As an end-of-term blog post challenge, Team Awesome decided to all delve deep into Self-Reflection Land and retrieve a glittering nugget of meaning from the chaotic swirl of exam season. What is worth the frankly alarming amount of stress that we students put on ourselves to succeed during this time of year–or in school in general? What reason do we have to stick it out year after year when there are infinite combinations of things we could be doing with our time instead? How does this benefit us personally? What do we think we are gaining?
In short, why are we here?
(NB: with a question like that you can be sure the essay to follow is 1500+ words. Get a snack, you’ll need it.)
Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that self-reflection is a) very challenging and often uncomfortable, and b) completely vital to a fulfilling life. I was thrilled to have the chance to do some of that personal unearthing in a public space (here meaning, this blog!) because we don’t see enough examples of people going through the process of self-reflection. We don’t see enough of the hesitation and uncertainty that comes with Figuring Things Out–we only ever hear about it after the fact, when the Decision has been made and the Action is being taken. The limbo in between tends to get swept under the rug.
It makes enough sense: everyone wants everyone else to think they’ve got their lives together, so it’s difficult to admit publicly that you have no idea what you’re doing or where you’re going. It doesn’t help that there’s a lot of social pressure to conform to a specific life path. (Asha, who’s graduating soon just like me, covers the discomfort of the “what are you doing next?” question in her post, for which I am eternally grateful. I FEEL YOU GIRL.) But even in social circles where the Standard Life Trajectory is being subverted and where space exists for unconventional lifestyles, it still feels like there’s pressure to have A plan. After four or five (or more) years of expensive post-secondary education, you’d sure HOPE you had a plan on how to make good use of it, right?
What’s your plan?
Why are you here?
This just in: I have no idea.
And I’m being 100% vulnerable and honest when I say it. I’ve no idea. No concrete plan. None. For someone like me, who likes to have at least three backup plans in addition to the primary plan being acted out, this is disconcerting to say the least. But I’m trying it out, and you know what? I actually think things might be better this way. Let me try to explain:
My Plans All Suck (or, The World Is A Complex Place)
I don’t mean that my hopes and dreams are invalid, gosh no. (I’m probably one of the most headstrong people in my entire community about a) figuring out what you want and b) DOING THE THING.) And I don’t mean that my current plans are in need of upgrading or reconsideration. What I mean is that the fundamental concept of planning where I’m heading next might be more trouble than it’s worth. In no particular order,
- I’m a multipotentialite. I don’t have One Dream Job like some other folks do (Krysta, for example, has a burning passion to be a teacher, a passion that is quite inspiring!) Instead, I have an uncountable number of skills and passions that are all clamouring to be used as more than hobbies. This alone makes it difficult to plan for the future in terms of work and career.
- I am torn between pipe dream and practicality. “How are you going to pay the bills with that?” is a crusty old leviathan of a naysayer in my brain, and the brains of many a human being around the world. Everyone has projects or causes that they’re passionate about–but the concept of doing what you truly love for compensation is considered so idealistic/naive in our society that the very term “passion project” means something you will work on without recompense for your efforts. I want to finish my novel, and to write more after that–but is it a viable option for work? Can truth and beauty put food on the table? Every artistic idol I have has proven to me again and again that it’s totally possible, but it gets even stickier than that, because…
- I am torn between my needs and the needs of others. While I’m sitting here fretting about whether I want to study languages or draw graphic novels or be a yoga instructor or whatnot, there are millions of people on the earth that are just trying to survive. Surely the most altruistic thing to do is to address the basic needs of the planet and its inhabitants? But what counts as a basic need? Is it really just water/food/shelter, or do emotional and spiritual needs count too? Can art be medicine? (Hint: it can. But trying to unlearn the idea that it’s frivolous and unnecessary is a difficult task.)
- The world has plans of its own. And more often than not, they come as a surprise. Maybe you fail a critical exam. Maybe you make an unexpected contact in a field of work or study. Maybe your family moves to a different country (like Ayse’s and Jasmin’s did–which, of course, makes the homey feeling of Glendon all the more comforting!) Maybe you take one elective class as a throwaway and it changes your entire life (like I did–sort of–with Case Studies in Canada’s Aboriginal Languages.) Maybe sickness or death or natural disaster force you to uproot yourself and your plans and try again. No matter how idiot-proof you try and make your plans, you can never actually account for the USNYB Factor (the Universe Sticking its Nose in Your Business Factor). Maybe 1% of life will go how you plan for it to go–and that will probably be the least enthralling part.
