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monday morning philosophizing

October 19, 2009

This morning I was doing my usual blog-reading-over-coffee bit, and I came across the following quote from Milan Kundera, from The Unbearable Lightness of Being (which I read once, in college, I think):

“The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.”

And so, apropos to my continuing existential crisis, I started wondering about this, and about goals and success and whether we’re ever happy with what we have. If it’s true that the things we lust after, the goals that drive us, are inherently things we do not understand, then what happens when we get them? Are they better or worse than we thought they would be? Do we become disillusioned and move on, only to repeat the pattern? Do we readjust our thinking and become satisfied with what we have, even if it’s not what we thought we were getting?

I used to know what I wanted. Though my goals were vaguely defined, they were still goals. And yet, every step I take towards them ends with me realizing that I really don’t want those things. I thought I wanted a Ph.D.; turns out that, to a large degree, I really didn’t understand what the academic world was all about and what graduate school would lead to. I thought I wanted to be an editor for an academic press; turns out that, to a large degree, I really didn’t understand what mainstream publishing—even mainstream academic publishing—was all about.

There are so many things that I’m interested in, and so many things that I want. I’m bored by my job and I want something more, but I don’t know how to start, how to find the thing that will make me happy as a career choice, how to cobble a career together from my disparate interests. I’m paralyzed by indecision; sometimes, though, I’m also paralyzed by the fear that none of it matters, that whatever decision I make will just lead me to something that once again doesn’t live up to what I think it will be. I’m afraid that I’ll build something up, that I’ll think it will be the thing that keeps me passionate and interested, that keeps me from feeling like I’m wasting my life every hour I’m at my desk, only to find that it’s just as disappointing as everything else.

I feel like the answer must be simple: I just need to readjust my expectations. I can’t go crashing off into life and expect that things will line up with my naïve assumptions just because that’s how things worked out when I was 20. I need to put some effort into figuring out the realities that will accompany my goals. I need to decide on a place to go and then have a concrete, mature plan for how I’m going to get there.

In some ways, I can’t believe I just typed that sentence. I used to hate being asked questions about where I saw myself in five or ten years, because I could never answer. I didn’t plan that far ahead in anything more than vague terms. Lately, though, that vagueness has bothered me. Maybe it’s because I don’t even have vague goals anymore; maybe it’s because I’m turning 30 next year. Whatever the reason, I’m possessed by this idea that I’ve frittered my twenties away and that to be a real adult I need to be more serious about my future. Regardless of the reasons, though, and whether I’m being “adult” or not, something has to change. I can’t just keep floating through life, cashing a paycheck and waiting for retirement. There has to be more – and I have to find a way to figure out what that more will be for me.

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