Resolutions. We all make them at different points in our lives. At New Year’s. On our birthdays. After formative landmark events. We look behind us and say good riddance. We look ahead and, with (usually delusional!) optimism, convince ourselves that the next round will somehow be better; that what was is finished and that what is to come will be better.
I have participated in my fair share of (delusional) optimism. I’ve held my breath as I turned metaphorical corners awaiting good fortune to rain down upon me. I didn’t think I was guilty of such starstruck imaginings, but as it turns out . . . I am. Where does it come from? Why am I waiting for next year to be better? What was wrong with this year? How did I allow myself to spend so much of my inner life on pause?
Part of the explanation lies in obvious social constructions. We live in a celebrity-obsessed world, where everything good is shiny, skinny, rich, and wrinkle-free. We admire the fabulous ones and aspire to become like them. We buy products that promise to bring us one step closer to their ideals. We believe that we can pay our way to freedom. That with just a few more dollars, or a few less calories, everything will finally fall into place. We will become the fabulous versions of ourselves we just know we are destined to be. And when the fabulous does not materialize, we tell ourselves that we just need to try harder. We make resolutions, promising ourselves that the next round will be better. We promise to exert the necessary effort, we cross our fingers, hold our breath—because it’s just around the corner.
Some people negotiate these narratives better than others. I think I have been especially susceptible, holding my breath as I have for probably most of my life. Waiting like Godot for some version of success. I am sure I seem successful. Indeed, by most standards, I have done very well. But the truth is that a piece of me is continually waiting. Pining. Working with ever more determination in the hope of finally “getting there.”
Part of the reason is temperament. But family history is also a factor. I come from a tribe of displaced people. My Jewish family was exiled from its Egyptian homeland in the 1950s, forcing each member to create a new life in a foreign land. To appropriate new customs, foods, languages, and to call somewhere else home. They managed, but a price was paid. A sense of insecurity that reaches deep into the marrow of our collective bones. I remember the day my grandfather taught me this lesson for the first time. I was about 10 years old and we were sitting at the dinner table when he leaned over to me and explained how important it was to save what I earn (because we never know when life will fall apart). “Never forget,” he insisted with his old-world accent, “that when you make a dollar, you must save 90 cents of it. That is the right way.” Ninety per cent of your earnings go under your mattress. Or in a foreign bank account. Whatever works for you, so long as you store your earnings. So that you can be safe.
The tribe was convinced I would go into business. Everyone praised me for my financial savvy. I had a good head for numbers they said. But when the time came to choose between an MBA and a masters degree in Religious Studies, I followed my heart (and broke everyone else’s). I wanted to study religion. Typical of the next-generation narrative, I refused to be mired by the fears of displacement that immigration entailed. I was convinced I was tossing the anchor of history and setting myself free. I eventually got my PhD and became a professor in my field. I was living the dream.
But years later, I realize that the anchor I thought I had unmoored is still there. It has snuck its way into my psyche and still guides me without my realizing it. I am not hoarding my pennies in fear of the next disaster—proof, I thought, that I was free—but that is not the only way to fear the future. I had become fixated on success in my field. I make a lot less money and save less than that, but I have been trying to prepare for the vagaries of tomorrow by becoming a success of my own. I am laying down the foundation of my future, publishing more than required to become a success of a different color. Doing more, because I cannot be ordinary or trust the future to be kind.
Which means I’ve been holding my breath for a very long time.
It means that I don’t know how to be here now (such a cliché, but true all the same). All I know is how to look ahead. Worry about what’s ahead. And push my life forever forward in the hope that I might actually manage to control the outcome once I get there. But the obvious paradox is that I never get there, because ahead is always ahead and the present is always missed. I am finally realizing how exhausting it is to spend my life waiting to be safe.
Samsara is, by definition, unpredictable and subject to change. It will never be safe. No matter how hard I try, I cannot mold the future to suit my fears. I cannot protect myself from suffering. My family had a beautiful life in Egypt. They were integrated into the wider community, they thrived, enjoyed themselves, and loved their world. But no matter how happy they were, how much they had, they still lost it all. That’s samsara and I can’t stop it from happening. The only way to be free of these fears is to let them go.