Living in our Stories

“And how I watched you thrash around
Trying to right the wrongs that don’t belong to you.”

I honestly haven’t stopped listening to that song all day.

This one line say a lot. A whole lot more than what it reads. I think this is one of those songs that doesn’t need to say a lot to say everything.

I think many of us try to fix past hurts done to us by absorbing responsibility for them, whether or not we should. Something becomes broken, it needs to be fixed, the person who caused it isn’t going to fix it/disappears/chooses not to/etc, so we fix it ourselves, somehow taking full responsibility for it. Most of the time this causes us to look back to see if we can find anything we could’ve done differently or how we could’ve acted and thought about a particular situation or relationship. We automatically assume there are fixable details that would’ve changed the outcome, yet we don’t quite know what they are some of the time. And not being able to figure that out is really, really frustrating. We like concrete facts and bullet-point breakdowns. Unfortunately, life isn’t always so cut and dry, and neither are we.

The constant need to be gauging ourselves and making sure we add up to our ideal (or someone else’s) puts a harmful spin on the pursuit for attention, love, and recognition. Suddenly, it becomes  a game for us to see what we are lacking. It’s no longer about participating in human connection, learning about ourselves, growing as individuals, and giving each other grace when we make a bad decision. It becomes a quest to be graded, to be reminded where we fall in the spectrum of perceived perfection. We become addicted to performance-based love and recognition, which allows to keep track of what we are owed and what we owe. Who you are is no longer good enough — it’s how you play the game that tells you what you deserve. You have to tell the right story for it to be acknowledged.

Think about a story you’ve told before. Did some of the details change depending on who you were telling it to? Maybe there were some exaggerations or omissions? Maybe to one person you emphasized one detail, and to another person, another detail. And when you really think about it, don’t we do that with our lives? Emphasizing one thing while hiding the other? Why is that? I think it’s because we are looking for approval and connection with the people we encounter and we think they are going to react or care more about certain details and not of others. The better story we can tell to their specific nature, the more recognized we are, and therefore, the more connected and valued. We’re constantly telling different versions of the same story. So much so, that we forget what the true story is.

As far as I know, no one has figured out how to avoid hurts involved in relationships. Whether it’s a romantic relationship or otherwise, we’ve all been hurt and disappointed by other people. And much to our dismay, it keeps happening. All over the place. Even if we are the recipient of a wrongdoing, we still think there’s something we could’ve done to prevent it. Why? Because when something hurts, it can’t just keep being that way — it needs to be fixed so that we can move forward. And guess what? The easiest way to do that is to do it ourselves, even if we are not the best solution.  So, we tell ourselves whatever it is we think we are missing in order to “heal” the hurt.

How many times have we thought statements like this:
“If only I was more creative, funny, pretty, masculine, thin, strong…”
“If only I didn’t care so much about this or that…”
“If only I cared more about this or that…”
“If only I wasn’t so stubborn, selfish, weak, strong…”
“If only I had only been more open and honest…”

We try to take care of those hurts by giving them a reason for existing. We calculate equations which we hope will lead us to the reason for the hurt and give it some meaning and weight…perhaps something we can refer to for future reference.  For some reason, we avoid the feeling caused by the hurt and try to fix it instead, as if simply letting ourselves feel it will be the end of us. And I truly think when we tell stories we think someone wants to hear and leave ourselves out of it, that creates the biggest hurt of all: we deceive our “trueness.” We realize how much of ourselves we gave up to the stories we told in hopes  of experiencing that connection we longed for. And rather than presenting authenticity, even if it required vulnerability, we presented a manufactured version of ourselves which was so carefully calculated for whatever outcome we were hoping for. And then the inevitable feeling of shame settles in when we realize our “product” was rejected even though we gave so much of ourselves up to that story we told…the one we thought they wanted. Our “enough” wasn’t enough…it wasn’t even real.

What if we let ourselves be broken?  What if we all just started talking about our eating disorders, porn addictions, daddy issues, quests for love in all the wrong places, alcoholic mothers, abusive fathers, poor decisions, and broken hearts? What if we laid it all out for everyone to see? What would that look like? My suspicion is that instead of judgement, we’d be met with the phenomenon that vulnerability sometimes creates: We’d feel even more connected by our trueness than we ever could with our carefully created psuedo-selves.

