Remember High Fidelity, where John Cusack’s character goes through a “what does it all mean” thing after a break-up? He reorganizes his entire record collection chronologically and calls all his girlfriends since junior high to try to figure out what his life is about. (I watched that movie again recently, and it's still good, in case you missed it the first time around.)
I've been going through the “what does it all mean” crisis a lot in the past few years. Partly I think this is due to major life change, but partly I think it’s my age. There are no more obvious goals to achieve! And oh, am I good at working towards a goal. If I'd been pushed too hard as a child, maybe I could blame my parents for this, but the truth is, I've been a self-motivator since about age 5, when I decided I would learn to tie my shoes on my fifth birthday.
But what do you do when there is no obvious next step to take, no new level to reach? Couple that with a few crushing life disappointments, and I feel adrift. Something feels off, and I'm just not sure what to do about it. (Accept it? That may be the answer. I'm pretty sure the exhausting pursuit of happiness is not.) There’s a whole lot of talk right now about following your life’s purpose, and while I think that’s great if you can do it, it also smacks of elitism and is eminently frustrating to those of us who have no idea what that purpose is. I'm not someone who has always dreamed of opening a restaurant but hasn't been brave enough to do it. I haven't always wished to be a writer or an artist. Aside from my fifth grade dream of going to Harvard and becoming a lawyer—which I’m pretty sure came about solely as a result of reading a whole lot of John Grisham—I’ve never had a clear idea of what I wanted to do.
About ten years ago when I was in Oregon and wrapped up in an existential crisis of the first order, my dad sent me a book written by a Buddhist nun called When Things Fall Apart. There are a lot of good bits in the book, but the one sentiment I'll never forget comes down to this: it's not that the bottom has fallen out--there never was a bottom. Not only that, but there never will be a bottom. The one certain thing in life is that there is no safety net, nothing that you can count on forever. This concept is so disturbing, I think, that people can spend their whole lives trying to prove it false. They look for financial security, for stability from long-term relationships, for a sense of purpose from being a parent. But the fact is that any one of these things can disappear at any time. The only certainty in life is uncertainty and change.
Part of the reason it’s always been hard for me to pick a passion/purpose or even to formulate a specific career goal is that the options seem unlimited. So it was encouraging to read this interview with Ian Bogost, who suggests we find meaning in the mundane tasks we’re actually doing and stop acting like everything is possible. Instead, he asks where's the play in this situation? Which I interpret to also mean, what else can be done here? How can I make this place I'm actually in more fun for me (even if that place is your backyard, and you're mowing the lawn)? What a relief to stop imagining that everything is a possibility. It seems much more achievable to instead get curious and start looking around to see what's possible where you actually are.
And since I yet again find myself in a position of not knowing what to do, I've decided to just start making things and see where it leads. Get ready for homemade Christmas presents, friends.