TW: Mention of Suicide
There is a metaphor that Sylvia Plath uses in her novel, The Bell Jar. She sees her existence as an endless fig tree, of which each fig represents a different life. A poet, a mother, an academic and so on. She sits at the bottom of the tree and watches as each fig plops to the ground and slowly rots. She starves, paralysed by her indecision. How can we be expected to choose and commit to one path when there is a world of options. It’ll drive you insane.
Last night I read The Midnight Library by Matt Haig in one (and a half) sitting. Something I’d never done before. Typically I read books in about twenty instalments of fleetingly bright bursts of focus. Perhaps I simply related to the fact that the protagonist had black hair and a small mole on her left hand, much like myself. Perhaps the book resonated with the desperately directionless and feckless sides of me. An anxiety high on the agenda and frustratingly omnipresent in my frontal lobe at the moment is the crippling fear of decision. I cannot seem to commit to the idea of any particular future. Do I follow creativity or practicality? What will fulfil me? What even is fulfilment? A spouse, success, solitude, sacrifice?
Matt Haig writes about a woman -Nora- who makes no choices. In fact her whole life she has collected regrets and unpursued, half cooked dreams. Living a lonely and unfulfilled life, she -as Haig puts it- decides to die. She finds herself suspended between life and death in a library filled with books describing what her life would have been like had she made different choices. As she reads the books, she falls into these potential yet un-materialised lives. The main driver in her choice of books is regret. A woman who has collected many, one by one she addresses her regrets and experiences how her life would have been different without them.
I have come to find that we fear our choices because we fear that we will regret them. Not because we fear the future they will bring, but because we fear the absence of the future they will not. You experience an inability to live one life when you see the multitudes of ‘yous’ that could exist. It is incredibly difficult to commit to a singular version of yourself. As every “yes” is also a “no” to something else, every choice made is the sacrifice of another. We worry that our choices will not be worth our sacrifices. The infuriatingly unavoidable fact is, there is absolutely no way of knowing what our lives would shape up to be under different paths. We don’t get a magical library. Each journey is as much up to the cosmos, fate, God, coincidence, dumb luck; whatever you want to call it, as it is to our choice and consent.
More often than not our regrets are ill informed and written by the pen of self doubt. Odds are your failed relationships and rejected job applications have more to do with the larger universe aligning than they are a result of your individual micro-actions. And when your failures are your fault -which, often, they will be- to dwell in regret or to accept and grow is entirely a self dictated choice. Whilst I'm a fan of the odd replenishment of a wallowing session, there are simply too many lives to live and far too little time to waste any of it on the past, except to learn.
There is comfort in knowing that whatever path one does take, nothing is clear and nothing is certain. Just because you study law, it does not mean you will become a lawyer. Just because you planned to be a writer, start a business, have a family, it doesn’t mean that's where you will end up. I will relay to you advice that I once received from a salt-of-the-Earth Danish man: “Have a plan”. That’s it. You needn’t stick to it, nor will it necessarily come into fruition. But keep moving towards something and adapt to whatever ends up manifesting along the way. Roll with the punches.
There is plenty of advice out there on how to live a life of contentment. Paulo Coelho would tell you to “follow the omens”. Camus said “you will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life”. Sometimes you receive advice in the form of a prophetic dream from your dead grandparents. The pursuit of your fulfilment is a matter of figuring out what it means to you; what the means of your pursuit are. Pay attention to your dreams and desires. They make the difference between a life lived and a life endured.
Many of us have the privilege of being able to consider a career that reflects our passions and interests as opposed to the many who have chosen functional and utilitarian careers. Yet this can be a paralysing privilege. It's difficult to integrate macrame with human rights law - how does one choose? A magical part of our time is the endless possibilities of the internet. There is a massive amount of information you can find for free to self teach.
Furthermore, while retraining can feel like defying Newton's first law of motion*, it is possible to set out in one direction and diverge your path later in life. If you read my previous issue -Growth- you read my review on the book Mindset by Dr. Dweck. In it, Dweck shares an anecdote about an Olympic athlete who retrains as a human rights lawyer. Not out of any kind of necessity but because she wants to pursue a new career that will satiate her need for a new type of fulfilling work. Of course, it is incredibly difficult to diverge from an existing path, but the necessity -should it exist- will become apparent upon reflection. In which case dwelling should no longer be an option.
*A body at rest will remain at rest and a body in motion will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted on by an external force.
Decisions, especially the life altering type, are daunting. But I would like to remind you that there are no non-life altering decisions. Sure, some are bigger than others. Your field of study probably has a larger sway on your future than what you ate for breakfast. But your seemingly inconsequential meal could also create a ripple effect into your future. Perhaps a nasty case of food poisoning is what prevents you from accidentally stepping into oncoming traffic that day. Butterfly Effect aside, of course taking the larger decisions requires deeper deliberation. But there is liberation in knowing that as your choice of breakfast is big, your choice in potential education is small. They are simultaneously both. Schrödinger's choice: You will not know the magnitude of their effects until you open the box. If you can choose between scrambled eggs and cheerios, you can make the bigger choices too. Don’t let paralysis set in.
I’ve recently come to the realisation that the deliberations one invests into their choices should not remain as a one shot. As Nora is dropped into the lives she could have lived with no context of the past, she has a relatively objective set of eyes into her relationships and her careers. One should strive to emulate this objectivity and critically reflect on their current situation even whilst in the thick of it. Whatever life you may lead, reflection and deliberation should be recurring methods of maintenance rather than informers solely for the initial decision. You have the power to decide to no longer partake in your surroundings, you have the power to change the course of your life if that is what you wish. You can choose to be the external force that acts on your body at motion.
Whatever life you end up leading, the fundamentals are often the same. It is not what you look at but what you see that matters. While the contents of these lives may vastly differ; the emotions that accompany existence are relatively uniform. Haig said it best: “Love and laughter and fear and pain are universal currencies.”
I look at my life and I wonder where it is going. I see the crossroads up ahead and I’ve tried to slow the car down, unable to decide which path to take. I’ve taken de-tours and even stopped the car entirely to put off any definite decision but one cannot move through life with diffidence. And now, staring down the barrel of my future, I know it's time to keep moving.
“We only need to be one person.
We only need to feel one existence.
We don't have to do everything in order to be everything, because we are already infinite.
While we are alive we always contain a future of multifarious possibility.” - Matt Haig