Ironic, huh? Maybe instead of impressing people with our stories, we chose  a different path to pursue connection — the path of belonging. When it comes to connection, being able to fit in has been our main objective as a culture and as individuals. We do this by changing our clothes, hair styles, music preferences, hobbies, and palates so that we can match whatever group we’re trying to get in to. Thing is, I’d rather belong than fit in. What’s the difference? Fitting in means you simply appear to belong; belonging means you’re valued. One says familiar, the other says family. One is accidental, the other intentional.

If we follow this new path, are we all going to magically just get along, never get hurt, never feel abandoned or rejected, and always feel loved? Unfortunately, no. But, if we’re constantly concocting versions of ourselves to please what we think people want, we’ll never actually get anywhere — we’ll just get really brilliant at faking it and lose sight of our trueness in the process.

In an effort to challenge myself into becoming more authentic, I hope that instead of shying away from vulnerability, I will recognize and move closer to it.  So, here’s to becoming more genuine, more open, more unafraid, and more true. My stories may not always be the brightest, most exciting, most interesting, or most unique, but at least they will be mine.

Advertisements

Facebook, Facepalms, and the Future

So, everyone keeps complaining about Facebook’s new timeline (I mean, c’mon people. They change things like 37 times a year, what’s the surprise?). It takes getting used to but it offers an interesting option for those curious backtrackers like myself: you get to see the highlights of the things you posted from years back. Now, as most would agree, this is a sometimes painful, embarrassing, and hilarious experience. I find myself saying, “That can’t possibly be what I actually said” about a million times, and facepalming about every 10 seconds.

But, past the facepalms you’re able to see your progress, your development, and your changes (or, lack there of). I mean, I saw the period of time where I chose to pursue my college major, key turning points, new friends, old friends, adventures, and lots and lots of laughter.

This brought up an interesting opportunity to look back and really look at what’s changed and what hasn’t. You know what stood out to me? Music. Music’s always been a part of my life, but I saw how my love of playing has effected other people. People, pictures, and comments reminded me of how much this is a part of my life…a part of me. I also noticed my unwavering crave and delight in deep human connection. You know, the kind of connections that brew over the years and mold into something really quite astounding. I discovered the kind of interests that subconsciously took root without even knowing and grew into these huge life passions. I reflected on people that caused me  to shift what I thought about something forever. Or, those people…the ones that made my heart feel, hurt, thrive.

And then, I inevitably saw the things that hadn’t changed. I was proud of some of the consistencies and not of others. For some things, I wanted to shake myself for not being more open, more fearless, more trusting of my intuition.

The past has a funny way of giving you invaluable pieces of information that tell you how you developed into the person you are at present. Whether you like it or not, and whether or not you think it’s a good idea to look backward, those moments of laughter, pain, newness, oldness, and discovery all are so poignant. Even the things you didn’t think mattered all that much at the time.

And this rearview mirror escapade has left me wondering what I’ll be wishing I told myself now, 5 years from now. What will I want to shake myself for doing or not doing? What will I laugh about? What will be the facepalm moments? Who is going to leave me with those shifts in thought? Who will leave my heart with a healthy scar and what I will be able to learn from it? Who will I wish I was more honest with and why? What new passions will I discover? And what impact will they have on my life?

All this to say I want to have the courage to be the person I strive to be 5 years from now, now. I have a tendency to put things off and wait for the future to take care care of them, force me to change, and materialize who I am. In other words, I have the terrible habit of dreaming of a life I won’t ever have because I don’t do anything now to make it a reality later

All those wishful things we tell ourselves — wanting to be more trustful, daring, adventurous, outgoing, friendly, disciplined, courageous, etc. — won’t ever come to be unless we work on them now, presently. Being addicted to fantasy and perfection (hello, fellow Pinterest users) leave me feeling even more disappointed with the present. Looking back and living now is all that I have. If I want to be the kind of person who, in 5 years, doesn’t feel the need to shake who I am now, that will be the sure sign that I’ve learned, grown, and I’m put off the desire-without-action mentality.

