pointed and focused in class and in homework. I spent my nights trying not to think about my worries, and trying desperately to fit in, to be happy the way everyone else seemed to be. I drank a lot. If it seemed fake and contrived to me, I drank more. This always seemed to make things more amusing, or at least more bearable. On the outside, I don't know how I looked to other people. I always thought I appeared to be a bright, social, friendly person. Maybe a bit eccentric, maybe a bit opinionated. Maybe too smart, maybe not smart enough. Popular in the sense that I would try just about anything, I could be the life of the party. I was fun and happy and silly, brazen at times. Certainly I wasn't popular with the cheerleader/rich crowd - I felt they could sense that I wasn't one of them - but popular enough with the average, educated, middle-class crew. On the inside, I felt different. I felt like a closet philosopher. I aspired to greatness. I dreamed of science and philosophy and morals and ethics...I dreamed of talking about those things. But I didn't, not usually. Many of my friends weren't interested, and I wasn't sure I could be friends with the types of people who were interested. Those were just dreams to me anyway - I didn't have any experience living by them. I was intimidated by the people who claimed to live by their morals and values alone. And scared of turning out like them. They didn't always follow the rules, and I am nothing if not a rule-follower. They either didn't appear to have any faith in the system, which seemed to be the only thing holding the world together to me at the time, or they had ultimate faith in some system, and proclaimed it as a religious convert would, which seemed slightly suspicious. I tried to walk the line in between, working diligently, partying furiously, imagining the day when everything became clear to me, and I would discover the meaning of life.

Everything changed after college. I wonder how many times that sentence has been written? How many times has it been thought by a person before me? I went to work, and the drudgery and meaninglessness in my everyday tasks filled me with dread. Of course there were good times, meaningful times, wonderful people, good work, satisfaction and pride. Of course those things were there too. But overall, I felt a sense of sadness, of loss. I felt as if I were an actor, playing a part that I must continue to play, until one day I melted away. I listened to the people around me, and at times they seemed beaten down. I would bristle at some imagined injustice, argue over some small point that seemed like an important or ethical issue to me, and the people around me would shrug, and say "That's just how it is" or "I can't wait until I 15 years." Why? Why were people so miserable, so unmotivated to change their situation? If they indeed were miserable, why didn't they do something different? It was a mystery to me, but a scary one. I began to be suspicious of an unspoken message we are all taught in our culture, the message that says "If you just do X, everything will be better" or "Once you get Y, things will start to turn up." I had always believed that, and X had always been 'finish school and get a good job,' and Y had always been a good salary or a house. But here I was out of school, with a good job, a good salary, a house, and...was I hearing the same message still? Where was the end of this rainbow? When did you have to stop waiting for one more thing, anyway, to be happy NOW? Was I soon going to start thinking that I just needed to get married, buy a new car, get a bigger house, and on and on and on? I began to imagine how a person could work and work, in the bowels of a great bureaucracy, a big system, and never see any change, and begin to feel powerless...until it seemed like there were no options left. I was scared that I might turn into that person. In social situations, I felt disconnected. I had some very real moments, with some very real friends that I love dearly, but I also had many moments where I felt alienated. I felt like screaming, "Can't you see that none of this matters?!" But I couldn't. So I left.

I left my life in high spirits. I saved some money, sold my house, told myself that all my work could pay off now, and that I was off to see the world! High adventure, here I come. I was convinced, in theory, that the material values of western society had nothing for me, so convinced that I gave away and sold everything but what could fit in my car. I had no idea what I was going to do later. I assumed that would "come to me" during some remote scouting adventure in a faraway country. I knew I was interested in something more meaningful, I just didn't know what. Humanitarian work? Field research? The life of an ascetic ex-patriot, holed up in a hut? My values had shifted, but I was still looking at the world through the same old lens. Even though it didn't work the first time, I secretly just thought I needed to try again - find a purpose, commit myself to it, and turn myself into a productive researcher/humanitarian/model citizen/whatever. Take a little vacation along the way.

