At 17, I thought I was a pretty big deal. I was working a job that grew on me over time, and allowed me to fill up the overwhelming gas tank of the green Ford-F150 I was lucky to be able to drive. I was a junior in highschool, and every facet of my social life seemed to by churning like a well oiled machine. I had a few best friends, who seemed like the sort of friends one has for life. I was in what seemed to be a functioning relationship, by high-school standards. I made the varsity football team, and was rounding up a campaign that would see me elected as Homecoming King. My family life was going smooth, and I seemed to have put myself in a rare position where the relationship between I and each of my family members was striving. I had found how life was supposed to be lived.
For some reason, I forgot to grab the cord that allowed me to play my music in the truck, so I was stuck listening to the radio on the 7 minute drive that I took 1000 times. I turned right off of the city’s main road onto a 4 lane street that led to the gated community where I spent evenings and weekends. As, what seemed like, the only good song the radio jockey would ever play came to an end, the station I was listening to took a caller. The man started rambling, and it was obvious that something in his life had upset him. As he took a breathe, to spout what seemed like the conclusion, he uttered, “Regardless of who you have with you now, or who you keep with you later, life is a journey you’ll have to take on your own.”
That stuck, like a magnet, in my prefrontal cortex and has continued to bounce around my limbic system, and, at the time, I had no idea why. At least, that was, until about 7 months later, when the foundations I built my false sense of security on crumbled. The relationship, the friendships, football, family ties, all of it severed and I found myself in a position that felt foreign: alone.
Maybe the caller was bitter, and just wanted to let out some of the internal rage. Maybe he wanted to sound philosophical, or wise. I don’t know, as I have never heard words from him since (or maybe I have, but I have no idea who he was). Regardless, I have taken apart and repieced his dialogue a million times since. Maybe he meant that putting your happiness, meaning, and sense of self in others was a recipe for disaster. That we must find meaning within, as that is the only thing that can’t be taken from us. Maybe he was drawing parallels to the Japanese philosophical idea of the self. The idea that there are three selves: one that you show to the public, one that you show to those close to you, and the one that no one but you ever sees. Maybe he meant that no matter who's around, they will never truly be with you, as they will never know that third self. Maybe he was tying his words to a sense of trust, stating that the only person who you can know is yourself, therefore you must trust yourself with all of your might, and keep a slight gap of leniency between you and others. Or, maybe he was just someone’s bitter ex and I am reading way too far into it.
I always searched for approval, for a secondary confirmation from an outside source that my path was the correct one. Normally this was my father, who would never hesitate to tell me where he thought I could realign my day to day to fit the scope of a life that he thought was ideal for me. And of course this was the case. Being young, fresh off of making foolish decisions, I had no idea the proper trajectory I should embark on, so I turned to those around me to tell me how to live. Often my father, but just as much my Step Mother and Mother as well. There was no mal-intent, just advice and guidelines as to what would constitute a good life, at least in their perspective.
Decisions had startlingly real consequences once I became an adult, and the fear of those outcomes forced me to put the responsibility on others. I would allow others to right my ship on a course towards (college, career, relationships, etc). Then, once I found myself too far from shore, the panic and realization that I did not like this journey would set in, and I would made a haste decision to turn the ship around immediately. This occured when I dropped out of college after a semester, turned down a job I’ve been working towards for two years, and countless other times. Once I reached the safety of shore, I’d turn around and seek more counsel from my elders.
This was a vicious cycle that was probably more frustrating to watch than to partake in. At the time, I levied the excuse that I was just learning what I wanted to do, but now, reflecting and looking back, I realize the truth is that I was slowly attempting to perfect my own trust in what westerners call a ‘conscience’ (some cultures call it the Inner Daimon).