If I want to be a better musician, I can’t keep dreaming about performing a solo show and not practice now.
If I want to be a better cook, I can’t keep making the same meals and not get a little messy in the kitchen.
If I want to be more outgoing and adventurous, I can’t just bookmark my bucket list destinations and never book a flight.
If I want to create deeper friendships, I can’t keep expecting other people to make the effort.
If I want to be a better writer, I can’t just keep reading other people’s blogs without writing in my own.
If I want to have memories, I can’t just dream of having the photographic evidence.
If I want to pursue a career that speaks to the core of who I am, I can’t just keep planning to take a step forward…even if it’s scary.

We cripple and limit ourselves, and this is the absolute worst thing we can do. We worry too much, compare too much, wish too much, obsess too much, project too much. And you know how I know? Because we always praise the person who actually did something to improve their lives, in such a way that reveals our own regrets for not doing the same thing. You know, the people that quit their jobs because they knew it didn’t speak to who they were, even though they didn’t have a “better” job lined up; the people that broke off that relationship because it was only hurting them; the people who booked a flight to a new country never having traveled there before; the people that moved to a new city alone without a single friend; the people that did their art, lived their dreams, and told the appropriate people to fuck off. Those people.

Living the life that will prevent me from shaking myself 5 years from now, shutting down the outside opinions, stopping the comparison game, and really trusting my intuition sure do change the way I live my life today, and that sort of freedom is worth talking about.

Strangers Unto Ourselves

I’ve been at my current job for approximately 18 months. EIGHTEEN MONTHS. (Not counting the 3.5 years I spent here before moving to San Diego for college). You know what’s funny? I did not plan on coming back here. I didn’t even plan on moving back home. But, I did. And being here all started with a contracted project…which led to a permanent position. And if you were alive between 2008-now, you know how difficult it has been for any of us to get a decent (let alone permanent) job.

So, I’ve been getting paid on a regular basis for 18 months doing something that is slowly sucking the life out of me. You think I’m joking. Now, before you get all, “You should be grateful to have a full-time job!” on me, consider the possibility that spending 40 hours each week for 18 months doing something you actually think is sucking your soul away from your body a little more each day can actually change your DNA. Okay, fine. Maybe it’s not actually changing my DNA, but it’s changing something. And I’m pretty sure whatever it’s doing isn’t necessarily good.

My recent endeavors to figure out WTF I’m doing with my life have led me on the daunting journey of rediscovering what exactly I’m good at…and what I even like. A funny thing happens to us INFJ types when we are away from ourselves for too long: We can actually become disconnected from our personalities. This isn’t science fiction shit. And no, I haven’t turned into a sociopath. But when someone asks me what it is I like to do, what I’m passionate about, or what I want kind of career I’d like to pursue, I HAVE NO IDEA what to tell them.

This somewhat ridiculous self-realization has caused me to ask this question: Can you actually forget who you are and lose track of your own essence if you’ve been distracted by a soul-sucking, energy-draining, 40-hours-a-week-zombie-inducing job? Because if so, that’s pretty insane.

5 years ago I had a life-altering moment: I figured out what I wanted to study in college. It was right after I finished watching The Constant Gardener. I was in the midst of truth, passion, and soul-quenching heartache. I realized I needed to be a fighter of injustices. I felt the burden to do something about the things that happened out of the comfy controlled bubble I was living in. I mean, I heard about “bad” things going on in the world but I didn’t know how bad they were until I saw this movie. I mean, didn’t all the “really” bad stuff not exist anymore? To my dreaded surprise, all the “really bad” stuff still happened…and no one was really doing anything about it, at least from my white-girl-living-in-a-Southern-California-suburb limited perspective.

