I don’t understand this soul-searching, ‘find yourself’ thing that your generation does. When I was your age, I had to find a career path and a job quickly, to make money and to support my family. That was the choice. I just had to do it.
I can still hear with perfect clarity the inflection and words of Ben, my friend and co-worker, a retiree who ran field drops (also known as Backup) of water and supplies for the groups of kids and staff at my wilderness therapy job in the high desert hinterlands of northeastern Utah. Before his time in this position, something he did more for the social contact than any kind of necessary supplemental income, Ben had lived another life a world away, as a successful businessman in foreign cities and distant lands. Prior to that, he had been in the military, doing much the same. At one point in the midst of all that, he lost both his wife and his daughter in a tragic car accident. He never seemed bitter or marred by the experience, merely reflective and always just a little sad, though possibly gentler, with a steely reserve and an undeniable, unflappable ethic. He always treated me with a fatherly kindness, tempered by gentle ribbing and sarcasm applied at the moments when I took myself too seriously or allowed the actions of others to puncture my all too transparently thin skin. All of this was balanced by a decent amount of “now, listen here” tough love.
Though his words echo like they were spoken yesterday, instead of eight years ago (nearly to the day), the statement doesn’t stick with me for its sting, but rather for its unadulterated honesty. It wasn’t steeped and stewed in overly judgmental tones or sanctimony, but one of vague bewilderment. Yes, in some ways it had a hint of that tone of every generation that comes before, which inevitably finds its moment to shake a gnarled finger at the next and scold them for how good they have it, if they only knew, kids these days. In my gut, I also knew there was truth to what he said, even if it wouldn’t adequately brush aside my hunger for a change of scenery. At that juncture, I was practically squirming out of my skin to be far, far away from what had become routine and now seemed utterly dolorous, oppressive, and bland. If I could just get myself far enough away, everything could be different. At least, this is the believable lie I often tell myself and tend to hold onto as the ultimate truth.
I was finishing up my last shift in the field before a trip to India, which in its own right was indeed both life-altering, only gently harrowing, and incredible. At the time, I was 26 years old and restless as ever, eager to leave behind the insidious red desert dust, finger numbing winters, and long tiring days trudging through the wilds of BLM back country lands, alongside a scrappy-looking pack of troubled teens and raggedy band of staff alike. My inner vagabond still felt unsatisfied, even though I was in near-constant motion. Something still just didn’t seem right. I couldn’t quite articulate just what that was. Working backup with Ben was a pleasant break from a daily slog through the dirt, and provided respite from the minor political dramas that tend to arise in any work situation, and invariably balloon out of proportion in one’s mind, but are more or less interchangeable from one scene to the next. The setting may alter, and the players too, but clump humans together in close quarters on a near-daily basis, and you will produce similar enough results: allegiances and conflicts, squabbles and disagreements, things that matter a lot and others that matter very little, or not at all.
I can look back with piercing clarity to see that then, just as now, I was trying to shake things up, to brush off the dust – both metaphoric and physical – in hopes of glimpsing the bigger picture and holding it within sight for just a moment before it slipped from my vision once again. What is it like to really feel alive, to truly be awake? I was certain the answer to this question lay in some mysterious Elsewhere and that only by testing myself could I really extract the answer. Echoing against the recesses of my consciousness, I asked myself this question over and over again, to try to jump-start motivation and enthusiasm for something, anything: the engine rattles and sputters, but doesn’t turn over. “Find your True North,” as some of the staff used to say, but I spent most of the time seeing the compass spinning and spinning without a landing point, as they say a compass will do at the poles. Running in place furiously, without realizing you’re not actually moving in a meaningful direction, only leads to exhaustion from pointless, self-defeating overexertion.
And yes, it does seem at a certain point both undeniably self-indulgent and completely selfish, which is part of what Ben’s statement pointed to, and which made me wince. It’s a luxury of singularity, of rebellious irresponsibility. The polar opposite of course is not the only alternative, but its the only one I wanted far in my rear view mirror: stultifying domesticity, the ebb and flow of the 9 to 5 rhythm, a life of duty, routine, and boring, mind-numbing obligation. In a word, much of what comprises adulthood, but isn’t always the death knell one might think.
So here I sit, in the midst of a similar conundrum, but closing in on a decade away from that other moment. Once again, feeling like I teeter on the brink of adulthood, but still sitting firmly on the fence, only dipping my toes in, on one side and then on to the other. Oh so briefly, before I resume my perch.