I had some high adventures, but I wasn't fully prepared for the implications of what I'd done. I met some wonderful people, tested the limits of my own courage, but hauntingly, I felt I saw the same world I'd been running away from, hiding everywhere I went. Somewhere in Costa Rica, in an anonymous hostel full of partyers and surfers, I came to Jesus. I don't mean that literally, of course. I just woke up feeling...different. I wrote about it with fascination at the time - a short entry in the blog, a long one in the journal. What was going on with me? I felt different. I didn't want to drink. I didn't want to create some adventure or go lie on the beach. I began to read a 50 year-old book called "Man's Search for Himself," by Rollo May, that I found in a book exchange, and I stopped wanting to talk to anyone. I became intensely reflective. I felt empowered, but I also felt confused. Eventually, I became deeply depressed. I came home, both to be present for my grandmother's passing, and because I knew I needed a respite. I had lost my faith.

I spent weeks locked inside myself, trying to cope with my grandmother's death, my culture's alien-ness after months of living in the rural part of a foreign country, and my realization that life was not what I had thought. I looked back upon the past year and wondered if I was having some sort of breakdown. I left my job, my home, my friends, my boyfriend, and apparently my faith in the system, and fled, and now that I had stopped fleeing, I looked at myself and asked the question, "Who am I?" I didn't know the answer. I wasn't a computer scientist, at least not at that moment. I wasn't someone's other half, someone's wife or girlfriend. I was living at my parents' house, for goodness sakes, something I hadn't done since I was 17 years old. I was unemployed, something I had never been since I was legally old enough to work - actually since before that (don't tell anyone). Nevermind that I had chosen those things, had planned for them. They still made me feel panicky. The worst was when people asked me what I was doing, what I was going to do next. I wanted to scream "There is no next!" I felt a silent judgement, even though there was probably only curiosity. I felt disapproval when there was probably caring. I sat in silent judgement of myself, unsure of what to do, reading furiously, thinking, searching, grieving. I felt paralyzed by analysis. I had to figure out the answer. The right thing. There had to be one right thing to do, and I felt that I couldn't proceed until I figured out what it was. I felt torn by the contradictions that had always haunted me, which I was now trying to look in the face and stare down. For example, I thought I didn't care about material things, status symbols, income - but I was harshly sitting in judgement of myself for not having a job, for not having an image to define myself, for not being able to explain in a smoothly practiced sentence what my life currently consisted of to anyone who would ask. I felt that one didn't have to have a 'good' job with a 'good' income to be happy or to be a good person, but I felt terribly guilty that I didn't have those things. I was supposed to have it all together. If I wanted to disclaim material possessions, I'd better have a plan and an explanation. I recognized a double-standard that had long haunted me. The standard was this: it's okay for someone else to not be perfect, but not for me. It's okay for someone else to make a mistake. It's okay for someone else to have a mundane job. It's okay for someone else to be confused. It's okay for someone else to be depressed. It's okay not to be perfect. But not for me. My intellectual side believed in what I was doing, believed that I had made good choices and that I was on a good path, but oh - my socially conditioned side was screaming at me. What the hell was I doing? I was breaking all the rules, and I apparently no longer had a plan. I was walking a line between being perfect and being a fuck-up, whatever the hell that meant, and if I wasn't careful, I was going to end up being a fuck-up. That's how I felt. These thoughts screamed at me from a place I didn't even know about inside me. I didn't even believe there was such a thing as being a fuck-up, did I? Who the hell was this person inside of me? I began to think that maybe I wasn't so much afraid of what other people would think, I was afraid of what I would think.