So, onward I went to San Diego to major in International Security & Conflict Resolution (yes, that really is what’s printed on my diploma). Fast forward 2 years. I’m interning for Alliance for African Assistance, feeling like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing on the non-profit career path, yet feeling completely overwhelmed by the mass amount of emotional baggage attached to this experience. I mean, I had been complaining about my $4 coffee beverage not being made to my liking while these people were coming from years of living in refugee camps, being placed in the U.S. with no money, English-speaking skills, or ability to take care of or easily explain to their children why exactly they were now living in a foreign country. Talk about getting slapped in the face with other people’s daily reality and feeling really, really stupid about whatever I had previously complained about. So, here I am about to graduate from college, pretending to enjoy but really feeling overwhelmed with the chosen path I’d found myself on. Could I really handle being broken down on a daily basis with the reality of these refugees? Honestly? No. I couldn’t.

But at least I had a compassionate heart and a desire to help people, fight injustice, and speak for those who could not speak for themselves. I would definitely find something else worthwhile to do…right?

Now, here I am 3.5 years later in a job that revolves around nothing that resembles what these old passions were. Not only that, but I find myself questioning my own skills. As in, I used to teach piano lessons, but… can I really still do that anymore after years of not doing it? And, I really like to write, but…I don’t write as often as I used to and don’t even know what writing as a profession would look like. Oh, and also I love to play  music, cook, research things, drink craft beer, and hang out with kids. But what exactly does a career look like that involves any or all of those things? I’m pretty sure you can’t drink craft beer and hang out with kids at the same time. In fact, I’m positive you can’t.

So, what now? I’m almost 24 and have been out of school for 2 years. Do I just forget about those things and buy into the cynical notion that I likely won’t be able to actually do what I actually love in this economic climate? Should I just yield to the statistics? The ones that show how 80% of people are dissatisfied with their current jobs, but oh well….this is America so I should just get used to it. Oh, and while I’m at it, I should start building my 401?

My point in writing this is mostly to convince myself what I already know to be true: That we are all given specific talents, abilities, and passions, and when we’re not using them and becoming our best self, we’re not only letting ourselves down, but everyone else as well. I’ve written about this before and I’ve rolled around these ideas in my head for years. But as the pace of life and having “enough” time to figure this out quickly begin to allude one another, I realize that everything has an expiration date…including practical decisions, like working at a job you hate because “it’s a job that you should feel grateful for.” Because honestly? The more people I meet that are just barely making ends meet, but are doing something that makes them feel alive, and therefore, happy, the more I realize that being “practical” or financially secure do not necessarily make you happier.

It’s been a while since I’ve thought about the things that I actually like, that I’m actually naturally good at, and that I’m actually passionate about because I’ve been so bogged down by the “this is just how it is, kid” narrative, and focused on pretending that I’m doing the “right” thing and the “responsible” thing by paying my dues in the seemingly inevitable destination we call the rat race.  And you know what? That’s no way to live life. And I want to live my life doing something I love, damnit!

So, here I am, 23-turned-14-year-old trying to rediscover the very basics of myself. Because I hate to say it, but they’ve been lost in the mundaneness for the past 18 months. They’ve been sucked out, stomped on, and punched in the face. And now I’m trying to revive them, get to know them, and maybe…just maybe…actually use them. Do I know what loving words and writing, playing music with my eyes closed, never cooking with a recipe, appreciating craft beer, laughing with kids, and being truly and unabashedly amazed at the beauty human connection will lead to? I HAVE NO IDEA. Really. Not a clue. But, I do know that the longer I go doing what I’m “supposed” to be doing, the longer I go without being my authentic self. And the longer I go without being my authentic self, the less likely I am to be of any use to anyone.

There is just no way on this earth I can let my tombstone read, “Here lies Jessica Hopper, a daughter, loving friend, and doer of all things mundane, non-noteworthy, cautious, boring, and expected of her. She will be remembered for her spreadsheets, punctuality, and loyalty-out-of-fear attitude. No one really knows what she was good at, what she cared about, or what made her unique, but everyone sure remembered how mediocre her life was. And man, what an impressive 401k she had!”

HELLLLS NO.

Sometimes you just have to be 14 again and forget the rat race even exists.