Now even as I’m writing this, there is a part of me that’s unconvinced. We’ve been raised in a culture that deifies its work culture, that worships productivity as a keystone of that work culture, and that sings the praises of good planning to achieve that productivity–and it shows. There is a part of me that is heavily socialized to believe that concise, concrete action plans are a cure-all for everything from existential crisis to general ennui. That part is currently criticizing the heck out of this argument.
“What,” it’s saying, “so you think we should just abandon all of our plans and goals and allow ourselves to be tossed around by the world? You think it’s futile to try and sort out our lives because they’ll just get shaken up again anyway? You think we should all just lie down and accept that we’re going to be directionless forever??!”
No, of course not. There’s obvious merit in having goals–nothing gets done unless we a) decide it needs to get done, b) decide how it is going to get done, and then c) create step-by-step guides on getting it done. I’m not saying we need to burn all the day planners and vision boards (in fact I think both are awesome tools).
I’m just wondering whether we as a culture are a little too addicted to our relentless pursuit of improvement. I’m just wondering whether our need to have everything planned in advance stems from the control-freak tendencies that seem to arise in an individualistic society. I’m just wondering whether we might be happier if we allowed things to get a little messy. If we allowed ourselves the luxury of “I don’t know”.
Intentional Chaos: In Defense of This Mythic Mess
Life is compost. All my life and all my experience, the events that have befallen me, the people I have known, all my memories, dreams, fantasies, everything I have ever read, all of that has been chucked onto the compost heap where over time it had rotted down to a dark, rich, organic mulch. The process of cellular breakdown makes it unrecognizable. Other people call it the imagination. I think of it as a compost heap. Every so often I take an idea, plant it in the compost, and wait. It feeds on that black stuff that used to be a life, takes its energy for its own. It germinates. Takes root. Produces shoots. And so on and so forth, until one fine day I have a story.
This quote, taken from Diane Setterfield’s amazing work of fiction The Thirteenth Tale, is from an author talking about how she generates ideas for her novels. But the same analogy works for all forms of creative living, all forms of innovative existing.
A compost heap is messy. It’s got all sorts of bits and pieces of things in there that aren’t necessarily intentional. You can’t dictate your compost heap (and you’d look pretty silly if you tried.) You can only let it break down, and spread the mulch across your garden and see which plants it feeds. (And hope that your metaphors are coming across clearly. Sigh.)
With this, I can tell you one reason why I’m here at Glendon: it gives me really really good material to chuck onto the compost heap. The degree in Linguistics, sure, that’s nice, but beyond that:
- Exposure to thousands of diverse folks and their lifestyles and traditions
- Access to vast amounts of knowledge (libraries, guest speakers, etc)
- Exposure to the arts (movie nights, open mic nights, etc)
- Travel opportunities (exchange, global internships, international conferences, etc)
- Opportunities to build and exercise skills like networking, active listening, critical thinking, media literacy, empathy, and so on
- And more!
Like I said, I’m used to trying to plan my life five or ten years in advance. I’m beginning to realize how much undue stress that places on me when I make even the slightest deviation from what’s on The Schedule. There’s no room for experimentation, no room for wandering, no room for leisure, for play, for boredom (because apparently boredom breeds creativity)–there’s only the next item on the list of Things To Do Before You Can Be Happy.
I’m beginning to realize how beneficial it might be to give up trying to plan my success. Instead, I’m going to keep adding good material to my compost heap of experience. I’m going to let it get messy and chaotic because it is an intentional sort of chaos, a chaos that is self-aware, a chaos that knows of its own crucial role in the creative process.
I’m going to toss the seeds of my deepest drives (to heal, and to tell stories) into the compost heap and see how they grow.
I’m claiming the luxury of “I don’t know”.
And I’ll tell you how it works out.
As you can probably tell, this is still a fresh and controversial opinion in my own brain. Let me know what you think! Is there some merit in trying to unlearn this obsession with goals and plans? Must we know exactly what we want before we can feel fulfilled in life? Can we balance both? Is this whole train of thought totally off the tracks?
In the meanwhile, read the WhyAreYUHere tales of other eAmbassadors! (Not including the ones I linked to in the post.)