Being a goal-oriented person reminds me of those bottomless fries at Red Robin: great, until it isn’t. Even at my most long-winded and tangential, I’m someone who is striving towards a point. Those who’ve attempted to spend time with me know how wont I am to ask What’s the plan? Where are we going? What time? I can be pretty laissez-faire about the journey, but only once I’m positive of its destination.
An orientation towards goals is awesome for the first twenty or so years of your life, because here in America we’ve done a good job of telling people during those years where they should be going. The days are structured around assignments and schedules, syllabi and rubrics. You’ve been told where you should be one, two, four years from now, and often you’ve also been given a roadmap to getting there. I loved that, because I never needed to participate in the decision process. Not really. I just asked What’s the plan? and then shrugged and smiled stupidly out the passenger side window as life carried me there, while I fell asleep to the comforting bumpy rhythm of that road.
I woke up from that nap alone in an abandoned parking lot in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, twenty-one years old and for the first time completely clueless as to what the plan was or where I was going. I’d cruised through the overlong tutorial section on the game of life and realized I had no idea how to play the real thing. That day, a panic set in that would stay with me for the better part of the next year as I bounced from state to state and futon to futon. Internally, I screamed out the usual clarifying questions, but no one could answer them for me and I’d never learned to answer them for myself.
I still never have. The end of that episode in my life ended when a friend’s charity landed me a job at an Internet startup company where I was paid well and got along with all of my coworkers. This coincided with the Olympic games, which lit a fire under my lethargic and oversized tuchus and saw me turning down extra helpings of glorious food from my friend’s mother and heading out for “runs” while blasting the likes of Gym Class Heroes’ “The Fighter.” Overcome with the hospitality and hope of the moment, I did something I had never before done: I established a vision for my future. I set goals for myself.
One of those goals was to become a professor. And I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I had to leave the new job instead of accepting their generous full-time offer. I had to learn and take the GRE in two months and hope the scores were high enough to get my applications through the door of worthwhile institutions. I had to figure out what those institutions were. And then I had to hope and pray that I hadn’t just made the single greatest mistake of my life. Well… maybe second greatest, after majoring in English on the cusp of the worst recession since the 1930s.
A couple months later I was able to breathe a deep sigh of relief, upon my acceptance to my top choice school, an offer wrapped in the kind of money that will make any neophyte temporarily abandon critical thinking in favor of inflated self-worth. But it wasn’t just acceptance or financial stability that made my acceptance so relieving; it was the fact that, for the foreseeable future, I was once again not responsible for driving. My school would tell me where I needed to be in one, two, four years. I’d curl up in the passenger seat and once again nod off to sleep.
And then last year I was jolted awake as the car crashed (I was, in reality, responsible for this crash, but pardon it for the metaphor) and I flew headlong through the windshield. I spent the better part of the summer in recuperation, wincing at the bandaged cuts and internal hemorrhaging, consulting with doctors and nurses to get a sense for how bad it was, how much worse it could have been, and whether I’d ever walk again. Autumn was physical therapy, and the knowledge that I needed to get back on track was hindered by the impossibility of me doing so. I wanted to accomplish too much too quickly, but life very sternly reminded me that this was going to take time.
Blame it on watching international soccer or the unseasonably warm temperatures, but December found me feeling like I was back in summer 2012. A long stretch of directionless drifting, dreams deferred and then abandoned. I was back to having no destination, and back as well to failing to choose one for myself. In a bitterly twisted way, I resented my parents for supporting me, not because I hated comfort but because I wanted to hold them responsible for not telling me where to go and what to do.
The push this time came, as in 2012, from a friend, who in this case spent a few hours with me and proceeded to tell me, lovingly if firmly, that as far as he was concerned my senses of self and purpose were nonexistent and I needed desperately to stop making excuses for my inaction and find something to live for again. He gave me a lead on a job. I followed it, swallowed my reservations, and waited to see if it would pan out.
It did. And then a second job did as well. That familiar euphoria washed over me as it had with my acceptance letter in 2013, the sense that people actually valued me and had use for my talents. They wanted me. Heck, they even wanted that English degree. And now, as if to accentuate the point, the commercials are starting to run for this summer’s Olympic games and I’ve found myself listening to “The Fighter” again.
But I haven’t won yet; I’m not yet yelling “kiss my ass.” I’m closer to Eminem’s “back to the lab again” stage than I am to tearing down “haters’” balconies. The fact that other people praising me and my resumé so impacted my self-esteem suggests I don’t honestly have much self esteem at all. And if I treat this new stage of life as yet another excuse to relinquish autonomy and leave the keys to my life in someone else’s hands, then I’m an exceptionally poor learner and we may as well skip ahead to the next time that cycle works out poorly for me.
I’m thrilled because last time I was in a place like this — reconnecting with friends, newly employed, enkindled by Olympic spirit — I used it as an opportunity to develop a vision for my future and the landmarks I wanted to hit along the road trip. I decided where I wanted to be going and then I actually took the steps necessary to get there. That side of me has been dormant for three years, but lately it has been awoken.
I know many friends and family members have been concerned (and increasingly) over these last months as I sank further and further into sullen decay. Hopefully you are relaxed and relieved to hear that that long and ugly slumber is over. Hopefully you’re excited to see where this train goes in 2016, now that the wheels are turnin’ again .
I know I am.
When you’re cut down to the bone, you bleed, but it heals. You hurt, but still you must carry on. Cuz the wheels are turnin’, the feeling’s burnin’, the thrill’s returnin’, my soul is yearning, my heart is churning, the wheels are turnin’ again.
– REO Speedwagon