When we were little, the choices that lay before us seemed narrow and simple. Peanut butter and jelly or ham and cheese? Disney or Nickelodeon? Red shirt or blue shirt? None of these choices had any kind of serious gravity connected to them, mostly being little pivots in one direction or another throughout the course of what were mostly pretty ordinary days. I have been known to often look at eight year olds and muse “Don’t you miss being that age?”
But as we got older, choices became more nuanced, questions became more open, options grew wider. Suddenly choices we made mattered, suddenly they had a basis in some sort of value system, suddenly there wasn’t always a right or wrong answer. Sometimes there was, but it wasn’t the one we wanted. But still, we were presented with a set of options. AP or regular? SAT or ACT? Break the rules or follow the rules? We chose from a list of classes, we chose from a list of colleges, we chose from a list of dorm rooms and we chose from a list of extracurricular activities. Someone fanned a nicely organized list out in front of us, and said “pick a card.” So even though there were now more things to choose from, and the choices mattered more, we were still being guided, being prompted, being, in many ways, limited.
Now, as I hover on the verge of the end of that last major choice, I realize that no one is holding up a fanned out stack of cards. No one is presenting me with a list and asking me to choose. I’m simply staring forward, staring out at the entire world, and hearing some sort of disembodied voice whispering above me “Go.” There’s no map, no directions, no directory. It’s just the world, and everything in it, out there, waiting to be taken. And no one is telling me which way I have to go. Sure, there are some limitations–no one is pretending that I hav the option before me to move to the Middle East and be a financial consultant– but within the realm of reason, the next step can be absolutely anything I want it to be.
For some people this is not as daunting, not as difficult of a question. They’ve set up their own bunch of fanned-out cards, their own list of options. For people who have a very specific, very rigidly structured set of goals, the faint outline of the path ahead is laid out for them, they just have to fill in the blanks. For prospective doctors:ace your premed classes, take the MCAT, go to med school, do your residency, become a doctor. They have sets of fanned out cards waiting for them the next ten steps of the way.
Every piece of advice I’ve ever gotten from successful, published writers as to what a writing major is supposed to do after graduation is the same fairly vague, fairly terrifying thing: go out and experience things so you can write about them later. That is not a fan of cards, that is not a quick list, that is basically any and everything you could possibly do sitting there and waiting for you to choose it. And obviously, it is thrilling and fascinating and freeing–this idea that I could answer telephones in Maine or teach english in Chile or WWOOF around eastern Europe or translate assembly manuals for IKEA furniture in Chicago–but it is also overwhelming. Which way do I go, which passions do I follow? And the most important question that seems to pop up through all of this–how will I have time to do all the things I want to do?
In Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” he says “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” I love this quote because it addresses the fact that in most of us there live many passions, many possible directions, many dreams and desires. There are so many different things I could see myself being happy doing, so many places I could picture myself living. And yet for the time being, for the immediate future, I must choose one, or I must at least choose the one that will come first.
What used to happen to me when I was living at home when I was cleaning my (very messy) room was that I would get so overwhelmed with the magnitude of the mess that I would end up standing in the middle of my room staring at it, doing nothing, not sure where to start. If only my dresser was messy or only my chair had clothes on it, I could zero in on that area and get things done. But if there was stuff all over my floor, if my closet was in shambles, if you couldn’t see my desk under all of the out-of-place objects on top of it–then nine times out of ten I would be overwhelmed into inaction, into a stunned sort of stand-still. It is a little how I feel now, staring down all of these possibilities.
My only immediate goal right now is to explore as many of these as possible, to look into as many possibilities as I can, so that when the time comes to make the actual choice I will be excited about the openness of the choice I will have to make come June, rather than intimidated by it. Because the wide, open-ended questions like Where Do You Want To Go? And What Do You Want To Do? should be as enjoyable to figure out how to answer as the answers themselves.