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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

At 30

For a while, there was one moment in my life that I pinpointed as the happiest. I was a senior in high school, driving home from a party with a couple of my best friends. We were listening to Comptine d'un autre été from the Amélie soundtrack, and as we drove, I could see the moon through the sunroof, disappearing and reappearing from the trees above. I felt enshrouded in friendship and deeply content.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I was driving back from Baltimore to DC on a sunny day, feeling content, when I flashed back to that earlier drive, that formerly happiest moment. "Wow," I thought. "I had no idea then how much better it would get."

I had had many happiest moments between those two, but I wasn't thinking of any in particular. I wasn't at a particular pinnacle - I was still flopping around and applying to jobs. The party the night before and the brunch that morning had been fun, but not life-changing - so why was I so happy?

On one level, it was just the basic pleasure of adulthood (a Bloody Mary, yelling above the music as I was introduced to new people). But underneath that was the even greater pleasure of autonomy. The realization, as I drove, that I was steering the ship that had brought me to this moment.

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The story of my 20s has been the story of learning how to choose.

In my senior year of college, while I was writing my thesis and trying not to think about what I would do after graduation, my procrastination method of choice was to read Mormon mommy blogs, which were in their heyday at the time. (Because everything on the Internet exists forever, it was this article that led me to my favorites.)

The bloggers' lives seemed... easy. Not just because they didn't need to write a thesis or find a job, but because their belief system made clear which path they should value and pursue - marriage and motherhood. They didn't really have to choose. There was a clear metric by which they could succeed. I didn't actually want to get married or have kids right out of college, and I knew intellectually that a life with fewer choices was not something to envy - but I was jealous of what seemed like a simpler path.

I hated choosing. In my senior year of high school, I agonized over where to go to college - to the point that I stood at the post office on the day of the deadline with two envelopes in hand. There was a ton of tears and suffering for everyone around me. (I remember sobbing to my college counselor: "this is going to affect who I marry!") My life up till then had been all possibility and few real choices. It was the first time I could see the paths branching ahead of me and realized going down one meant losing all the possibilities of the others.

In my early 20s, as I worked at my first real job and jetted between DC and North Africa and found my first real hobbies and worried about what I should do for grad school, there was a trail of bread crumbs. A sermon from Reverend Hardies at All Souls Unitarian about choice - the first time I'd heard a religious leader speak about "choice" without meaning "abortion." A poster I bought with the Harry Potter quote "It is our choices that define us far more than our abilities." A spirituality retreat at my alma mater where a nun spoke about developing our "choicefulness."

In 2015, I decorated a card every day and I applied to PhD programs. The cards came to include a number of pep talks and mantras as I worked through that overwhelming process. One of my favorites read "learn to let the future excite and not terrify you," which felt like a tall order at the time. How could I choose one out of so many possible paths?

And then I got rejected from most of the programs I applied to. It felt like my most spectacular failure to date. But while disappointing, it was also a turning point. I had tried something and it hadn't worked - but life had gone on and now I had an opportunity to try something new. The future started to excite me a little more and terrify me a little less.

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Since then, I choose to defer grad school and instead headed to southern Turkey to work on democracy programs in Syria, while my boyfriend started law school in Cambridge. I chose to pursue a Masters in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and to spend a summer interning in agricultural development in Bangladesh. I chose to get excited about living in Cleveland but to go on an adventure in Liberia first.

And along the way, I have become more choiceful. I have developed a much greater ability to check with my gut on what I want to do. I have learned that if something is not the right fit, I can backtrack and pivot - decisions are rarely final. And I have realized that none of the paths branching in front of me is necessarily better or worse than the others - each offers its own adventure. (I mean, I'm sure one of the million paths leads to a Nobel Prize and another leads to destitution, but you know what I mean.)

It has helped that as you get older, the paths naturally get winnowed down. And decisions still stress me out, probably more than most people. (Just ask any of the ten people with whom I consulted about whether to evacuate Liberia during the pandemic.) But alongside the stress, there is the thrill of charting my own course. And so far, life keeps getting better and better. It keeps rolling right on.

I think back on all the experiences I've had over the last ten years - things I couldn't have imagined at 20 - and I get excited about all the future happenings I can't imagine today, all the different twists and turns my path may take, all the different experiences my life can expand to include. 

Steering this ship feels scary at times. But - much more than Bloody Marys or international travel - it is also far more fulfilling than I had imagined.  

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