A Messy World

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We live in a messy world. It’s confusing and exhausting, and at times, it wears me down to my core.

I’d say the past year and a half has been the hardest time of my life. My mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis shook me harder than anything I’ve ever experienced. My father’s withdrawal from reality didn’t help. I’ve spent more time curled up under the covers watching marathons of Friends than I’d like to admit. But my troubles, while earth-shattering to me, are not that uncommon. They are a part of the balance, the ebb and flow that breaks down our spirit and builds it back up.

This balance is what buoys us and keeps us going. While I hesitate to label this as fate and proceed to claim that the universe has a plan for us all, I am a great deal more comfortable suggesting that the universe provides nudges to usher us in the right direction when we need it. This is preferable to a plan because nudges present us with decisions, which we are responsible for acting upon.

This, however, does not mean that these decisions are not incredibly difficult. They are messy and exhausting, as well. Yet, they are necessary in helping us find our way.

Last September, I found myself sinking amidst the impossible bureaucratic demands recently placed on the middle school at which I worked. The demands had been increasing with each school year, but this year it was as if politicians were designing the curriculum. Nothing made sense. The testing demands on teachers and students were suffocating. The accountability placed on teachers was crushing. What formerly had been a place of learning and joy, transformed into a rigid series of assessments executed on archaic and unreliable technology. As student and teacher morale slipped, my sense of purpose slipped along with it. I lost myself for a while because what I was being forced to teach wasn’t valuable to the students. And it seemed that every time I rallied, policy makers instituted more restrictions.

I was drowning.

In a prior post, I mentioned a similar experience in which I felt as though I was drowning, and my involuntary action was to take a breath—because that’s what I needed most to get me through the moment.

Well, the universe offered me a lot more than a breath in this instance. For, on one of my lowest days, a friend called out of the blue to inform me of a teaching position at the high school level. Now, you can doubt fate all you want, but I refuse to deny that the universe was doing some serious nudging in this case.

Even at the time, I knew it was one of those life-altering decisions that determine the course of your future. But that fact didn’t make it one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

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No, what made it so was that taking the position meant I was leaving during the school year. I had to say goodbye to all of my current classes. I had to face the disappointment of my administrators, coworkers, and students. I had to accept that I was burning bridges in a world where job security is sacred.

Then, I had to get up before the sun, drive a distance, feel like the new kid on campus, and wait weeks for a new group of students to accept me.

I complained a lot. I cried a lot. I doubted myself even more.

It took me a really long time to realize and embrace the change as the right decision. Now, I know that it was undoubtedly the right thing to do. I have found myself again because of the people I met and the opportunities I’ve been given at this new school. I know this is the path I’m supposed to be on right now, but it doesn’t change how difficult it was to alter my direction from what was familiar.

The other day, a friend, who supported me all along the way, admitted that if we could go back and do it over again, she’d tell me to stay at the middle school. While I was irritated with her statement, her heart was in the right place. She just wanted to shelter me from the frustration and doubt.

I regret that I didn’t have the right words then. Because if I did, I would have told her that life is messy and exhausting, but we can’t ignore the opportunities presented to us. Those opportunities, while truly difficult, have the potential to be incredibly rewarding.

It would be particularly tidy if I could conclude with a “happily ever after” sentiment here. But we all know life doesn’t work that way. My mother’s struggle still clouds the future, I still don’t know how to relate to my dad, and I continue to worry that I’m not accomplishing enough as a writer, but if I pay attention to life’s “nudges” and embrace the messiness that comes with them, I believe I’ll find a way.

 

Part II: A Shift toward Contentment.

Previously, I discussed my belief that the Millennial Generation had drifted away from the workaholic principles endorsed by prior generations. While I compared the experience to that of Hemingway’s Lost Generation, I was hesitant to judge the moral implications of the shift.

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I continue to struggle with drawing any particular conclusions as to whether this unmooring is predominantly positive or negative; however, I can claim that a shift toward contentment, or rather the pursuit of it, is evident.

You see, I believe there is a distinction between a former belief that you have to work hard and sacrifice to have everything you want and the newly developing belief that you should work in order to have enough and then be content with having enough. Of course, “enough” varies amongst individuals, but for the most part, Millennials seem as though they are willing to dream big but be content with less. Putting such ideas into black and white always has a particularly sobering effect, and I can’t ignore the fact that dreaming big and settling for less sounds like the idealistic equivalent of failure in American society.

It’s no wonder; contentment goes against everything our country has come to represent. “The pursuit of happiness” might very well be amended to read “the pursuit of happiness through material possessions and tokens of power and influence.”

We’re surrounded by the idea that if we don’t have it all, then we’re inferior or unsuccessful. Beyond that, our culture suggests that if we don’t work our way up to the top of our profession, then we have failed to maximize our potential. And while a portion of my brain calmly asserts that I want no part of the upper rungs of education administration, the other section of my brain—the one ingrained with consumer-based, American ideals—warns that I’ll feel unfulfilled if I don’t ascend the professional ladder.

Undoubtedly, the nagging need for achievement still runs through our blood, but Millennials are beginning to change the definition of what constitutes success. Instead of wealth and power, fulfilling relationships and profound artistic expression have become the meter of success for many members of this generation. Of course, this is not true for everyone. Yet, I find it interesting that this kind of shift has taken root on a noticeable level.

To qualify, Millennials are not hippies and do value material possessions, but the shift from “abundance” to “enough” represents a significant change in worldview. This is likely a result of a struggling economy and the increasing gap between the upper and middle classes. You might say that members of this generation have been forced into being more realistic about their financial futures.

