I recently read a Facebook post from a former student and current friend (yes, you Matt.) After assessing his life, he wrote, “I joke less about running away to the west coast and becoming a beach side fry cook.” (I added the Venice Beach, Matt. If you were to be a fry cook anywhere, I think Venice Beach would be the place.) Matt ponders his life, he recalls the month of July as a “depressed stupor” and writes, “I’m settling into my dull office job. Im [sic] worried about becoming boring.” I’m writing this post not just for Matt but for all the Matt’s out there who are younger than thirty, pondering the human condition and their place in the world. I know, you all thought figuring it out would be easier than this. Your teachers, and probably your parents, delineated a path for you that sounded something like this: high school graduation, college graduation, great job, marriage, children, and retirement. Of course, we all failed to tell you about death. I’m here to tell you, Matt, about death and why that delineated path is bullshit. Yes, Matt, you are going to die. Hopefully, way later than sooner but sometime in the next 70 to 80 years the Grim Reaper will make a personal visit to you. There is only one way that you can meet him with that shit-eating grin of yours; live your life on your own terms. I know, that isn’t as easy as it sounds. What are your terms and how are you going to live them?
It starts with figuring out what your terms are. This might be difficult because no one ever said, “Hey, why don’t you sit down and really figure out what kind of human being you want to be?” We were told what we wanted out of life. Someone else defined success for us. As hokey as it sounds, for the last few years, I have had my students writing mission statements. A mission statement is not the physical things you want out of life, rather, it is the kind of person you want to be. It’s specific yet changeable. There are a lot of good books and articles out there about writing your mission statement. They range from goal-oriented, anal, business type to the new-agey but they all do the same thing; help you focus in on your life and make sure you are focusing on your values, rather than on transient life events. Get some of these from the library and start reading and thinking. Get a journal and start writing.
I promise you, no matter how focused you become, your life will have some overwhelming griefs and stunning failures. But if you figure out what you value, what kind of human being you want to be and the direction of your life, those griefs and failures will not define you as a human being. Neither will they stop you from striving to live your best life.
Just to set the record straight, I’m a lot older than you and have screwed up more times than I can count. I have had some really outstanding public humiliations. I have a whole decade in my life which I would like to re-do. I have lost great loves and great friends. I suffered illnesses that almost sent me pre-maturely to the sweet hereafter. I have also achieved at levels higher than I ever thought I could by simply being stupid enough to not give up when everyone around me thought I should. But even in my darkest times, I knew who I was and what I wanted. When it has been just me, I was comfortable with who I was. I accepted a long time ago that I am a deeply flawed person who, like everyone else, suffers from her own weaknesses and faults. But I know the person I want to be and strive everyday to get just a little bit closer to being her.
Before you let this world define you, define yourself. Know who you are. Know what your terms are and don’t compromise and if you must compromise know that it was a choice, not a caving in. If living your best life is frying me up some clams (Do they have clams on the West Coast?) in your fry shack on the beach, then pack your car and put on that apron. So instead of focusing on the external static of your life, ask yourself “Am I the version of Matt I really want to be?” What you do with the answer to that question will define your life. It will also keep you from being boring. Unless boring Matt is who you really like. If you do, be him.
I must add, that if you find yourself depressed for long periods of time there is nothing wrong with seeking help. Life is way, way, too short to live it depressed. Depression isn’t a feeling. Sadness is a feeling. Depression is a state of being that, when left unattended, can rob you of your happiness.
And by the way, Joe, this is for you, too.