Wednesday, November 24, 2010

7. What to do

Two-parted Preface: 
1.I don't know why I started using the second person, nor why I start talking to that "second person" as if they were a patient on my couch. But I rolled with it. 
2. This post runs the risk of implying that I don't believe in goals or dreams, and also that I don't believe in the power of visualizing said goals/dreams in order to help make them a reality. Neither of these claims are true.

Addendum to part 1 of the two-parted preface:
In my current living situation, I don't actually have access to a couch. If I were to host a "patient" in my home, I suppose they could sit beside me on my bed. The chair, unfortunately, serves as permanent residence to a precariously pile of clothes.

I'm going to say something pretty radical here: I think that most of the time, we know what we want to do.

"But Laura," you say, "that can't possibly be true. Entire chunks of our lives are allotted to figuring out what we want to do. We figure out who we are in middle school, supposedly, and then we figure out what we want to do in high school and college*-- and for some people, it takes even longer than that. Hell, the entire self-help industry arguably depends on the fact that a whole lot of people still don't know what they want to do with their lives."

All of that may be true (except for the idea that we figure out "who we are" in three years, especially given that those years are fraught with pimples and hormones and, in most cases, feeling terrible about yourself), but I think a lot of it is also bullshit. Just because that's the way things are in our society doesn't mean that's the way things actually-with-a-capital-A-"Are".

I can't claim to speak for that capital-A-Are, (though, so long as we're on the subject: I think it's different for everybody, if it even exists), and that's not what I'm setting out to do with this blog post, so I'll try to move on as quickly as possible. Rather, what I am proposing is that knowing "what we want to do" is often a lot simpler than the high school guidance counselors and the college advisers and the self-help gurus might have us believe.

I do think that a lot of us (especially those in my age cohort) really and truly believe that we don't know what we want to be when we grow up/what we want to do with our lives/etc. And to each of us (including myself), I would say: Don't worry about it. 

I think that we're dedicating a lot of time and effort and (in some cases) money to-- gasp-- the wrong question. Because really, it doesn't so much matter what you want to be when you grow up. What matters is what you're doing right now. If you die tomorrow, or next week, people might mention that you'd always wanted to be a marine biologist or an astronaut, cry a little, and then head to IHOP for the reception. But more than that, we're going to be talking about what you did and what you were doing right up until your death. In terms of the impact that you have on the world, your present actions matter a whole lot more than whatever you're thinking about doing in the future.

This is not to say that dreams don't matter, nor is it meant to ignore the fact that what you do now will influence what you do later-- so arguably a little planning is necessary to create the life you want. What I'm trying to say is that rather than asking ourselves what we want to be once we've entered that nebulously defined world of "grown-upedness", we should be asking ourselves what we want to do right now-- and we should be doing it. My point is that we should be creating the life that we dream of right now-- not waiting around until we've achieved some career goal that we may have defined for ourselves when we were young or that maybe was defined for us by our parents' (or society's) limits of acceptability.

My point is that it doesn't do you much good to say "I want to be a marine biologist someday" unless you back it up with present-day actions-- because that "someday" is almost always riddled with conditional statements. You want to be a marine biologist "later", "when you grow up", but for now you don't live near an ocean or an aquarium or you're too young or you have to stay home for a while to take care of your parents or to save up money or you don't have the schooling or the wherewithal to be a marine biologist just yet.

What we have here, then, is a vision-- and nothing more. And even though these visions aren't... anything, really (think about it: can you see/touch/hear/feel it?), we begin to identify with them. We incorporate them into our identity, we get excited for "that day" when we will be doing just what we've always wanted (and often, I think, we assume that once we've reached "that day" we will also be the person whom we've wanted to be and we will-- if you'll pardon the expression-- shit roses and puppies and incense)... and in the meantime, we're... what?

If you identify solely as a "future marine biologist", then there's no space for identifying as whatever you are right now. The fallacy here, I think, is that we rob ourselves of a whole lot of present-day agency and power and self-discovery and joy, because we're holding off until we "get there" (which may or may not ever happen). In many cases, I think, we are robbing ourselves of a lived experience by waiting for life to happen to, or for, us.

Fine. Okay, fair enough (mostly). So if I take you up on your point, Laura, the next question becomes: If the new question is "what do I want to be doing right now," how the hell do I answer it? I know-- or at least, I sort of know-- what I want to be later, but I have no freaking clue what I should be doing right now."

FINALLY, we've arrived at what I planned for this post to address all along. Here are my suggestions for what to do when you don't know what you want to do:

1. First recognize that you're not alone. You are joined by millions, maybe billions of people the world over. Don't castigate yourself, don't think yourself some kind of freak or failure because you haven't yet been able to "figure this out". You're a human being, and you've been just as twisted around by our social constructs as the rest of us. So have some compassion for yourself. Beating yourself up is merely a waste of time that could otherwise be dedicated to productively pursuing the answers that you seek.

2. Stop telling yourself that you don't know what to do. Your beliefs will create your reality.Self-defeating thoughts are never in your best interests, so try not to listen to them. Remember, Ic is not your friend.

3. Try to replace those self-deprecating thoughts with something victorious.Start telling yourself, "I know what I want to do." It might not feel true for a while, but keep saying it-- because the more you repeat it, the more likely you are to believe it, and the more likely it is to become true

4. (This one can be tough): Get really, really quiet. Inside, I mean. Make space in your day for silence, for deep breathing, for meditation (if you're into it), for whatever activities help you feel calm and centered and like you are completely embodied within yourself. Cultivate a practice of paying attention more. Pay attention all the time to the things that you are drawn to, that interest you, that energize you and make you feel powerful and alive. 

5. When you notice a draw toward something, follow it.Let yourself be drawn. Start small. If you feel like eating oatmeal for dinner (or cake, or raw green beans), do it. If you feel like finger-painting, go buy some paints and smear your fingers all over the canvas (or the wall, or the old ugly table that could really use some color). If you feel like hugging a tree, go to the woods/the park/a sidewalk planter and do that. If you feel like punching your boss in the face-- well, maybe don't do that (but you could draw a picture of you punching your boss in the face, or you could start taking a kick-boxing class and imagine with each jab-hook combo that you are punching your boss square in the kisser). If you decide that you want to go to Korea to study Tae Kwon Do, start saving. (See? I'm not totally opposed to planning for future wants-- my point, really, is that you've got to do something now in order to get to the desired future). 

There are two tough parts to #5:

1. Fear. I'll talk about this in another post (actually; this was going to be the subject of this post-- but apparently I got sidetracked). "Fear" probably lies at the root of the other key "tough part," but I'm going to separate them out just the same:
2. You have to let go. I think that the key to figuring out what you want is to open yourself up to wanting anything. Maybe you don't "want" to take a walk in the woods, or to scribble with crayons (for Jeebus' sake, you're a grown-up!); maybe you don't "want" to discover that you really would rather be a lawyer than a marine biologist.
But if some part of you is sending a clear message, I think it's our responsibility to ourselves to listen to it. And in my experience, acting on those "callings" (for lack of a less loaded term) opens us up to all kinds of growth and delicious challenge and joy.

So it's tough. But-- really, truly, fingers-not-crossed swear-- I think it can be done. What it requires is practice, and patience, and compassionate listening. And bravery. Because it just may happen that we realize we want something other than what we are "supposed" to want, or what we told ourselves we wanted. But if the alternative is waiting around until the day that I magically become a marine biologist and everything in my life becomes perfect... well, I don't want to wait.

And besides, I never really wanted to be a marine biologist anyway.


*It should be noted that this is primarily a western-world construct

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