Learning How We Live
We live in a day and age where everything is calculated and quantified. We have set goals for a future laid out for us: doctor, lawyer, and scientist. Where is the individuality in that? How do we find ourselves truly dreaming of a life based not on money but on the hopes of being happy? Our understanding of ourselves through maturity is something that we all strive for but are rarely aware of. Sometimes we need a life-changing event to push us to really reflect upon our life and create goals that our based not on what makes us wealthy but instead what makes us happy. Our anxiety of our ambiguous future causes us to lose ourselves in our minds and go through thought processes that lead to nothing but confusion and passivity. We feel alone in our dreams, and our fears of accomplishing them cannot be pacified if we face them alone.
The story of my life at home this past semester is not meant to bring any new insight into life that will change the way you see it and face it. The story will instead remind you that you are not alone in your fear and uncertainty of reaching the life that will make you truly happy.
Family issues affected my school life, and I inevitably had to stay home from Grinnell this fall semester. I was profoundly pissed about my situation and went through an introspective Jack Kerouac-esque journey where I would read random classic literature by a creek. Granted, the creek was man-made and it was near a bougie-shopping plaza. It was the kind of bougieness that was exemplified by a Starbucks next to a grocery store with another Starbucks inside it. By the creek, I read and read until I realized what I was reading was getting me depressed, and I nearly devolved into an existential crisis. I wasn’t reading because I actually enjoyed it. I was reading instead to feel a level of intellectual importance that made me feel special.
My elderly neighbor thankfully prevented me from reaching the unstable stage of walking a thousand miles to experience “real” America. She was a sweet elderly woman with a warm smile and short hair. She spent her days painting, reading, and listening to smooth jazz with a glass of wine and a can of Diet Coke by her side. Sometimes she would take random classes at a local community college and say that her reason was, “I got bored.”
During my crisis she started casually offering me housework jobs. I pulled out the weeds in her garden and took off the wallpaper in her bedroom very well knowing I had no idea what the fuck I was doing. After every day’s work, she and I would drink Diet Cokes and she would tell me college stories about drinking Sangria, smoking grass, and critiquing Kurt Vonnegut with her closest friends. She noticed my extended stay and gave me a Kindle and a flash drive of two thousand books, because, according to her, “I got the Kindle Fire and I don’t think Ill be able to make more than 20 dollars selling this one (which only came out 9 months ago), and I thought it would be immensely more profitable if I gave it to someone with the full confidence that they would cherish it.”
I realized that I had nothing else to with my time so I might as well gain some pride from getting into reading books without Sparknotes or pictures. I went into her reading list and at first, I was reading about twenty pages every two nights. After a couple of weeks, I was reading wherever I went and kept catching myself reflexively exclaiming “fuck” every time I reached an intensely climactic point.
I would continue to knock periodically on her door to anxiously ask about what I read, and she would give me her two cents. She eventually told me about her own crisis she had during her college years in the late 60’s. She would casually discuss how she almost reached a breakdown when she realized that she didn’t know who she was or what she wanted from life. Fortune struck her with full force, when the last couple of weeks of school before finals, right when she was about to drop out, there was a police drug raid all across campus. The school subsequently canceled finals for that semester, giving her time on campus to relax and enjoy the present with her friends.
Wild nights and heart-to-heart conversations filled her last couple of weeks of school. After this unexpected break, she found herself finally at ease. She stopped stressing about the present and took the opportunity to truly appreciate it. School taught her discipline and knowledge to plan out her future, but what she holds higher are the relationships she created.
With this example of a life’s future reaching a content state, after my semester home was drawing to a close, I started reading Mark Twain’s works, and when she found out, she chuckled and told my confused self that one of her favorite quotes from him is, “I will never let school get in the way of my education.”
Her presence in my life last semester was a glowing reminder that being happy with your life at its finish is possible. However, being home was such a surreal experience. I was set back to what I was used to: same people, same parties, same conversations. But something was not the same: me. It didn’t feel like I changed location from Grinnell. It felt like I was going back to the past. College felt like the next stage of my life and home felt like revisiting a dry chrysalis.
Old friends in high school who were still around seemed distant. One of them was a waiter at a local restaurant. Bless his heart, he was one of the funniest people I knew and one of the most down to earth people you could ever meet. Something felt different, though. He talked the same way we did in high school. He had the same naïve opinions about girls and people, and he had the same mentality of acting cool to climb a social ladder that stopped existing after graduation. He told me a story that exemplifies how easily shit gets real in life.
He started hooking up with a waitress at the restaurant he worked at. That was casual for a month, until he got her pregnant. They agreed that having the baby was a bad idea and scheduled an abortion. After that, they continued hooking up and here is where the story takes a turn. After the abortion, they continued to hook up for a couple months more, until one day he realized that she was not taking birth control and not having her period. He brought this up with her and she admitted that she never got the abortion because her parents would not let her.
Apparently the bar required 18 and above employees, so with that in place, she lied on her application and stated that she was 20 when she was actually 16. She needed parental permission. She told him that her parents wanted to talk to him because they, as her guardians, are requiring him to be there for the child or they will file statutory rape charges. After this, his life took a turn for the worse.
He gained a lot of weight and got heavily addicted to painkillers and cigarettes. Seeing that version of him when the last one was he back in his prime. Hearing his story hit me with some intense perspective. Seeing the present in his disillusioned eyes while remembering the past, I realized how life could change so quickly and the way you see the world one year can completely change the next.
Coming back to Grinnell was blissful. Being back really reminded me of the sort of friendships and relationships I made and how they still feel intact after such a long period of time apart. Everyone in my year seemed so much more content and confident with Grinnell. People had their friend groups, but for some reason when it came down to important nights and lazy days, we all seamlessly converge.
That did not come without its troubles, though. I noticed every one of my friends is going through some form of shit. Every party I was at always included an outside slurred conversation with a friend who would just let out their heart and problems to me. I would wake up the next day and always think about what he or she had told me. They would remember too, and we began having talks about life during the week. Somehow I started realizing that confiding in people was transforming into the very motivational support I needed to pursue the fulfilled life that I want.
An article to me is not the best way to convey something that comes from the heart. For the best result, I want you to imagine these words coming from the mouth of your friend during one of those well-known drunken heart-to heart conversations. Those conversations of pure un-inhibition bring out our true selves, where we are ready to spill our guts to each other. You have moments when you realize that you may not be alone with your thoughts of the world and life. You have moments when you realize that everyone has a story to tell and that though no one knows everything, everyone has something to learn and everyone has something to teach. You have moments when you realize that everyone is going through some form of shit. I recently had moments when I looked back to the past and tried to look into my future. I was left with one conclusion: humans can learn from each other in ways infinitely better than a grade.
Though it may be hard to maintain your sense of self with the possibility of judgment and exclusion, realize that there are seven billion people in this world—the only thing that makes you distinct is the journey you take to discover what kind of person you are and what kind of person you want to be. At the end of the day, you are not the center of the world. Every face you see in the classroom, streets, and home is the main character of their own hero’s journey, where you are a cameo or, if you’re lucky, a supporting role.
So as we stand outside of a party, arms around each other’s shoulders, we remind ourselves of our similarities and distinctions, and that to me is one of the greatest things Grinnell has to offer. Get out of your head and appreciate getting into someone else’s. Once we realize that everyone’s life involves going through some kind of shit, shit gets less shitty.