Sunday, November 2, 2008

lives are hard

I have this friend who refers to herself as the manchurian grad student because she is freakishly obedient when told to do something a certain way—usually having to do with the actual mechanical processes of academia and not the content she works with, thank god. I, on the other hand, am almost willfully disobedient. The quickest way to get me to do something? Tell me to do the opposite of what you want me to do. I swear it's (not always) a conscious effort to be a jerk or anything. I am just not very good at being told what to do. At all.

But sometimes I do what I'm told and it works out. For example, the early 2000s were kind of crappy for me. In 2003 I was trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my life. Why yes, that was the year I turned 30. Anyway, as you can imagine, conversations between my best friend and myself went something like this (ad infinitum): "What am I doing? This doesn't seem like enough. Is this it? Shouldn't I be doing more?" Ok, that's not so much a conversation as it was the stuff that I was stuck on and would repeat over and over because there was no real answer (because really? What do you say to that?)

Finally, one day she sent me an e-mail, and at the beginning it said "I think you should read this email, keep it and refer back to it when needed." I have done that—and it's kind of amazing that I haven't mangled the file in the last five years—and today was one of those days I had to refer back to it, as needed. This is one of the only things I've done because I was told to do it—unlike my manchurian grad student friend.

The e-mail has a quotation in it, and it's actually one of those quotations from The Big Book of Quotations for All Times or some such—in other words, not somewhere I'd typically go for some life-affirming piece of text (I usually get those from Emerson). Anyway, we were talking about understanding where and how you fit in the world and just making peace with it. The quotation goes like this: "The purpose of life is not to be happy - but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make a difference that you lived at all."

So that's how I try to live. I don't evaluate happy vs sad or anything like that. At least I try not to. In fact, I pretty much screwed some stuff up recently when I reached a point when I looked around and thought to myself "hey, this makes me happy." What happened next was I realized that I wasn't doing any of the things I needed to be doing to matter, to be productive, to be useful, or to make a difference. I was living for happy and not for useful and productive, and that really screwed me up.

I know a lot of people will say something like "um, you have to be happy" and I get that. I'm not saying I want to be unhappy or anything. But when "happy" is my main focus, I'm not...rightly oriented, I guess is what I mean. Off-kilter. Screwed up. So I've had to regain my focus, my plans, my productivity, and my path—both in school and in the job I still have to pay for the other life I am not actually living in. I've had to look my friends in the eye and then turn around and walk away, leaving the pure happy on the side and getting back on the track that leads me toward useful and productive. There are some times when I get to do both—be useful and productive and matter to people, and get some happy out of it, but it's really kind of messed up, I get that.

I just want to make a difference, I guess. That would be nice.