The Heaviness of Memories

You know that movie, In Her Shoes, with Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette? There’s a scene at the end of the movie where Maggie (Diaz) recites E.E. Cumming’s poem at her sister’s (Collette) wedding. It’s a beautiful scene for a couple reasons:

1) Throughout the movie you see the dynamic between the two sisters and the treacherous love-hate relationship they endure together. It’s a relationship that encapsulates a broad expanse of love. You know, the kind where there’s nothing that can tear you apart, no matter how painful it may get — the kind two sisters have. So, the scene at the end reflects the memories and experiences that have been strung along through their relationship. There is depth to this scene with the awareness of their history as sisters.

2) Maggie has endured a life-long struggle with literacy. She’s a normal adult woman with an abnormal challenge for her demographic. She cares for an elderly man for a period of time at a nursing home and he teaches her to read. He instills in her a sense of confidence that was previously absent.

So, you have this scene which carries with it memories, struggles, love, pain, and forgiveness and it’s all verbalized through this poem, which symbolizes something all on its own.

I began to think about all the things we carry around with us that make us who we are. Not just memories and experiences, but scars, accomplishments, failures, habits, patterns, Polaroid photos, jeans with holes in them, family recipes, song lyrics, quotes, dance moves, cravings, bruises, diseases, tools, favorite songs, dislikes, injustices, kindness, rudeness, whispers, melodies, childhood pets, victories, and table manners.

Broken hearts, first kisses, calloused finger tips, talents, embarrassment, high school crushes, college boyfriends and girlfriends, shame, guilt, I-knew-better-than-thats, I-am-better-than-thats, pride, courage, cowardice, fear, honesty, lies, sweat, tears, stomach aches, chipped teeth, broken bones, broken homes, bad haircuts, bad advice, insults, worthlessness, worthiness, judgement, jealousy, naps,  runny noses, smoke-filled lungs, and vaccinations.

T-shirt stains, drunken nights, hungover mornings, long car rides, missed phone calls, belly laughs, frigid hands, friendships, adventures, dreams, Christmas traditions, road trips, sunburns, screaming matches, thrown punches, misunderstandings, ignorance, life lessons, I’ll-never-do-that-agains, and traffic tickets.

Cuddling, freckles, piercings, tattoos, hair color, stitches, hospital rooms, promises, ticket stubs, difficult questions, doubt, faith, trust, distrust, limitations, imperfections, pay raises, job-well-dones, this-isn’t-good-enoughs, marathons, bike races, little league tryouts, A+’s, C-‘s, regrets, secrets…

All of these things and more.

We all have certain marks from these things. We all can identify with them. They hurt, they feel good, they teach us things, they make us work. They are things that no one can take away, including you. To echo some of what Julian Baggini has said about questioning the concept of “you,” we are not people to be found, but people to be created.  In this way, we carry bags and bags of these things listed above. We carry them throughout our lives constantly collecting more. We are not clocks, computers, or instruments that can be taken apart and put together to make us us, but we are a collection and accumulation of all of these things.

I suppose my reason for writing this is to brush alongside the idea that we have the power to carry in our hearts a selection of these things. Isn’t what you carry closest to your heart the most valuable, the most true, and the most sacred? If this is true, then that means we have control over what we let guide us, challenge us, accept us, drive us, and change us. Things will always happen which are out of our control, but we can choose how it effects us, our reaction to it, and its capacity for permanency in our lives. We can either choose to let experiences halt us from fully living, or propel us forward as a newly refined self.

This all kinda sounds like your typical “don’t let the world stop you from becoming all that you can be” speech, but for some reason, knowing the expansiveness and heaviness of my memories and experiences, I become more aware of my personal collection that I carry closest in my heart. And to me, that’s a relief. I don’t have to choose them all.

What were you MADE to do?

“Sometimes life’s gonna hit you in the head with a brick, but don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love, and that is as true for work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work; and the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking and don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it and as with any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So, keep looking; don’t settle.”

Great advice, Mr. Jobs.

It’s funny how words take on a greater meaning after the voice who authored them has passed away. I think it’s because we see a great figure living, working, creating, and then we see them no more. As with any close friend or loved one, the more used to them being around you are, the deeper the impact is when they leave.

