When my friends and I get together these days, after the jokes and laughs have died down, we often end up talking about loss.
We are not yet at that age where “loss” is a synonym for “death”. Our losses are more about the transience of things still within touching distance: the separation from youth, the loss of athletic vigour, the downturn of political hope, the rise of responsibility and the loss of freedom that shifts with it.
At heart, we trouble ourselves with more or less the same question: are you in the right place or the wrong place? We talk of our jobs and careers, our relationships present and past, the houses or apartments we live in, the houses or apartments we’d prefer to live it. It’s often a question of moving on or staying put. “Do you think you’ll stick with it?” — asking about a girl, a boy, a job, a town, a gym, a hobby, a debt, a dream, a decision.
Underneath, I suppose what we’re really asking is about agency: Are you in control of your life or do other forces control you? The losses we dwell on help us to probe the degree of dominion we have over our lives, a power that can sometimes feel like it’s slipping away.
These, I sense, are the questions that snag and bite at the daily lives of my entire generation — I fall somewhere between Generation X and Millennial— buzzing doubts that loiter like midges after a downpour. Wafting them away with flapping hands doesn’t help much. The doubts keep coming back with no less hum and fizz, drifting perpetually on the air like specks of dust.
I often think about my life in terms of pathways. It’s not a literal pathway — I don’t imagine a track through the woods or a path through a field — but a more notional pathway, a gut feeling or else a series of commitments that appear to align into something bigger.
The reason I call it a pathway is because it somehow presupposes an expectation of a direction: that a direction exists somewhere and the quest is for me to find it. I cling to the sense that being able to stay in control of one’s life is intimately related to direction, pathways and purpose.
For many reasons, it is easy to lose control in life. Hopes that seemed like elegant visions at first can, on closer acquaintance, reveal themselves as extravagances or absurdities. The needs of living, of earning money, finding a partner, supporting a family, force us into all manner of compromises we didn’t expect to make. The perfect vocation can turn sour. That which we thought we wanted yesterday is not what we need today.
The digital networks that have enraptured and embalmed us don’t always help either. The global metropolis of the connected world via the internet only serves to heighten the giddy gyroscope, nurturing in us confusions of possibility and the potential scale of our achievements.
These doubts reverberate deeply like tectonic plates rubbing and grinding together, somewhat hidden under the surface yet still forming the ground on which we stand. So how does a person find direction when all the signposts are misleading? How does a sense of control return?
Not always forward
Direction and pathways are meant to have a certain quality about them. Forward. Onward. Leading over the horizon. That’s what my habits of thought tell me.
The reality is different because we misunderstand that direction in life is not only forwards but in all directions. I want to suggest that the worthwhile pathway lies on all sides, in all directions in 360 degrees, spreading outwards like an expanding circle.
We are so accustomed to the paradigm of progress — history progresses, science moves forward, economies grow — that it is easy to forget that a true sense of self occupies both growth and decline. This is why my conversations with my friends are so searching, because we struggle to integrate the losses with our expectations of a continual forward-march.
Looking around me today, I’ve come to find some of the best things I can lay my hands have the quality of both growth and decline. Maturity means the leaving behind of one set of expectations for another. Pathways are in all directions, forwards and backwards.
A sense of control returns when my personality is aligned.
Another way of putting it is ‘aligning your personality’ which amounts to recollecting who you have been as well as who you are going to become. A harmony of past and future.
I like to recognize those early commitments I made as a child and young adult, when the tide of curiosity led me in any direction. I was not looking to go forward then, but aimlessly and leading nowhere, just widening.
Adventures of reflection and memory can enable you to penetrate behind the veil of custom to discover the alignment of past, present and future. Direction is a uniquely personal sensation related to all three. As such, it can’t be thought of in terms of status, which by definition is judged and measured by a public contest. It is not to be achieved as such; rather it is to be created, imagined and enriched by personal (and largely private) recognition.