Daily life for me is often a field of panic land-mines, and I’m never quite sure what feelings of failing-at-life are going to get triggered and when. But over the past months I’ve been carefully trying to stay open to my thoughts, no matter how panicked, to see what’s going on behind them.
The more open I’m able to be to my panic, the more I find myself surprised when I find out what’s behind it. While the ticking clock of life’s milestones passing me by was a pretty obvious source of distress for me, there have been a lot of sources of panic that I didn’t expect – at least not in the way they’ve turned out. I talked about one of these in my first post: the gradual twisting of motivational lines like “Don’t let life pass you by!” into deep sources of fear and anxiety that life is passing me by every second I’m not absolutely loving it.
But lately I’ve found more sources of panic that I guess I figured were happier places, like travel. I knew I wanted to travel, to spend a good chunk of time exploring the world more. And I knew I felt distressed and frustrated not to be doing it. I also know that over the last little while I’ve gradually stopped dreaming of other places because panic was taking over the fun and I didn’t know why. Once I opened myself to this panic, I started to see where it was coming from. And the bizarre truth is when I think about travelling, I feel panicked that I have NOT packed up my life and taken off to an NGO in Africa or a school in Asia or a kibbutz in Israel. When I think about career exploration, I feel panicked that I have NOT quit my job suddenly to work for myself. When I think about my values and priorities over the next few years, I feel panicked that I have NOT realized my whole life just isn’t for me after all.
In working out and naming some of these surprising sources of panic, I’ve been able to see the relatively unsurprising element underneath them all: pressure, applied firmly and steadily by me and my interpretation of things around me, to do what I’m supposed to do to figure this all out.
What I’m supposed to do. There it is, showing its ugly face: should.
And where did I get the idea that I should flee my life to create a new, happier one? That I should be spending time doing some random things in other places to help me find my answers? That there are steps to work my way past the unhappy unknowns and in following them I’ll come out the other side of this with battle scars and a calm, confident and mature understanding of my life…?
How about almost every personal development book or blog since Eat, Pray, Love. Stories of adventure, getting lost and found, starting new, curing life dissatisfaction with Indian street food. Every one of them seems to follow the same formula: realize you are unhappy; realize you need to quit/drop everything; realize you need to go far, far away; realize 101 truths about yourself while far, far away; realize your place in life. Stories of finding truths and love and meaning always somewhere “out there” and never “here.”
I’ll write more next week about how these stories are written, but for now I’ll just say the Eat, Pray, Love formula makes for a pretty lovely if essentially retrospective story. I understood that I was lost, lonely, and scared, and I looked to our contemporary heroes of Being Lost and thought I could – and had to – follow their footsteps to get out of this alive and happy. What they did seemed to serendipitously lead to a relatively happy ending, so I should be able to do it too…
Something in me began to believe that finding my way out of these feelings required a spiritual awakening, divorcing my husband, selling my house, and planning an amazing adventure that would magically end with self-discovery and probably husband #2. Never mind that I quite like my girlfriend and I want to live together in our apartment, or that I don’t really care to go to an ashram, or that I am not already an established writer with publisher support to pay for my travels…Nevermind all that, because it worked for Elizabeth Gilbert and everyone after, so it’s what I should be able to to do for me too. Isn’t the universe supposed to conspire to help me here or something?
As I’ve sorted through all this, the panic seems to look something like this: if I am not Eating, Praying, and Loving my way out of this mess I’m doing it wrong and in denial about it. I’m just too scared to do what deep down I know I need to.
Sometimes when I’m open to the panic and then I see what’s inside, I think…Really? This is what I think? This is what scares me? Because in the light of day it looks like a sad and embarrassing jumble of nonsense. I wonder how I could have come up with something so silly!
I’m forming some pretty solid answers to how I came up with this. And that will be for next week.