It is truly a cliche, one that young people love to use as an excuse for whatever poor decisions that have just been made, to usually regurgitate the lines of: “Follow Your Heart”, or “Do what makes you happy.” This is both a vast understatement of appropriate decision making that will lead us down a path where responsibility is abdicated, and a perfect representation of trusting your guiding will to lead you through the rocky shores. We never know what is best for us, the same way that nobody else can ever truly know what is best for them. Decisions don’t go up or down, they splinter in a million directions with a million possible outcomes. One can try their best to predict the trajectory of a decision, but there is no accurate science here. What may seem like a “no brainer” at the time, can lead us down a path of vice, and what may seem like a “horrible decision” can instead sell our freedom and shackle us to walls that we have no intention of being on.
There must be a tight balance. Those older than you, those who have overcome their terrible decisions have knowledge to share about potential outcomes. We must take all of this that we can, as when young, we generally have no idea of true consequences. At 19, I wanted to quit my part time job at a grocery store to go work with my best friend at a metal processing plant, where the average hours per day would drastically go up, as well as the remedial physical labor. My father, in many words, laid out his argument as to why this was a bad idea. Resentfully, I listened and, now, understand that he was correct. But there is a another side. We must simultaneously listen and weigh the knowledge of our elders, while leaning in to the faith in ourselves, and letting go for a need of external approval.
Just because my father was correct on this, and other instances, does not give him a blanket pass on every decision. There has been a gut instinct that has convinced me to go against many of my father’s wishes, and these decisions have been the best I have ever made, because I made them, and I trusted myself.
I think those words spoken over the radio 7 years ago stuck to me because I had a deep understanding that, no matter what we do or where we go, we must acknowledge, accept, and take action on the idea that life is a series of decisions we must make on our own. That is why I found fascination in the man’s dialogue, because it supported the notion that despite having 1/5th of the life knowledge of any of my parents, there is truth inside of me that I must follow, for better or worse, on my own.
Following the truth that lies inside of us is a truly terrifying journey to embark on. Often, it leads us so far astray from the initial plan we laid out that we may feel guilty, angry, and/or a series of other emotions. Those around us may grow resentful, blaming you for the issues that they are facing (but really, they are blaming you for forcing the realization that they refused to follow their own truth, and now they consistently tread in a sea of regret). Following what I know to be right inside has led me across the country, in and out of jobs and relationships, and in and out of favor with my parents. It has brought me great gratitude, and an array of terrifying emotions. But I had no choice.
We often don’t have a choice. The same way that Abraham Maslow said, “If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life”, and Dr. Jordan Paterson said, “If you’re not all that you can be you will suffer more than you have to, and see will the people around you.” We will suffer externally, as the life we lead will not be one of our making, and internally as the realization and regret slowly climb up our limbic system.
Without a true choice in the matter, we must develop an insatiable trust in ourselves that we will do the thing that puts us in a situation to feel fulfilled now, while still allowing us to feel fulfilled in the future. We must have faith that the future us will make the best decisions with the information that is presented to them, and we must do this in a way that not only makes our life better, but makes life better for those around us too.
The trust will lead us down dark paths, as there is no path to enlightenment that doesn’t lead through the forest. Sometimes, when doing what we feel we must do, and living in only an array of the truth, the world will hate you, and you will have no idea why. People will chastise your decisions, pushing you into a visual representation of their own regrets. Depth and breadth in life will be deemed frowned upon, as it seems shallowness is the new norm. People will fill your time will small talk, and “bar conversations”, as the pointlessness of casual social conventions becomes evident.
There is no cliche here. No peace and love fill epitaph about how following your bliss, or passion, or (enter new buzzword here) will bring you joy. The journey to self discovery, self expression, meaning and ultimate truth is a lonely, terribly hard journey that will bring more suffering than enjoyment, but it is our only option (unless we want to live a life of consistent suffering without the meaning). To embark on it, you must first cultivate a trust in yourself. One must find the solitude of a sense of self, be willing to make the tough decisions, and pay the consequences that come with those. Maybe this is what the man on the radio meant.