I turned 22 in November 2020, and by the time I did, I had spent an inordinate amount of time reading books about facing your early 20s.
Now, again, I’m 22, and none of these books accounted for a pandemic, or a broken government, or a daunting sense of global disintegration. They did offer prescriptions for resilience that were meant to stand the test of myriad stages, phases, and times, but they spoke little about social contexts.
My self-perception this year has been determined in many ways — several that I do not consciously understand yet — by the unfolding of tragic events, by my perception of other people’s perceptions about me, by all of my illusions of success and failure, and by my mission to be a little less hard on myself. As the world changes rapidly around me, my self-esteem inches in the direction of kindness lazily and with unwarranted restraint.
This year, my therapist told me to write down a list of things I’ve achieved, personally and professionally, in the last half decade — she wanted me to see myself with some semblance of rationality. For months, I refused, because humility is a mask I wear to hide my self-battering. It’s such a cringe exercise, I told her.
Well, she’s stubborn, more so than I am, so I did eventually come up with a half-hearted list. And behold — the process gave me one hell of an existential crisis.
See, as I reflect on the many ways in which I’ve spent my time, I realise that I really am happy. I’ve had the privilege of passion, of creating things that I love, of learning from brilliant people, and of exploring places and projects that stimulate me. It has been enriching and exciting and endlessly fascinating. And yet, as it turns out, all of my contentment exists within a bubble of funky sadness that I’m still trying to make sense of. And the heaviness of all of the meaningfulness of my life exists within a sense of overarching meaninglessness.
Does that make sense?
Is 22 supposed to bring with it such existential woes?
It’s hard for me to explain that I’m happy, and that yet I wonder— Why do I wake up and live every day? Why do I brush my teeth, shower, eat, work, interact with people, fulfil social obligations, worry about the future, be present, be active, take care of my physical and mental health, attempt leisure, and experience day after day after day in a broken world that I never consented to being born into? This is a question about something larger than purpose — it is a question about why purpose exists at all.
I wonder — Why does every misstep result in subsequent punishment? How can I pursue self-actualisation when I’m steeped in a culture of success-worship that is fundamentally at odds with contentment? What is the point of intellectual self-awareness when it only pushes me deeper towards confusion, which is a more palatable way of saying disgust?
All my life, I was told I’m a “too-much” person; too loud, too quiet, too blunt, too passive, too active, too anxious, too lazy, too intimidating, too strong, too weak— now all I want to do is to make myself smaller and smaller until I disappear. I want to escape or run away or disintegrate. I’m obsessed with the familiar comfort of self-criticism because I want to swallow everything that is wrong with the world and make it mine. So that everything is good and I am bad.
I understand I’m not alone in feeling like I don’t belong anywhere, and I’m beginning to understand that maybe I don’t want to. Every good thing feels like a shirt that pulls too tight on the seams, or shoes that cut into the edges of my feet. Every part of me is pulled in different directions — I want to exist on opposite ends of every spectrum; swinging wildly between them. Balance is a precarious act of averages and I am afraid of not experiencing everything to its most decadent extent.
The thing that keeps me going is the same thing that drains me, which is an enduring sense of urgency — but I don’t know towards what. To find myself? To be successful? To belong? To answer an inner call? To do good by others? Towards novelty, perfection, meaning? If I don’t know the source of this exhausting, compelling, yanking, nagging, frustrating, constant, consistent inner insistence, will I ever be able to quell it? If this is how I’m going to feel for the rest of my life, will I ever achieve contentment?
I value the truth and its pursuit but it’s starting to look so elusive. Each truth is nothing but an iteration of reality; multiple truths exist in tandem and sometimes at odds — so is the thing that I value not real? Is everything that is important to me an illusion? Does truth matter at all, is anything that holds meaning to me meaningful at all? My two most pertinent takeaways from philosophy are that (a) many thinkers were often dispirited, occasionally self-important, and not much different than the rest of us, and (b) most of us grapple with these questions — a select few, who we read, are gifted with the ability to articulate them. But no one has any answers, still.
While everything that has been said above sounds quite pensive, I think I’m at the precipice of understanding the importance of levity. And of injecting meaning into whatever it is that I enjoy, simply and with care. Purpose, after all, may not be an imposing presence in my life, but the thing that makes the smallest of my day-to-day actions matter. Not life-changing achievements. Not big changes. Only the act of tending to a single flower that blooms and dies, every day, until the end of time.