Inspiration for this week’s post comes all the way from across the Atlantic Ocean, in New York City. Isn’t that lovely?
You see, I was feeling a certain type of way about my life this week and in my “who can I reach out to?” processing, I sent a message to a good friend there. We first met in 2006 in a dining hall in Glasgow. We were both Portuguese, from different parts of Lisbon, and were introduced by a Japanese friend whom we had both met separately a few days apart. Isn’t life and the world so wonderful in that way sometimes? The three of us would share many memories together in the years that followed, both good and bad, joyful and painful. But this Portuguese friend of mine and I were both some of the busiest people I’ve ever known with our courses, activities, work, volunteering, travelling, and going out. The type of energy that comes naturally to everyone in their early 20s where sleep is not necessarily a priority and you think, and sometimes say “I can sleep when I’m dead”. We were both quite ambitious, future-focused, and have lived in three or more countries, and share a native language and country which come with their own specific reference points.
Last week, completely unplanned and unexpectedly, I had two conversations with professional superiors about my future at work. They were wondering about my plans, goals, even dreams, and a big part of me just wanted to escape the room and avoid those conversations altogether. I’ve been telling friends recently, and I might have mentioned it here before, that I really no longer plan things too far in advance. In all honesty, I can’t think beyond the end of March right now. It’s not necessarily a conscious process, as I’m not telling myself not to think about the future, but the past year or so has really forced me to be present with many things. And since I used to spend my life running away from my past into the future, now that I have been living more in the present, there is a certain distance to both the past and the future. Perhaps, as I’m learning more about my relationship with time, I may be currently living in the extreme of the present where the future is completely erased.
And so, what those two conversations really brought up in me were the old narratives of progress and success. By that I mean, all the narratives I received and internalised from family and society about ideas of success – mostly materialistic and quantitative – and their respective deadlines. For a few days, I felt lost and slightly depressed about my life: where was it leading to, what was I achieving, why wasn’t I more successful, why couldn’t I show anything for it, what else could I do, should I study something new, should I find a new job, should I move countries, where was the next big change coming from, should I trigger a massive change in my life if nothing else happens soon, and on, and on, and on! It’s amazing, isn’t it? I was happily living in my day to day, not really making any plans about anything, living my life steadily, and then with a few external questions about the future, I suddenly felt like a complete failure, not because I haven’t accomplished anything, but because I really don’t know what I want to do with the rest of my life. And by all social standards, I feel like I should know by now. But I don’t, which then led me to question everything: do I want to be a therapist, should I change profession, am I experiencing enough joy in my life, should I be in a relationship, isn’t it time I have a boyfriend, am I really happy in London, why don’t I move, and where should I go next, do I even want to move, and on the questions went!
I messaged my friend in New York early on Saturday morning, just before I went on a long hike through the Chiltern Hills to clear my mind and spirit, because looking at her life from afar, it sometimes feels like she knows what she’s doing. But because we’re friends, I also know that this is not always the case, and so I asked her: how did you know what to do? How did you know to move from Glasgow to Vancouver, and then to New York City? How did you know the small things and the big things? HOW DID YOU DECIDE ANYTHING? I was feeling low that morning as I felt that I didn’t even know if I could make big decisions anymore. There was some desperation, but I felt that she would know how to answer. And she did. We talked about drive, and not feeling happy in places, and then I shared that I didn’t know what my next step was. That I was worried about not making enough progress. Her response to my concern about progress was amazing and made me stop and question what my own perceptions of progress and what “good enough progress” are. She first asked me if I was happy, which to be honest, I’m not sure how to answer except to say that I think I am. Perhaps something I need to explore. And then she said that progress is not just about work. That progress can happen in our personal lives, in our emotional responses to the world. That progress might show up in very small instances of our day to day lives, when no one else is looking, and no one else knows how much progress we have really made.
In directing my attention to the smaller, more qualitative aspects of my personal life, and emotional responses to the world around me, my dear friend helped me to realise that, indeed, I have made incredible progress. That, in fact, I continue to make great progress on a daily basis, on a variety of areas in my life. And that, ultimately, those bigger decisions, don’t need to be made to be that big. They can be a part of the larger picture that is my life, rather than the whole picture.