From the time we are very small we all receive a specific message: YOU NEED TO BE A THING. Pick a thing to be as early as possible and turn yourself into it. This is a very scary expectation to have to carry around all the time. It kills our souls. It’s why so many people are addicted to Xanax and painkillers.
Every time someone asks a child what they want to be when they grow up, or where a teenager is going to college and what their major will be, and every time a couple is accosted about when they are getting married, when they are having a baby, when they are having another baby? That is the world telling all these people that they need to be a thing that is expected of them or they will not be accepted.
She needs to lose weight and he needs to settle down. You should stop doing whatever brings you joy and get a corporate job where you can make ten thousand dollars a month, and you need to get married, and that girl over there needs to stop being such a slut, and that kid needs to get his shit together, and all those little kids better study hard and get high SAT scores. Buy a house. Buy a car. Buy some more stuff and stop being so weird because no one will ever like you if you are weird and you will not fit in unless YOU ARE A THING.
Being a thing is seductive because it frees you from having to think for yourself and to take the risk of creating your own experiences on your own terms. It promises to protect you from rejection. It’s why people join cults. It’s why some become zealots. They want a prescription for life, but there is no manual for life for a good reason. Life is meant to be extremely subjective. You are supposed to learn to decide for yourself in spite of the risk.
I tried to be a thing for a very long time.
In my twenties I was determined to be a wife, believing this would solve all of my problems: fear of abandonment, fear of being alone and not fitting in, insatiable need for validation, lack of confidence in my ability to care for myself, and a gaping wound in my heart because my biological father disowned me as a child.
The Universe rolled its gigantic all-seeing eyes.
So I did all the necessary work to be someone’s wife, fulfilling every single superficial criteria of wife-ness that I could come up with. I would be demure and wear pearls, cook and clean and be wholesome, looking and being a way that was in not even close to myself. I imagined a perfect engagement, wedding, honeymoon, all of it planned out in my mind with the precision and focus of a fucking military sniper, except I didn’t realize that I had the rifle pointed at my own head.
This plan was an epic fail.
But I still didn’t get the message.
I still thought I needed to be a thing and for a while, I was actually fairly successful. I was an overachiever, but deep down I was unsettled and restless and scared and the body of my spirit was covered with cuts and sores and I couldn’t figure out why because look, I was THE THING! I was finally married with a child and I had a degree and a job and I went on yearly vacations and owned property and so the only logical answer was that I was the biggest asshole on earth because I had it all and wasn’t even happy. So I hated myself more.
See the pattern? First I hated myself because I wasn’t a thing, then when I thought I was a thing, I hated myself even more for turning myself into a thing because I wasn’t being real.
The problem was never with me. The problem was always with the thing, yet I blamed myself.
The thing is an illusion. Actually, it’s worse than an illusion because illusions can often be magical and pretty. The thing is a gigantic ugly lie that most of us believe and use to reinforce, self-loathing, inadequacy and all that we are scared half to death of.
The thing is whatever arbitrary role we feel we have to cast ourselves into. It is the ideals we’ll never live up to. It is what society tells us we ought to be at the expense of authenticity and meaning. It is whatever makes us feel untrue to ourselves, left out, anxious, worried, like we can’t find our true purpose. And when we are unsure of our place in this life, we become unmoored, a little lost, a bit helpless and very, very frightened.
Finally I gave up. I could not be the thing. I would never, ever be the thing. I was not a perfect wife or mother or friend or career woman or scholar or a perfect body, or any of that. I was not a perfect anything. I was not A THING that could fit into any pre-molded ideal.
I was just me learning to be my most authentic self. Key word — LEARNING (it’s a process.)
If you feel not good enough, restless, like you want to run away from your life, as if you have some unfulfilled destiny that you can’t quite put your finger on, like you can’t make your next decision or like you haven’t found your purpose or the meaning of life — it is probably because you are trying too hard to be a thing and you are going against your nature.
I am giving you permission right now: YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A THING ANYMORE.
But I understand that letting go of these roles and expectations that are so profoundly ingrained in us from the time we are born is terrifying. We are taught that hating ourselves is normal, good even, so you’re probably going to hate yourself for first succumbing to the thing, and for trying to shed the thing. Forgive yourself. We all do it. We’re evolutionarily hardwired to want to fit in with the pack for protection so when we go against the grain we freak the hell out until we get used to it.
It’s safe to be different. It’s safe to wander a winding path. It’s often a good idea to step off the path and ramble around in the wilderness a little.
The purpose of life is not to follow a narrow trajectory. It is not to check off a chronologically ordered, alphabetical list of goals.
You will never, ever find the true meaning of life if you define yourself by achievement, titles, career, your place in society or your relationships to other people. You are not an actor who has to take the stage every day in a costume and brilliantly play the role and convincingly recite the lines of the stereotypically perfect son, employee, entrepreneur, cool girl, sorority sister, junior league president, student, or any of it.
Do things, but don’t define yourself by them. Do the things that you feel like doing (within reason, obviously, don’t hurt others or yourself), instead of the things you think you are obligated to do in order to find acceptance and please others.
Your work, your love, your fun, your friends, your clothes, your marriage, your parenting, your anything doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. AT ALL. EVER. And if you redefine all of these roles on your own terms in a way that works for you and makes you happy, you’re doing it right, regardless of what any asshole has to say about it.
Do you want to know what your purpose in life is?
Create. Recreate. Make things. See old things in new ways. Shed expectations. Embrace all the experiences, even the ones that suck. Accept. Find your own joy even if it’s weird and even if it’s ordinary. Love. Love a lot. Make the world a teensy bit better in any way you can find. Understand that there is no action too small. Say yes. Or also no. Seek out meaningful human interaction every single day. Learn about things that interest you. Listen to birds and ocean waves, to the voices of your loved ones and their stories and the sound of your children breathing as they sleep. Eat good things and move a lot and go outside. Practice patience. Teach yourself not to be afraid (this is hard, I know). Get over stuff. Break the habit of trying to overanalyze every little thing and predict the future. Celebrate. Do this often. Laugh and sing and explore and be curious and wear whatever you want and don’t worry that you’re too loud or too ugly and that no one will ever love you. Smile when you feel stupid. Lie on the ground, press your palm against your heart, jump into cold water. Be alive, even when it hurts.