Steve Jobs was an a revolutionary and an inspiration to many. But most of all, he did what he loved to do. I truly believe he was so successful because he found a very valuable intersection: the point at which you discover what you love to do, you work hard at it, and seek out opportunities that allow you do live out this new found love. It’s a simple equation, really. I know people who have discovered their talents, invested in them, and all of the sudden, they have taken off with no end in sight. People who do what they love to do love their lives. They feel like they are the vessels for these talents. They are the hands, the feet, the eyes, the ears of these talents. What must that be like to make your life’s work something you love to do?

I read an interesting passage in Ken Robinson’s book, The Element, in which he explains that there are two kinds of people: those who get energized by their work, and those who are drained from it. Ever wonder why most people who work in cubicles 8 hours a day seem like empty people? As if the life has been sucked out of them? But, they sit all day seemingly not using very much energy, right? Well, I think I would have to echo Dr. Robinson in saying that when you spend a significant amount of time doing something that doesn’t feed your passions, your natural inclinations or talents, life literally is being sucked right out of you. Look at football players. You rarely hear about them feeling lethargic or drained from their jobs. But football players exert much more energy than office workers do, right? It would appear that way, except rather than feel drained, they are energized by their life’s work because they are doing what they feel they were made to do.

So, does this mean we should all go after our dreams to become rockstars, star athletes, and astronauts? What about paying bills? After all, not everyone gets the dream job. What about all the jobs no one wants? What will happen to those occupations? Let me tell you a short little story. I once knew a musician — a brilliant musician — who, although he loves to play music and it is undoubtedly living his dream as a musician, was once a janitor. And guess what — he loved his job. Okay, maybe if he was faced with choosing between being a full-time musician or a full-time janitor, he’d probably choose the musician route. But, I remember him telling me he actually liked working as a janitor. He liked the solitude of it, and moreso, the servitude of it. He liked serving people out of the spotlight. It was just part of who he was.

My point is that we are all different. We all care about different things, want different things, desire different lifestyles, feel more comfortable in different situations. Therefore, all of our lives will look a little different. My ultimate desires will be different from yours. I love being outside, being active, social, and soaking in God’s nature. I am passionate about good, real, and healthy food. I think it’s important for people to look at and use their own abilities to improve their lives. I believe making education an available opportunity for all people could solve most of the world’s problems. It’s just who I am.  And I know others who are extremely talented at designing things, organizing events, innovating products, and running businesses. We all have different strengths and I believe that the right combination can lead you to live a life worth living — your life.

I think being a twenty-something comes with a lot of unforeseen predicaments. One huge predicament is finding this balance between doing what you love to do and what is practical for the time being. I don’t know anyone who gets to figure these things out without having to pay bills. I think the solution is re-prioritizing. Lots of my peers use their extra time and money doing things that help them pass the time — drinking, shopping, going to concerts, etc. There’s nothing wrong with these things, but I think we all reach a point where we ask, “is this it?” It is at that point which we have a choice to make:  continue doing things to pass the time, or start investing time in ourselves, which might actually help move us forward. I made a decision to start investing more in myself about 8 months ago and it has been the best investment I’ve ever made. I still don’t know what I was made to do, and I still work at a job that drains me more than it energizes me, but at least I know that I’m getting closer to the end result. I’m not settling and I haven’t stopped searching. Instead of complaining, I’m realizing that patience, determination, and honest effort really do make a difference. Somewhere deep inside of who I am my heart and intuition already know what I want; I just have to focus on taking the necessary steps to discover it.

I want to be a person that does something I love — something I’m good at that fulfills and satisfies me and makes me feel alive. My guess is that this is what everyone wants. Unfortunately, we aren’t given a “Life for Dummies” manual when we’re born. We all have to figure it out as we go along, which surprisingly, is the best part. I wish I could get an e-mail from God that told me what I am supposed to do with my life, but the more I think about it, the more I realize I am doing what I’m supposed to do. I’m figuring it out as I go along. I’m investing in learning about other’s mistakes, experiences, and success stories. I’m finding solace in meeting people who know exactly what it’s like to be a college graduate and not have it all figured out. And even though life can be extremely frustrating, confusing, and downright difficult at times, choosing to invest in time rather than just pass time has been all the more rewarding.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow you heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”

Steve Jobs really seemed to have this figured out. And look what he accomplished.