They say that time heals. Well, it definitely smooths the rough edges of things, for me anyway. I think I already mentioned that - pretty soon this will all be just a rosy glow for me ;) I gradually came back to the world of the living. I found a therapist, a yogi and a social work student. I found a doctor. I reached out to my friends. I practiced yoga. I worked in the garden, growing food and eating it, and watching bugs crawl everywhere. I thought about life a lot, and the meaning of it, and the interactions between living things. I decided to try to be honest with myself of above all else. I decided to explore my life, my insecurities, the reasons I did what I did, the reasons that I might want to distract myself from the reality of my life. I realized how intensely satisfying it could be to do something simple, really simple, and just take pleasure in knowing the power of your own hands, and the work that must go into growing a tomato, for example, or building a fence. I thought about how rare those experiences are for many people I know - experiences that directly translate the force of their labor and work into something concrete that they can use, eat, or appreciate. I thought that it was no wonder it was easy to feel disconnected - indeed, it appeared to me to be hard to find ways to feel connected in our society, where it is so foreign to know the lifecycle of any object or thing in your daily life.

I eventually decided that nothing matters - there is no ultimate truth. There is only your human experience of life. Although at first, this realization filled me with dread, now I speak it as a kind of liberation. As a freedom song. If nothing really matters, then I can do whatever I want to. I can live, simply to enjoy daily life as best I can. I can be a farmer or a teacher or a preacher or a blog writer or a surf bum or a computer programmer or an untalented musician...without judgement. I'm not suggesting a life of unfettered hedonism, at least not for me. I like to think of myself as a principled person. To me, the laws of life seem simple. Take only what you need. Try not to infringe on other organisms' right to live. Live simply. If you don't believe in something, don't do it. If you don't like something, don't complain about it, do something about it or do something different. Try to be aware of the impacts of your decisions, every day, and take responsibility for them.

I'm sure there are more of these laws. I know they're not obvious, nor easy to follow. I know I will fail sometimes. I know I will keep trying anyway. It is one thing to say these things and to believe them to be true, and it is another to apply them to your life. It is hard work to undo years of conditioning, years of training and judgement. The last rule might be the hardest, for us, in our society. We make it so easy to not take responsibility for our actions...and so hard to be aware of their impacts. The industrial system is so huge, so complex, that it seems as if a single person could never understand the impacts of the things they do every day. Food is an easy example, and one that is close to my heart these days. How the hell am I to know what went into producing my box of cereal and putting it on the shelf at Kroger for me to buy? Even if I could know, I can't influence any of it. Even if I shudder at the way factory farmed animals are treated, how am I to change it? These are all valid questions, and they can be extended to any area of life. They can lead to disabling frustration. You sometimes feel like you have to just forget about these types of questions in order to simply live your life, or condemn yourself to a life of misery and guilt for the role you play in everyday tragedies. Fortunately, there are other options. Like everything else in life, sometimes seeing that you have options is simply a matter of changing or widening your viewpoint. For me, the best option right now appears to be to try to opt-out. I will choose to opt-out of systems that I can't influence and can't know about, whenever possible. I will not work for a company when I can't know it's purpose and see evidence that it is working towards that purpose, and not towards its opposite. I will not buy and eat food, if I don't know where it came from, how it was grown or raised, what went into getting it to my table. I will try to find sources for things in my life that I can know about, that are close to my home, that are produced by people I can meet and know and trust. I will be compassionate towards myself; I will not feel discouraged if I make a mistake or if I cannot always uphold these ideals. I will not judge myself or my friends based on these standards, I will simply try my best to do what is right. I will trust my judgement, and use it to question what people tell me, not in a paranoid way, but in an open way. Does what they say ring true? I will live my life everyday as if it matters, as if the people around me matter, as if I care what happens to the world, for that is how I wish the world would be, and my behavior is the only thing I can surely influence. Mahatma Gandhi once said "You must be the change you wish to see in the world." I think I understand this directive now, and I am willing to try to be that change.


monzy said...

hey Aura,

just wanted to let you know that i read this.... all of it.

best regards,


Carrie said...

Wow. I thought you had quit blogging after your world adventures. :)
This is very good reading!