Finish school. Get a job. Buy a house. Get married. Have kids. Buy a bigger house. Retire. Hang out with your grandkids. Die. This is the basic set-up that was laid out for me, and I think most of us with what would generally qualify as a “normal upbringing.” When you grow up in a house in the suburbs, you tend to be told to follow suit. When you don’t grow up in a house in the suburbs, you tend to want that because you never had it. The American dream, mass marketed.
But what if you don’t follow the “normal” route? What if you decide to live in a commune out in the middle of nowhere where the emphasis is on living off the land the way our primitive ancestors used to? What if you get a job that requires you to travel so frequently that the idea of “settling down” is incredibly foreign and bizarre to you? What if you go to live in a monastery and give up all worldly possessions in order to seek spiritual enlightenment. Or what if you have what looks like a generally normal life, but you can’t follow the map they gave you? What then?
This is not an existential debate about the meaning of human existence. This is simply a question of the general life path that people follow. A question of how you know you’re on “the right path” when you depart from the one that everyone tells you is “the right path”. A question of what happens when your life doesn’t include any of the milestones that it’s “supposed” to. A question of what you do when you don’t do what you’re told.
I’m smart enough to know that no one really has the answers. And I believe that the reason most people follow the script is because they’re just no good at improving. And I’ve seen enough to know that the script- as is, with no variation, does actually work out pretty damned well for a lot of people. Which, I assume, is why so few people deviate from it. So I’m not in any way knocking the traditional lifestyle, the one I was raised to believe in. (I can’t and would never assume to speak for other cultures and other upbringings, this is just my experience.)
But, in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. The older I get the more I see that all of the traditional beliefs I was raised with just don’t match my experience. And the harder I tried to change my life to re-fit it to that outline the more internally tormented I was because it just didn’t fit. So I stopped trying to make it fit.
But the question emerges, from this newfound sense of independence from the norm, of what measurements I can use to know that I’m on the right path for me. When everyone else you know is doing the traditional lifestyle, you can’t look to your peers for validation. And those who live their own lifestyle tend to be very adamant that it is their lifestyle- not one anyone else should necessarily follow. It seems like the only meter I can use to measure my life accurately is an internal one, one based on my own, unique value system. So where’s my meter?
I try, I honestly do try to be at peace with not knowing. To forget about whether or not this is “normal” or if I’m on “the right path” or any of the rest of it. I try to get more knowledge so I can make informed decisions. I try to tell myself that I don’t need to know, that I don’t have to define or judge or validate. But when all the tools we normally use to plan goals revolve around knowing where you’re going it’s tough to let that go. And as those that I’m close to plow full speed ahead into marriage and babies I can’t help but wonder where I’m headed.
A lot of science, particularly physics, is theoretical. They form these incredibly complicated theorems to describe the tendencies of things which way or may not even exist. They calculate mathematical equations and create new technology to measure things that are undetectable. And the only way they know they’re on the right path is when things go differently than they would have if current laws applied. They don't usually go the way they thought, but they don't go the way they should have- so they tweak the model. It’s incredibly creative and amazingly brave so far as scientific endeavors go.
Perhaps my life is an exercise in theoretical living. I know it doesn’t fit the model but I don’t know why and I don’t know what new model it would fit. All I know is that if I keep experimenting and seeing what doesn’t fit I will move forward. Perhaps, and I have good reason to believe this, I’m just going through what so many of my more creative fellows already have and I will eventually come to a place where I don’t have to search for external benchmarks to know. Perhaps, as I learn to trust myself and my own internal voice, I will develop my own measures. I like to think so.