I turned 25 last week and it dawned on me that I've lived around 33% of my life. A sobering thought, certainly, but a beautiful one too. It serves as a reminder that time moves quickly, and that mine will be up soon.
Reflecting on the first 25 years, I realised that life is nothing but a story you tell yourself and the people around you. A story about the person you are, the things you do, and the path you're on. On one hand, this is exciting because it shows that life is malleable. You're the star of your story, and you decide how you're going to tell it. On the other, it's sad. Very few people tell their own story. Most people follow the one that's crafted for them by their parents, schools and society. The university they attend, career they pursue, and people they marry – it all fits into the narrative. Most stories are shockingly similar, despite their protagonists being infinitely unique.
Why do we live by the stories we're told before we're old enough to think for ourselves? Because like any story you're told a million times, you begin to internalise it. It ceases being a story and becomes your reality. The narrative of who you should be and the life you should live, according to the people around you, is the person you think you want to be. But it's not. In truth, most people have NO IDEA who they actually want to be, or the life they actually want to live, because they've not thought long enough about it. People are pushed into a mould and forced to live in terms of the narrative given to them, and then we wonder why half the world is miserable.
Don't underestimate the power of narrative. I know people that have given up on the things and the people they love, people that have considered taking their own lives, instead of violating the narrative crafted for them. That doesn't sit well with me, and I suspect it won't sit well with many of you. While not a solution, there are a couple of lessons I've taken from those experiences:
- Be aware of the narratives and expectations you push onto the people around you. A few bad narratives are enough to ruin someone's life when left unchecked.
- If you're living a story that you didn't write for yourself, you don't have to. It's yours to write, because it's yours to live.
The tricky part about life is that, as you go through it, your values constantly change. You're trying to figure out what matters to you, and you keep figuring it out. You make decisions based on what's important to you at the time. As that changes, your decisions probably should too. But that doesn't always fit into the narrative you're living by. It doesn't fit into the plan you're expected to follow. The problem isn't the changing values - they'll always change, and rightfully so - it's the narrative you were told years ago that you're expected to live by today.
As I get older, I'm beginning to grow less interested in accomplishments and more interested in the question of "How do I build a meaningful life?" It's not that they're mutually exclusive, just that the latter seems a more important task.
I'm yet to arrive at an answer - I doubt I ever will - but pausing and figuring out what's important to you seems a good starting point. Life doesn't come with a dress rehearsal—this is probably it. Make it count. Identify the things that make you happy, cut the things that don't (this happens most often when other people want you to do something). Find what makes you fulfilled and pursue it relentlessly. Don’t let yourself make excuses for not doing the things you want to do.
It seems that most people ask: "How can I throw my life away in the least unhappy way?" I don't know about you, but that's not how I want to live.
Seneca notes that the Greek word euthymia is one we should think of often: it is the sense of our own path and how to stay on it without getting distracted by all the others that intersect it. In other words, it’s not about beating the other guy. It’s not about having more than the others. It’s about being what you are, and being as good as possible at it, without succumbing to all the things that draw you away from it. It’s about going where you set out to go. About accomplishing the most that you’re capable of in what you choose. That’s it. No more and no less.
“We are in the habit of imagining our lives to be linear, a long march from birth to death in which we mass our powers, only to surrender them again, all the while slowly losing our youthful beauty. This is a brutal untruth. Life meanders like a path through the woods. We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us, revealing our bare bones. Given time, they grow again.” - Katherine May
Deciding to tell your own story isn't easy. Riding against the wave conformity is challenging. Life will knock you down and pick you up, just to do it again. But the ebb and flow that comes with it gives you a glimpse at the person behind the narrative. It shows you who you are, not who you've been told you're supposed to be. That's the person worth nurturing.