Sometime in September
My alarm sounds at 7:00, just like it did the day before. I shower, put on a new suit that fits but doesn't fit me, and nuke a bowl of instant oatmeal. I walk to work.
Nine or so hours later I walk home along the same streets. The sun beats down. Sweat beads dance on my forehead, while my suit screams to be dry-cleaned. I take it off and put on my riddled-with-holes workout garb and amble down to my apartment's dank, kitchen-sized gym. It's free, I remind myself.
I finish, shower for a second time. I feel guilty for using more clean water in a day than a child from my village in Ghana used in a month. I make butternut squash ravioli. Check that, I boil boxed pasta from Trader Joe's. I don't cook per se, I heat things.
Sitting on my couch, I flip aimlessly through the channels on the TV and settle on How I Met Your Mother. Barney's musings on women fade into the background as I figure out what comes next. Probably bed.
This day happened more than I care to admit. It became something of a routine this fall. Routines aren't all bad, I suppose. We are what we do over and over again so if you're intentional about your time, you can structure moments of self-reflection and discovery in your day. You can express gratitude on the reg. You can volunteer, go to yoga, read a book, or write 500 words, allotting an hour for each New Year's resolution.
But you know how this goes. Life gets in the way. You get stuck in routines that don't feel like you. You move from one pre-defined activity to the next without cause for pause, for self-reflection. You forget from time to time that "interesting" doesn't just happen, that a passionate and engaged life isn't something reserved like a place in line, but grabbed by the balls.
You grow up with a bunch of beginnings. You go to school for the first time, play your first sport, get your first report card, feel butterflies on your first date, endure your first heart stomping, see your first sunset, travel by yourself for the first time, and apply for your first job. And then your second. Forever doesn't feel like a fiction. The passion and excitement you feel lives in the curiosity of childhood, in the newness of each activity, in the crinkle of your toes. In my nephew, Sam, it lives in his legs that dangle like eggbeaters.
But this feeling fades. Forever, you realize, is a fable. Ends start to appear just as often as beginnings. The world's weight feels less like a feather than a tanker. Wandering without fear or stress won't cut it. You need a plan to make the most of your time. The excitement and passion that came so easy in adolescence is replaced by expectations and responsibilities. The former now seem in conflict, if not indulgent, when considering the latter.
Don't get me wrong -- I would never go back to being 10, try as my mom might. But this evolution can be disorienting. Up to this point you've followed a path mediated by others. By the structure of school, the beliefs and decisions of your parents, the logical next step. Days are laid out before you, full of beginnings, like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Then you grow up and start to wonder, how can I live a more passionate life -- which, if you're anything like me, precipitates an avalanche of dizzying questions about what you value, who you are and who you want to become. Your self-identity is a puzzle and you don't yet have all the pieces.
How do you find the missing pieces? I spent the next six months interviewing friends and family, hoping their advice and stories might guide. I learned a lot about myself. Forever friends and family can help you see your blind spots. They pick up on patterns, on why you do what you do and say what you say, on what sits beneath the surface. For example, I realized that I too often put being liked over being me and, ironically but not at all that surprisingly, that I'm too hard on myself, that I extend compassion to others but not me. I also learned that I'm not alone in any of this. I learned that it is not easy to track down your story, that the search for self is an exercise in vulnerability, in being seen for you. I learned that this struggle to break from a routine -- to find passion in what you do, to find your voice -- is something we all go through. There is something reassuring, beautiful even, in how human this is.
Perhaps more than anything, I learned to "live the questions," that it's more important to explore my story than know it. In Letters to a Young Poet, Ranier Maria Rilke says this:
You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can. dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you win then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
To live the questions, it would seem, you have to first admit the questions to yourself. You have to admit uncertainty in a world that doesn't value it. You have to be vulnerable in a world that considers it a weakness. You have to be you. You have to live with a child's curiosity.
A few weeks ago I was at a wedding in Idaho. I sat in the grass next to Sam in front of the bluest lake you've ever seen. He got up to run and discover the world around him -- his routine, an exploration. And I chased him.
For more by Charley Johnson, click here.
For more on wisdom, click here.