"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." —James Baldwin*Why am I crafting a retelling of my post-college triumphs and letdowns? I'm not sure if it will benefit you in any way. I don't even know if many people will read this. Nonetheless, I think there's something to be learned by sharing a story. This is the longer, second part of this story that covers a long 5 months. I hope you'll bear with me. I'm learning more about myself in attempting to write this out; and in some small way, I hope that other struggling post-graduates reading this may realize that we aren't alone in our challenges.*
... Continued from The Melancholy Months, Part 1
It began on the ski slopes in January. It came full circle on those same slopes a month later.
It’s where I discovered a blooming weed in my life’s garden, and I wondered if I could find the strength to rip it up by the roots and toss it out.
I did, but it's been a long process. And first, I had to face my foil.
What do I mean by ‘foil’? No, I’m not talking about foiled (as in frustrated) plans, and I’m certainly not talking about tin foil for cooking...
Let me (re)open your literary dictionary (…you know, the one that got buried the moment freshman English in high school was over and done with): a foil in literary terms usually references two characters in a story who are strikingly opposite. This may be in appearance, personality, moral values, and so on.
As for me, I think God deliberately presented me with my own real-life foil. This person isn't my polar opposite by any means. We actually have a common moral foundation and many similar interests. After all, we’re friends.
Take me and this friend. Add my two siblings. Place us at a ski lodge on a January Saturday. It’s the perfect setting for a soul-searching confrontation, right?
“I’m so happy and content,” my friend said. We were on one of the chairlifts heading halfway up the mountain, and he'd been in Montana for about 5 months. He started talking about how much he likes being here, the interesting people he was meeting, and all the learning opportunities he was experiencing. He would only be here for a full year, yet he’d been enjoying every minute to the fullest since he’d arrived.
It was the contentment that got to me.
I wasn’t angry—if I had felt that way in the slightest, it was a static shock that disappeared in the same instant it came. I wasn’t initially sad either, though that would hit me later. No, what shocked me was the gaping hole I felt within myself. Like being doused with cold water, I was stunned—not that he was content, but that I was not.
I was upset that I hadn’t realized it until right then. I was frustrated with my life. Which is ridiculous. Which ticked me off even more. I’m only 22! It hadn’t even been a year since I graduated college. I still had all the potential in the world at my fingertips. None of that had changed. Yet the contentment I’d had a year ago had evaporated, little by little.
That first realization was followed by a rush of more revelations, though less than a minute had passed and we were still on the chairlift carrying us up the mountain. Everything I had been feeling and carrying with me in the last few months was starting to boil over.
In all of this, I had also been fighting against my own notion of feeling ‘stuck’. I dearly love the Montana community I have grown up in: the familiar, breath-taking sights; the familiar, friendly faces; the same small town quirks that become more endearing than annoying.
Yet I felt stuck because I expected to be somewhere else in the world by now (not necessarily defined by social standing or defined by an unmet career goal). I felt stuck because I thought Montana was supposed to be my refuge when I needed to escape the routine of a big-city lifestyle. I hadn’t planned on Montana being where I would start my post-grad life. Montana is home in a way that no other place on earth will ever be, if only as the place where I can step outside my door and be ready to walk straight up a mountain trail. I hadn’t expected my safe haven to become a semi-permanent residence so soon. For all Montana’s inspirational beauty and engaging rural/city culture contrasts, I thought it was more ideal state for engineers or foresters. I didn’t think it was practical for me anymore.
What was I going to do about this 'stuck' feeling? That was the overall question. Did I have an answer? Well, I didn't at that moment. At the time, I didn’t know whether I had truly hit rock bottom on an emotional level. Yet it didn’t really matter whether I had or not. This was far enough. I determined that this was far enough. I was going to change my outlook, and I knew it would be work, but I decided that I could no longer handle the alternative. Feeling depressed and discontent was no longer an acceptable option.
Many things in life are out of our control, much as we often wish it was otherwise. Life is hard. We face many challenges, and the minute we overcome one is when another crops up to take its place. If it’s not getting through high school and into college, it’s surviving/thriving in college and getting to another graduation. If it’s not applying for jobs and working up the corporate ladder to land the 'dream job,' it’s fighting to get into graduate school. If it's not searching for 'the one,' it's maintaining our current relationships with family or friends, many of them over long distances.
However, there comes a point when you realize that you're sick and tired of feeling sick and tired—physically, emotionally, spiritually. When you finally hit this point where you're knocked flat on your back, you have a choice. We all do.
