I think, despite it all, that I live with a lot of illusions.
Key among them, perhaps the biggest of all-time, is that there is some place – a brief stopping point or a full destination – where everyone will have the jump on me. Where I will have to scramble like mad to keep up, where I will constantly be living in the shadow of my inadequacy, and where I will be at risk of drowning in being overwhelmed at every moment.
Needless to say, this would be the best place of all-time.
I do not mean a place that my emotional torment would bring me to the brink of disaster. I’ve been there several times, most notably in April/May ’90, April/May ’97, and April/May ’05. (Not that there are any patterns there. Whatsoever.) Like Tiny House, that is not awesome.
I mean a place where I’m challenged so constantly and thoroughly (for the right reasons, in the right ways – mentally, intellectually, even spiritually) that I can just barely hang on and barely keep up. And I’ve always thought, nay, assumed that it was just over that mountain. That the next step, the next stage, the next chapter would contain this paradise of struggle.
Maybe Broadway was my first introduction to this concept, though I know I had yearned for something like this beforehand (or I never would’ve ended up at Broadway in the first place!). But Broadway was wrapped up in the physical and emotional torments therein, which frankly provided most of the “challenge”.
Or CCC? Maybe CCC really provided the best mix. It wasn’t perfect, but it really set in my mind the idea that there was a place where I’d have to pour out all my energy to just stay afloat. There were some issues wrapped up in the lingering problems with District 10 and the extremely unsupportive administration, but CCC might’ve been the closest I’ve gotten to a pure encounter with this elusive land of challenge. I think to when I was sitting in that computer lab, forcing the paper on success that just wouldn’t come, ultimately turning in two and a half sterling pages for a five-page assignment. I got either a B- or C+ with comments indicating that I had done a near-perfect half-assignment. That moment, that experience may have been my closest breath of this place, wherever or whatever it is.
It’s been all downhill from there. And, in all likelihood, that experience cemented my belief that not only did these things exist, but they were common, even ubiquitous.
I was convinced, despite having no real rational reason to believe this, that college would mark the arrival of this reality. Perhaps because CCC was a college (of sorts). Perhaps because everyone had told me my whole life that college was the promised land. Perhaps because college kids were supposed to be somehow more mature, near-adult people. Perhaps because I was just due for a challenge.
That illusion shattered in about six hours.
Okay, how about work? Surely work, with all its nuances and adult expectations, surely this will be a place of unending raising the bar?
That illusion may have taken even less time to crumble. And Seneca offered its own challenges, but far too many of them were wrapped in the same emotional traumas of yesteryear, and the debilitating lack of support from much of the administration. I had jumped into something I had no experience with and little backing for, and it was indeed hard. But it was hard because the hours were long and the position was emotionally draining. After a few weeks or months, there was no mental stimulus in the challenge. It was simply an issue of emotional survival. And that is a very different beast, which led to the whole April/May ’05 gambit.
And now here we are. Again, I have to slidestep around details, but it’s just amazing to me how much time people waste here. How much time I waste here, and still come out doing as much as anyone (perhaps more). Ultimately, as in so many situations, the only standards and expectations I really seem to be competing with are my own.
And maybe that’s my own design and how I’d want it anyway. At Brandeis, I felt the need to reject the grade game as hollow and meaningless, going out of my way to challenge myself with how far I could push the bounds of my scholarship while still keeping it secure. When I feel the pressure of too much obligation, too much bending to the will or critique of others, I rebel and break out. So maybe I’m blocking myself from the very kind of situation I claim to be craving.
And there are larger challenges that drown me every day. Challenges of my own discipline. It’s not like all of life is somehow on easy mode (it occurs to me that this post might sound very arrogant) and I just don’t have challenges or problems. As this running record back to ’98 can attest, quite the opposite is true. But they are internal wars. They are struggles with my own bars. I search in vain for that place where everyone just expects me to keep up with something I find very difficult to keep up with, and yet I find the pursuit to be meaningful and exactly where I should be. (This last caveat is important, because I could easily go try to become a physicist and get my rear kicked. That’s not quite the challenge I mean, either. It has to be something I find fulfilling, meaningful, and in line with what I want to strive for.)
And now I’ve probably put enough constraints and clarifications on this that it sounds so obvious as to be stupid. “Of course everyone would want something where everything is exactly how they want it!” There is a strong temptation to dispose of this post altogether.
But I won’t, and thus here is some raw mental chaff for you. All this really was about is trying to trace a core feeling of dissatisfaction that not only is no one expecting me to work more and harder at my job, but most people are telling me to do less.
I need some umph. Some verve. Someone to push back. Someone other than the voice in my head.