On Stumbling, Stubbornly

It happens less frequently now, most likely due to a conscious effort to subdue such thoughts, but every now and again I’m struck by a period of existential crisis which leads to panicky thoughts, hastily hatched life plans, and morose moments spent in soon-to-be tepid bath water, reading material thrown aside and all my focus directed on pink toes turning the taps.

Those toes breaking the surface of bath water form the basis of the physical memories of each experience, but it is the rapidly firing thoughts that mark the turn from “keep on keeping on” to “panic” in my existence. I spent a lot of time questioning everything as an adolescent (to wit, I had a “Question Authority” bumper sticker hanging in my room – right next to my Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker and an Anti-Flag album – oh adolescence). The questioning led me to beliefs that I still carry today, and to the realization that some questions are better left unanswered.

The goals of my early introspection were far grander than they are now. Then, I was determined to seek love and beauty in all things, in the naive belief that arriving at the correct answer would be as simple as stumbling in the right direction with enough stubborn determination.

Now that I am older, immersed in a world that is far more complicated than I could have ever imagined, I see that the root problem revolves around conviction. Convincing yourself of something can be difficult, although true growth requires conviction to move in a singular direction (or perhaps many singular directions simultaneously).

I spend time now mired in the “what if?”, and endless stretches of point and counter-point conversation with myself. I can convince myself of the correctness of both sides of any argument, and it’s that ability that holds me back. How can I move with conviction if I’m not convinced myself?

Which brings me to my current crisis, which has been simmering under the surface for longer than I’d like to admit. It’s terribly important, and yet it isn’t, if that makes any sense at all. It’s the ennui of the daily grind, I think, the realization that I’ve lost focus on the bigger grander scheme of things in favor of survival now. I’ve lost a part of me that is essential to me. I’ve let go of certain dreams in favor of the moment, and even though it is living the moment that keeps us alive, it is also important to chase dreams.

It’s funny how quickly survival now can turn into tunnel vision. It’s not just “now” in the immediate sense, but also now in the same way we used now in Africa – now can be immediate, or it can be later. It could be at any point from now into the future. Survival now for me has become an endlessly repetitive schedule of work, work some more, maybe see some people, date, pay bills, don’t think about anything but this week or next.

But what I’ve lost, or misplaced, is perspective. Perhaps not perspective exactly, but the ability to remove myself – whether it’s objective introspection or a wild fantasy world. It’s the thoughts, the curiosity, the wonder that used to keep me feeling alive. It’s the drive to know everything about everything. I’ve somehow managed to separate me from my future self, and in doing so, I’ve somehow disconnected the forward progress, I think. But maybe that’s overstating it.

I think that I’ve gotten so bogged down with everyday stress and responsibility that I’ve lost the wonder that used to fill me. I often write about wishing that I had time to be bored, and yet, when confronted with time unfilled with obligations, I find myself so overwhelmed by the possibility that I fill it up as quickly as possible.

I was shocked when I read this article in The Atlantic about online dating, because it struck a chord with me. Not necessarily all of it, but the idea that there’s always something else waiting made me start to think about how I approach much of my life. They discuss “perceived alternatives” as one of the three factors that affect satisfaction in a relationship, and it got me thinking, both about dating but also about my own perceptions of alternatives.

I imagine my future self as being entirely different from the person I am today, which is silly, because as I age, I grow increasingly aware of the fact that I am and always will be myself (this is an overwhelmingly positive thing as I’m only growing more and more happy with who I am). Yet, if this is the case and I’ve got my mind constantly focused on the intangible elsewhere that is the “perceived alternatives”, how is it that I’m supposed to start building the foundation for the rest of my life? It’s not something that can be done subconsciously – arguably yes, but is that the sort of foundation you want?

I know that my disconnect is not uncommon. I know that approaching something looming ahead of you as large as the rest of your life is not something to approach all at once. It must be resolved in small chunks. Baby steps, if you will. (You will.)

I think the restlessness might be growing pains, the terror of assuming responsibility for everything you are and the desire to have the fullest life possible. I spent most of last year working on my own perception of myself, and I think that beautifully positive pseudo-metamorphosis is causing me to reach for more and question the path I’ve found myself on for some time now – the path of immediacy, the path of stability, the path of desperate independence. I have achieved my short-term goals: stable employment, home ownership, savings and a retirement account, and of course, my sense of self has been strengthened and renewed. Now, I want more.

I am looking for more knowledge. For more passion. For more wonderment. For new experiences. I am looking to continue the growth period and extend it – ultimately fusing the ideal of my future self into the absolute reality that is current me. I have spent the last decade learning how to live, how to be alive (here I pause to say that living and being alive are two different things, mostly), how to fully embrace myself as a human being and I think it may be time to return to my origins as a know-it-all fascinated by all things in the world around me.

It hadn’t occurred to me that it was intellectual curiosity that was missing until I sat next to a guy on a date and watched as he explained a theorem to me. I realized that I was absolutely fascinated, and even as I yawned against him, exhausted, I was desperate for more. My brain, it seems, has not forgotten what it feels like to learn. It is as though the connections that used to fire so rapidly, the very same connections I long ago set aside in favor of experience, yearn to fire again, to make sense of things, to connect.

I think this time it may be as simple as starting off in search of knowledge that will lead me where I ultimately need to go. I have built the foundation that I needed, created the security that I sought, and now I can push forward, confident in my own abilities. Perhaps I was not wrong about stumbling stubbornly in the right direction all those years ago.

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