Here’s another guest-post from Commander Logic, who has posted here on the topics of long-held virginity, Game-of-Thrones-and-Tits, and finding your people and your place. She was recently seen plying friends with hot stew and beer during an epic showing of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.*
It’s my 35th birthday today, so I wonder if you could gift me with your wit and wisdom?
I’m basically feeling stuck. After Uni I struggled and worked crazy hours in the type of liberal arts work I really enjoyed, but which is very badly paid and very busy, and meant I was constantly moving around, barely making ends meet and staying in shared flats with bad heating and volatile hot water supply, although mostly great company. Things getting better was always just around the corner, but it seemed that things were moving up and I’d get a stable job surely, one of those days.
Now, the last job I had turned into what I slowly realized was a two-year bullying marathon. In terms of the work I did, I got results that were recognized – by peers outside, not within the institution – but it left me utterly exhausted, listless and unemployed 7 months ago.
Basically, I feel like I am back to zero. I am in a new country, I need to get a job, a flat, and hopefully a bunch of good friends around me. I’ve not had a regular relationship ever. For the last months, I have felt,melodramatically, crushed, or rather immobile. I do make sure to take care of myself, doing exercise, eating decent food, keeping in touch with friends and family, going out as much as possible to meet new people and not shut myself in. I also look at the job openings every morning, and I do apply for jobs. I’ve done a bunch of unpaid stuff to keep somewhat connected to ‘my field.’
Money’s running out, and for the first time since I turned 18, I am dependent on my family but I can’t be for much longer… It’s kind of hard to keep feeling ok. And my first reaction, alas, is insomnia, which makes me even more prone to sluggish anxious mornings and a defeatist outlook. I’ve always been kind of shy, and – I digress – I’ve never learned how to wear make-up or a suit, and I tend to feel like I can’t look to ‘fit in’.
I just wonder how to get the energy to do something. I’ve not felt this unmotivated, and down on me and the future before, I’ve always had enthusiasm and projects and energy, and I am kind of disturbed by my current passivity and lack of energy. I’d also really not like to go back to working all the time, and maybe start to explore the having sex with other people thing a bit (sounding like the shy wee girl that makes me feel like…).
So, if you could give me some idea, that would be brilliant or awesome or lovely indeed,
Hey there, Feeling Stuck.
First, I hope you’ll forgive us for missing your birthday, and I hope you’ll also forgive me for ruthlessly editing down your question. I did read all of it, and there are important details in there, but we’re going to deal with broad strokes. You live close up to your life, like a normal person does. Step back with me a little bit and let’s take it in.
You are doing everything right. You’ve ALWAYS done everything right.
You got a good education, you got the jobs in your field, you worked hard at those jobs. Well done! You are applying for jobs and being socially active and taking care of yourself as best you can. Good work!
But it didn’t work out like you thought it would. The jobs left you through no fault of your own. You don’t have any markers of success that you thought you’d have. You don’t have all the things you thought working hard would bring you: stability, prosperity, savings, love. That isn’t fair, right? Other people didn’t work as hard as you! Other people didn’t do the right things! You are completely right to be entirely pissed off about that! You don’t have to hide it. Be pissed off!
Life is weird and annoying for geeks like me, because it doesn’t adhere to logic a lot of the time. It’s a wild Seussian machine. We put in Hard Work and Passion and Money and expect to get back Success, when we’re just as likely to get back Failure or Wild Monkeys or Surprise Baby. The hell of it is, we are told by the culture, our parents, ourselves, that Life is a logical machine. Now, sure, it’s really rare to put Nothing into the machine and get Success back from it, so it makes sense to load the machine with good stuff, but sometimes it’s just going to shoot out a giraffe at you.
So, here you are, with your giraffe.
You’re in a new country, supported by your family, working for free, and getting nowhere fast in your job search. You don’t know if you want to stay on the same career path. You want to have sex and/or a relationship with people (maybe).
I’m going to suggest something that’s going to sound counter-intuitive: Take a major break. Let’s say three weeks.
Do not search for a job. Do not work, even for free. Do not look for a new flat. Do nothing to change your situation at ALL. Just be.
As an active person myself, I can feel your rising panic from here. “BUT WHAT WILL I DO!?!?! About money! About food! About the future!” Nothing. You’ve spent the past 35 years working really, really hard for… what? Even though you’ve been unemployed for seven months, your letter tells me that you’ve been striving mightily all that time. Life owes you three weeks of nothingness. Take it. Thank your family for the funding and use it to buy coffees and amazing soups. Thank your friend(s) for a few days on their guestbeds and couches and sleep safely. Take walks. Go to museums. Go to free concerts. Go to an entirely different country. Go home to your original country. Buy strangers a cup of coffee and chat. It is a 35th birthday gift to you from the universe.
Because you didn’t ask how to get a new job. You didn’t ask how to make friends or lovers. You know how to do all that. You asked how to get the energy to want to do something, and the answer for you, for now, is to stop worrying about how to do things. Do nothing.
It can be absolutely terrifying to be so free.
Humans, on the whole, tend to be at their worst when there isn’t any structure. If you can be or do ANYTHING you want, how do you ever choose? So even though life is much more open now, and that’s a good thing, we cling to meta-narratives ever more tenaciously. Meta-narrative? Oh, you know, the rules. The story of how a Good Life goes: do well in school, get good grades, get good job, work hard at job, find love, get married, make babies, live happy, then die. There are cultural differences and filigrees, of course. For example, Feeling Stuck, your family’s meta-narrative includes: get arrested for civil disobedience and be a successful activist.
Meta-narratives give us a script to follow or to rebel against, the anvil on which we pound out the contours of our own life story. Maybe the idea of following the narrative makes your shoulders go up to your ears. Maybe the idea of giving the finger to every single point makes you happy. Maybe you just kind of shrug and say, “Yeah, that sounds pretty good! With a couple of tweaks?” and that can totally work for you! But without any sort of meta-narrative to compare ourselves to, we human-type people can feel lost. Free, but lost. What I’m getting from you, Feeling Stuck, is that you are at odds with your narrative. The story hasn’t gone the way it should have gone! You’re “shoulding” all over yourself and it’s freaking you out. (For way more on “shoulding” see the Art of Manliness on this topic. It’s seriously great reading, and pretty much covers what I’m going to say next:
There is almost nothing that you have to do simply because you’re told or believe you should. Standing behind the yellow line on the bus is one of those things you have to do. Staying in a job you hate because you “owe” a friend is not. So, after your vacation from life, consider your personal narrative, and your meta-narrative, and start forming a plan, making sure that every single thing you plan to do is something that you CHOOSE to do.
And going back up to the Weird Seussian Machine thing, it’s hard! You aren’t guaranteed that you’ll get what you want in the end. But you may as well try getting whatever it is in your own way, because you are the story you tell about yourself. That story is always starting over. Start over clean.
*Extended editions, obviously.