Before the 2008 market crash, there was still the illusion that a college degree equaled an entry-level position in the field of your choice and unlimited opportunities to climb your way to the top floor, corner office. After the crash, the majority of those entry-level positions were filled by long-time professionals, and recent graduates were forced to return home to regroup.

Some looked for answers in graduate school. Others relentlessly submitted résumés and interviewed. Some returned to their part-time service jobs. But many reevaluated their thoughts about the job market into which they were attempting to enter.

Strangely enough, while Millennials were waiting for the economy and their financial prospects to bounce back, they read, traveled, formed relationships, experimented with drugs, and meditated on the nature of life and happiness.

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The result?

A cohort that accepted having less and living more simply as a suitable, and possibly more fulfilling, way of life.

 

Thanks for following up with Part II of this multi-volume exploration! Check back for a critical look at the progression of societal contentment in Part III!

Breathe

It’s amazing how a single, deep breath can bring you back to yourself.

Of course, it often takes a great deal more than a single breath to pull us from the far-reaching voids into which life casts us. At times, it feels as though there is not enough oxygen to sustain us.

Today, fortunately, a single deep breath was enough. And while simplicity, my word of the year, pings around in my mind, I can’t readily admit that my single breath was a conscious effort to simplify all the overwhelming emotions and frustrations battling in my brain. Honestly, it felt much more like an instinctive response that had little to do with the philosophical part of my brain and much more to do with making it through that moment. A primal urge, you might call it. I was emotionally drowning, and my body’s physical response was to take a breath.

Hmm.

It’s difficult to ignore that this instinctive response was so simple. No, it didn’t fix any of my problems, and it didn’t soothe any of my heartaches, but for a moment it made them bearable. And while this in itself was no long-term solution, it gave me a moment of reprieve before I had to take on the next struggle.

Ideally, this would be the place where I deliver my new-found wisdom on how simplicity has helped me handle my fears and find a sense of peace. But illness and its threat of loss still loom, leaving an icy chill even on the most beautiful of days. Professional doubts still cloud my efforts to make the right decision. Debt, an oncoming depression, still weighs down, too heavy to shake. Feelings of inadequacy, still splatter down in giant droplets…sister, daughter, wife, friend, teacher, writer… How can I do more? Be more?

Even now, all I can do is breathe… one long breath at a time.

To what end? I ask myself. What is the true value of these ephemeral reprieves, these minuscule instruments of survival?

Yet, these simple breaths are of great consequence; for they keep me going until I can make it home.

Home. Where, wrapped up in my husband’s arms, I find safety and support. Where, warmed by my mother’s woven throw, I find comfort. Where I am reminded of those who love and support me through life’s storms.

These reminders, simple gestures and memories, pieced together with deep breaths are what create the canopy that protects me from the onslaught of the storm. I must still weather the hardships, but not without shelter.

So the next time my world is threatened with a deluge, first I’ll take a breath…you know…so I can run for cover.

Part I: Another Lost Generation?

After committing so wholeheartedly to embracing simplicity, I found it particularly intriguing that today a co-worker described her own practice of choosing a single word on which to focus as a yearly resolution. She gave examples of “grace,” “patience,” and “selflessness” as previous selections chosen to help guide her years. Despite her welcoming disposition, I didn’t mention my own embrace of “simplicity.” Why? Honestly, it just seemed selfish in comparison to her selections. Whereas her words were designed to promote personal growth, “simplicity” seemed to suggest the opposite, as if I were streamlining or reducing the components of my life.

I think this begs the question: is it selfish or shortsighted to simplify your life? Of course, I don’t think that’s the case when we’re applying this idea to material possessions, but maybe it could be when applied to human connections or professional advancement. If we are drawing into ourselves and those closest to us, are we setting ourselves up to miss important connections or experiences? Should we be reaching out instead of pulling in?

This brings me to a topic of great interest to me: the philosophical shift of the Millennial Generation.

However, before I can properly explore our current forward progression, I’d like to start by looking back at a previous generational shift…that of the Lost Generation.

It’s easy to understand why Hemingway’s cohort was so disillusioned with this world. They had seen horrible atrocities in which humans were decimated by the masses, all for the sake of war. They saw an utter disregard for life that made them question humanity and its intent. As a result, they tried to simplify their lives by focusing on good food, drink, and company. They cast off the mechanized world and focused on art and conversation. Idealistically, these simplified lives contributed to their renown as great artists and writers, but realistically, these simplified lives further untethered them, thereby producing a generation adrift.

Curiously, the Millennial Generation seems to be following in their footsteps. For not only has this cohort seen the dazzling possibilities of human ingenuity, they have also born witness to acts of unspeakable terrorism, a corrupt and stagnant government, and the collapse of a market that promised them the world. As a result, the majority of Millennials have struggled to find employment in their area of study, to keep steady employment, and to embrace the cutthroat capitalist ideologies that seem to drive America’s economy. Increasingly, we are seeing a generation that is accepting mediocre jobs, favoring family over work, and taking advantage of allotted vacation days. This mindset, while not altogether unhealthy, is sharply at odds with the traditional American work ethic.

Technology has further complicated the market by eliminating the need for various job sectors and creating jobs no one knew to expect or for which to prepare. This has contributed to a large population of Millennials uncertain about their desired profession and seemingly adrift in society. For these individuals see the mass potential of a surging capitalist society, but they find themselves overwhelmed by the shortsighted embrace of consumerism at the cost of personal welfare.

While it can be argued that this generation is not altogether lost, I do believe they are adrift in society and continuing to search for a new ideology, befitting of our increasingly-complicated world. Is simplicity the answer? I don’t know. It’s only January 6th, and I have a whole year left to try it out.

This is Part I of a multi-volume exploration of the Millennial Philosophical shift. Please check back for Part II!