1) We can sink further into despair and resign ourselves to the perceived reality that this is as good as it gets and it won't get any better...
2) We can wait for our very own 'special someone' to ride into our lives and sweep us off our feet, or hope that the universe conspires in our favor and we'll finally catch that lucky 'big break'...
3) We can work to stand up, work to brush ourselves off, and work to jump back in the race...
The problem with the first option is obvious: you choose to give up. You give up hope and you give up trying. Most of us resist this option kicking and screaming. But the truth is, when you're at your lowest low, this option is tempting. It takes serious willpower just to move an inch after falling down. Yet many of us decide that moving is too painful and we don't want to risk putting ourselves out there again—only to get kicked down again. If you're at this point and have decided not to move, I hope you at least choose to sit up and look around; the sky above may be cloudy, but how will you see the blue horizon if you refuse to look for it?
The flaw with the second option is that you're wishing things will get better and you hope you won't have to lift a finger to make them happen. You think it'll just happen. The problem is, if you have very little desire to get up off the ground, why should you expect another person, even that 'special someone,' to come along and do all the work for you? To me at least, that's unrealistic.*** As for catching that 'big break,' if you wait around in a helpless state for it to come along on its own, it'll never happen. Timing does play a role in any success, but the chances of your success story coming true is hampered if you have no daily, hard work to show that you're dedicated to your dreams.
I challenge you, as I challenge myself, to take up the third option. And it isn't easy. It's work. Daily work. Hard work. But it can be done.
When I discovered just how defeated I had been feeling, I decided that the first thing I needed was to identify what had tripped me up in the first place. Part of it was that I needed an inner attitude change—that instead of focusing on all the things I could not do, I needed to rediscover all the big and small things in my life that I could be thankful for.
I had been dwelling on how I, in my mind, had turned into 'that post-grad' who would fly back to her hometown and remain stuck there for many years to come. I was afraid I would become 'that post-grad' who never gained enough courage to pursue the career she wanted...
Really, since when did I confine myself to stereotypes?
So I couldn't fulfill my desire to travel the world just now, practically speaking. So I couldn't meet up more often with my close friends. So I didn't land my 'dream job' fresh out of college. Yet I already have so much! I have all the basic necessities at my fingertips that many people in this world must work all day long just to have for one day (food, clean water, shelter, and safety). I have a source of income. I have friends and family who love me.
It's funny... when you decide to look for all the good things in your life, you'll realize that joy truly is a bigger part of your life, yet you've let all the bad cover up those delightful moments of optimism. That's what happened to me, and it's taken me some time to rediscover that the blessings I have still outweigh the disappointments of yet-to-be fulfilled dreams. I have a lot to be thankful for, more than most people in this world.
***Note: I'm not speaking in regard to Christian salvation and our relationship with God and Jesus Christ, though the thought has crossed my mind in writing this. I touch more on this topic, using a religious lens, in a previous post.
I found my turning point when I revisited the ski slopes in February. It was that new Saturday when I found joy again. I was having a great time with my brother and our friends, and for once—I wasn't consumed with worry over my future. That day, I lived in the moment with an eye toward my goals. Since then... well, it's a continual task to find joy in each day. But if I've learned anything it's that joy can't be found unless you're looking for it.
Now, I smile when sunlight touches my face or I see someone singing to the radio in the car next to me. I laugh when my sister's dog, Foxy, greets me with such exuberance that I nearly fall over when she skids to a stop into my legs...
|Mmm, so good!!|
I began writing again—doing one small thing in the day that brings me personal enjoyment, even if it is work. I found a way to volunteer in my community, and the joy I see in a young person's accomplishments gives me great satisfaction as a mentor. I reconnect with friends, both far away and close to home. The best part is, the best ones tend to reach out and find a way to reconnect with me too, even if a lot of time has passed between greetings.
In the end, I've realized that my personal, unfulfilled dreams haven't disappeared forever. They're just untapped potential. As I realized this, and when I found a way to be thankful for all that I do have, I find it easier to pull those anxieties out of my garden. For the uncertainties of the future and for the stereotypes I've put on myself, they no longer cripple me. I cripple them. They come back to visit once in a while, a flying seed on the wind, and it takes work to toss them out of my garden again, but rip them up I do.
When I remind myself that each day is a gift of undetermined limits, then the future opens up again—bright, clean, and untouched.
I began dreaming again, and these dreams are taking root.