All through college I had this mantra, a gift from a friend, that “College is the time to be Selfish.” If you were reading things here back then you remember, right? And boy, did I try. I was decidedly single. I traveled from place to place, careful never to drop down roots, sucking down food, wine, and experiences faster than the ink stamps in my passport could dry. I gave up running everything at my school and settled for a year-long vice-president position and the acting chair of etiquette in my peer group. And at the end, I graduated and found I had become this shell of a person, so starved for real meaning and connection, and so over-saturated with melodrama and the search for meaning that it took a year of undoing to recognize my own reflection again. Excellent, Check, Life lesson learned.
Then I moved to New York, made new friends, and decided that my new self needed to jump back into things, and that I desperately needed to connect with other people to find meaning. That’s a literary truth, right? That kid in Into the Wild went off into the wilderness trying to learn it, and just about every English teacher I’ve ever had has tried to teach it to me. So I did, and things were unbelievably incredible, and anyone who saw me back at home at Christmas remembers sun shining out of my ass. Self actualization–hoorah!
But then it was January, and it was cold and dark and suddenly, the honeymoon was over. You may have inferred this, as I have been avoiding you, which is essentially because I have been avoiding me, which has been really difficult and thus miserable as I have been holed up all winter with myself various in small New York apartments and recreational establishments. So what has been going on??? I’ve been seeing people, starting to plan more events, and continuing to develop at work. Why do I feel like I did in college, and why do I feel so empty inside? I’m connected, I’m connected, oh God I’m connected with people every SECOND in this city so what on Earth is the problem?!? Some reflection has caused me to go back, recalling those collegiate days, and fumbling through the lessons I learned, hoping that I had just missed one.
I did. But ironically, it was the one that I was trying to earn the whole time–the one about selfishness. But that was my mantra! But that was what I kept in mind in everything I did! How could I not have learned the lesson I knew from freshman year I needed to learn! Well that’s just it. The part of selfishness I was missing, the valuable part, was the happiness. True to form, I was so eager to learn the lesson, that selfishness was lonely and unfulfilling, that I subconsciously sabotaged my own experiment, peppering it with discontentment, setting myself up to reach the end and say “Golly gee, I feel so dissatisfied. Time to go back to unfailing optimism and endless altruism!”
I started to suspect this might be a problem during my job search last year. Agencies I interviewed with, both to demonstrate their fun-loving work environment and also to secretly test whether your offline personality would flow freely under the influence with your peers, often asked what I liked to do in my free time. What my hobbies were. What I like to do when I’m not working or doing anything for anyone else. I had some answer of course, but I always felt like I had to force it. Every other question in my interviews came to me naturally, but I actually had to prepare to answer questions about what I like to do in my spare time. About what I enjoy. About what I do for me. Seems a little backwards, I thought, but I tabled that issue, recognizing I had things like gainful employment to be focusing on. But of course, it came back.
Ok, so the obvious answer to this question is that I should join a club or just start doing things. Take an underwater-basketweaving class. Join a waterpolo league. Skydive naked. Whatever. What I usually like to say I enjoy doing is planning parties, talking to and helping people, writing letters, and generally spending time with my friends. I started a bookclub with my roommate to get some intellectual stimulation, and I’m thinking about doing a team sport this summer. Everything I gravitate toward as a hobby or activity is group-oriented…because I’m an extrovert! I like people! I like lots of people all the time. I moved to New York for heaven sakes! The tricky part comes in the integration of my extroversion with this pursuit. I can’t just do things with people, because frankly, that means I end up doing things for people. That was my favorite vice, and side-step around selfishness, in college–to do something that I loved but that also helped other people. Planning sorority events. Writing letters. Spending time philosophizing about the meaning of life with my friends. All great things, but not a single one of them was just for me. And that, my friends, is how I missed my own lesson.
I must begin to find things that fulfill me, Rachel, and only me. Separate from the world around me and the world I love. But how does an extrovert go about doing that? Many extroverts struggle with the problem of differentiation, often in the form of taking advice and making decisions; frankly, growing up in a introverted household and being as unequivocally headstrong as I am, I can usually make my own decisions, and I don’t typically rely on the opinions my friends or family to a fault. What I do lack, though, is things I do just for myself. It’s not that I can’t be alone–I can, and I enjoy it. But usually I find myself running errands, crossing things off my to do list, or doing something that really is about other people–writing letters, planning a party, shopping for Christmas gifts. Going to the gym and running have helped keep my wits about me, but they are as much about conquering those impossible few pounds to give myself a chance in this city of unbelievably beautiful people. Even this blog, which I do write mainly for myself, serves as a way to communicate with my loved ones across the country and the world, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the compliments I get from people about my narrative voice.
It all comes crashing down on me every once and a while, especially in the winter when it’s dark and gray, and especially in this place where mere existence takes decidedly more work than anywhere I have ever lived (and where we get 2 hours less daylight than in Michigan, which sounds insignificant until you find yourself robbed of those two hours). This particular day we were just sitting around the apartment, cooking, discussing new cell phones, watching something on the television that didn’t involve too much thinking. His mind moves in a hundred different directions like mine, except when mine is, and then he’s as cool and as calm as ripples in the Atlantic lapping up against our island. I couldn’t stand it, the chaos and yet the mundaneness of it all, so he took me outside on a walk. It was the first sunny day, tolerably warm, in some time, and we walked through Washington Square Park, taking a seat in the basin of the inactive fountain, carving out a spot between other sunseekers like us.
I spilled it all out, spitting everything inside of me into that basin, and the sun was kind enough to dry the tears as they rolled down my cheeks. The thing is, I’ve always been a big fish in a small pond. I’m used to being one of the prettiest, one of the smartest, one of the most able to influence. I’ve never been the smartest, the prettiest, or the most powerful, but I’ve always been at the top, and in this city, I never will be. Even if I work as hard as I possibly can, I’ll never have the money, the political or family influence, or the ruthless desire to own this city. My face will probably never be on the cover of the New York Times. And I’m not just trying to be self-deprecating. There are some things in this country, and a city like this especially, that you can only get with familial connections or money as a result of unbelievable self-sacrifice. As Mike, my new therapist says, I could find something that I am really good at and sell my soul to it and become incredibly successful and incredibly rich and maneuver into a position of power here, but frankly, I’m just too well adjusted to give up my life and the people I love just to make my name mean something. So sometimes I wonder why I moved here, to this place where I will never be as awesome as I could have been somewhere else. He thought for a moment, taking in the sun and rubbing his hand gently up and down my back. I understand that feeling, he said, and I felt the same way too when I first moved here. But what I really value about living here is that it’s forced me to learn how to be satisfied with being awesome just for me. So maybe you’ll never run this town, but maybe while you’re here you can learn to be happy with yourself for yourself, not because it has anything to do with anybody else.
This city is a great place to lose yourself, but it’s also a great place to find yourself, because there’s no way that you can worry about everyone here. You can’t worry about being as good as all of them (or better, somehow), and you can’t worry about helping them all. And once you’ve got those two things off the table, all you can do is worry about you. Perhaps it’s a little late for a New Year’s resolution, but that’s what I want to do this year. I want to find things I can do (and that I enjoy!) for me and me alone, and I want to begin to learn who I am. When no one is watching, when no one is sleeping beside me, when I’m not trying do anything for anyone else. And not because I want to learn a lesson, but because I want to be happy.