“But that is what matters most in life, for all of us. The long obedience in the same direction. Keeping at it. Finding honest happiness in living within the contours of our choices. To wake up another morning, beautifully bright as a summer day spreads its warmth across the grass, or awfully cold as winter blows its way over the high prairie, and stepping into the world again, taking up the work that is ours, the life that is ours, with gladness and singleness of heart, as the Book of Common Prayer teaches us.”
– Steven Garber, Visions of Vocation
So. Not too long ago, you graduated from college.
You decided, in a fit of principled, quasi-religious adventurism, to move to another country for a year. People do it all the time. People much less successful, thoughtful, independent, and/or experienced than you are. If they can do it, so can I, you thought.
So here you are, in a dusty flat in one of the most populous cities on earth, seven time zones from home, watching American television streamed illegally over a mostly reliable wifi connection, which is probably exactly what you would be doing if you were in the States, if you’re honest. You have become one of those people who watches tv, and actively reads buzzfeed, and has a pinterest wedding board, and you are almost broke and own too many books and drink too much coffee and you feel confused and lonely and tired, and you realize again that you are a colossal (millennial) cliché.
Go get yourself some chamomile tea.
Squash your skepticism about herbal remedies, turn your back firmly on the rabbit trail of ethical questions about the influence of Enlightenment philosophy on Western medicine, about the limits of empiricism, about neo-imperialist appropriations of tribal wisdom, and for once in your relatively short life, just drink the damn tea.
Do you feel better?
Yes. No. You’re not sure. There are so many compounding factors and conditioned psychosomatic responses to ritual and correlation is not causation, so who can say, really, if it’s any medicinal property inherent in the tea itself—
Let’s just move on.
The first thing you need to do is admit that you are scared. The second thing you need to do is tell yourself that you will be okay.
Yes, I know, yes; it is a strange and crippling thing to live in your own head, and that’s why God ordained for you to have hilarious and tough-loving college roommates. Now, on your own in a strange country, you’ve figured out that it’s not good for you to live alone. That’s learning about yourself, which is one of the purposes of this whole ridiculous operation. And yes, you’ve learned that you need something that you can’t have right now, and now you’re learning about sitting in the slow ache of your longing, and that’s good too. Things that are good for you often totally suck in reality, building character and evoking other nebulous benefits only apparent in hindsight. But you know you have to believe in that sort of goodness.
No one will congratulate you for your developing maturity. No one will give you a gold star for getting up without hitting the snooze button, for cleaning the bathroom, for staying on top of your email, for not burning the zucchini bread this time. If you’re doing that out of some misplaced desire for external validation, you’ll burn out fast. If you want to organize every cupboard in your apartment, do it. But don’t ask for a prize. If you want to join the church choir, do it. But don’t do it for applause. If you don’t feel like you’re doing enough to make the world better, take a look at your choices and change them.
No, unfortunately, adulthood doesn’t come with a standardized evaluation mechanism to tell you how you’re doing, but that’s not an excuse to do less. You know that you wouldn’t be happy doing less. It’s you to whom you have to answer for your choices—God, ultimately, of course, but after that absolution, you have to make peace with yourself. Find an honest happiness with your choices, your standards. And don’t give up when you don’t meet them.
Because—be careful—you will flirt with Perfection, but Perfection will never love you. Don’t spend too much time with him. And definitely, definitely, don’t take him to the grocery store, because you really cannot keep having ethical + economic + emotional + existential crises in the cereal aisle. Pull yourself together, kid. Buy the imported German muesli and get out.
Go home. Unpack your backpack, or your reusable bags, or the plastic bags—whichever bags you have today. Pour yourself another cup of tea. Remember, no rabbit trails.
So no one is telling you you’re doing a good job, and if they did, you wouldn’t believe them. And doing a good job may not be, after all, the most important goal. If what you want is meaning and love, make it. Which doesn’t mean every moment must be a symphony, or every acquaintance must become a bosom friend. You say you don’t believe in averages. That’s a defensible position, but maybe the best you can do is, in fact, a pattern of kindness. If you’re going to make it in this life, you will have to believe that kindness figures larger than your failures, and that your efforts at obedience do, in fact, matter—to you and the world and a God who suffered the indignity of growing up, like you’re attempting to do right now.
Wake up in the morning. Pick up the admittedly sharp-edged and scattered pieces of your life.
You’ll be okay.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.