I’m 27 years old. Unemployed. Legally “single” and bogged down with so much graduate student debt that I wouldn’t marry me until I was 60.
I’m nothing like the person I imagined 10 years ago. And, in many ways, thank God for it, I’ve become more vast than I ever could have foreseen. Still, there are many days I sit in grief while trying to bridge my imagined self with reality as I continue to watch my dreams stall mid-flight.
When I was 18, I was accepted into top universities across the country. I was bought and sold on the idea that if I attended certain universities, it would open doors for me for the rest of my life—I would never struggle the way I’d struggled growing-up, and neither would my children. Over the past decade I’ve attended the top programs for each degree I’ve pursued. I’ve worked hard, broadened my skillset, and I’ve never stopped learning.
Having a “livelihood” is a status symbol—a cultural marker of success. It privileges a certain type of meaning-making which some folks access more easily due to generations of economic and social capital. In this system, what we do matters because we matter. And so, upon introduction, we greet people in a way that casually assesses their life’s worth.
“Well, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m an unemployed writer.”
My resume is impressive for my age, I’ve been told. At networking events I am often dubbed “the most interesting person” folks have met in years. With my background and insight, of course I will “succeed” if I just keep at it.
My entire life I’ve been driven to “succeed.” But, underneath that drive is a power more pervasive than lack and desire alone. An ache that is boundless. Fear? No. Deeper still.
Anxiety. And I’m not just talking DSM-V “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” I’m talking about an anxiety fueled by what theologian Paul Tillich called “finitude”—a realization of life’s finite nature. For some, 27 is a lifetime. If death were to have its final say tomorrow, my life will barely have spoken.
So, I sit with my grief. Meditation has never brought me peace, but it grounds me. Slowly, my anxiety subsides enough to allow me to touch my own death.
I have been socialized to think that just because I work hard for something, I will achieve it and I deserve it. This past year, I’ve really tried to unpack this. I’m not sure if it is an American, capitalist, or millennial perspective, but this imagined framework doesn’t hold well against life’s plans. As a Buddhist chaplain, I’ve sat at the bedside of many sick and/or dying folks whose careers never prepared them for their final day. As a doula, I’ve watched anticipatory joy dissolve into a life-long relationship with grief at a moment’s notice.
“My husband was awake a few hours ago, you all said he was in the clear. Our anniversary is next week.”
“The baby didn’t make it.”
In these moments and in the moments leading up to them, I sit with all the pain and beauty of what it means to be human. To be born. To have dreams—because of and in spite of death.
Amid the constant messages that my own power is enough to actualize dreams, and that life is entirely of my own making, I sit with the realization that there are people who fight their entire lives to actualize their dreams—of freedom; of peace; of family; of healing; of life; of justice. And many fail. But their lives are not marked by failure.
I’m 27 years old. Unemployed. Legally single. If I died tomorrow, what would my life say?
My generation places a lot of emphasis on prioritizing career over relationships. We value economic and social “success” over emotional attachment, as if both the desire and need for intimacy reflects weakness. I once thought it was a sign of power to be able to avoid emotional attachment during physical intimacy, to care more about myself and my own success above others. Many people pursue career and symbols of success to the exclusion of intimate bonds because it provides the illusion of control. Society has given us markers of success and we expect to see concrete, lasting results for all that we sacrifice and put in. We think that if we study hard enough; work long enough; know the right people; sacrifice the right things at the right time, we will get the degree, position, and/or salary we deserve. So many people buy into this illusion while living its contradictions at every moment—struggling to network more, publish more, and learn more in order to stay “relevant” lest we lose all we fought to “secure.” And when life happens—when people get sick, lose jobs, and promotions fall through—the illusion dissolves.
Often, the pursuit of social and economic “success” is driven by ego, and ego is a fragile, dangerous thing. Life’s work will make a lonely, wounded fool out of ego.
I often have to refocus in order to become informed by anxiety, as opposed to driven by it, so that I can live a life of courage and meaning. When I sit zazen, I breathe into the chant, “Life and death are of supreme importance, time passes quickly and opportunity is lost.” Moments of silence call me into momentary suspense, a willful surrender of dreams, fears, and expectations in order to prepare for an ending I cannot know. I surrender. Because life—and love, including love for myself, call me to surrender to who I am, letting go of all the things I imagined I would be. Surrender is neither complacency nor defeat. It is acceptance. I surrender because I am powerless. Recognizing my limits gives me power. I am not helpless.
It is an honor to surrender to love in all its forms. Love offers no illusion. It is honest from the start, though we often pervert its power and honesty through our own delusions. We aren’t in control. There are no prescriptions. And the stakes are always high. Sometimes, connections fail after months, years, even decades of work, leaving us with wounds to heal and nothing to show.
Cultivating intimate, authentic relationships (not just monogamous, sexual and/or romantic relationships) requires courage. There is nothing weak about valuing another human being’s happiness, well-being, and success as much as your own. There is nothing shameful about honesty, vulnerability, and compromise. It takes courage to face one’s own fears, to revisit sites of trauma in order to be responsible to another. It takes compassion and conviction to be a present witness to lives we do not own, including our own.
I’m 27 years old. Unemployed. Legally “single” and bogged down with so much graduate student debt that I wouldn’t marry me until I was 60. I frequently wonder how my life ventured so far from the path I imagined and where the hell I’m going. I have been so attached to outcomes that at times I lose sight of the process.