A few weeks ago I decided to quit my job. Ahead of me: nothing. No safety net. No plan B. Not even a clue. This is a first for someone like me obsessed with the idea of security and with ‘doing things right’ and ‘following a plan.’ But I have a confession to make: it feels really great to be so ‘reckless’ and 'free' for once! It may not last for long, but I’m choosing to relish in the feeling while it lasts.
For the past few months I have been working a job I disliked. Fear, and habit, and a fake sense of responsibility and duty, coupled with the need to pay the bills and with not knowing what I truly wanted kept me there. I stuck around with it long after I knew it was time for me to leave, and I did all of this in pursuit of a sense of security I know does not exist.
And you may be wondering, why are you telling me this? This seems like an odd thing to share! And you’re right! I don’t normally share such personal bits of information with strange eyes. Still, just this one time, I thought I would make an exception and share with you all what I consider to be a truly valuable life lesson: learning to let go.
By letting go I am not referring to the occasional relinquishment of material possessions (or your job) –though that may work as well. No. I am speaking of the get-real, tough-to-get-around-to, and often-heartbreaking letting go of the idea of WHO YOU ARE and everything that comes with it. The idea of ‘ME’ (or ‘YOU’) that each of us has internalized as an identity. And thus, of letting go of the attachment to this idea –something that philosophers, sages, and wise (wo)men have been speaking about since time immemorial.
So, in this entry today, I reflect upon our fear of letting go and appeal to you to consider the meaning and purpose of your life. Perhaps no changes are necessary, and if so, that’s awesome. But, if you’re feeling like your life ain’t quite what you’d like it to be, or that your dependency on the notion of security is preventing you from being who you really are deep within, then, keep reading. There might be something in this piece for you to realize.
As a culture, we in the west are obsessed with the search for security. This is not just me saying it; countless thinkers have differently exposed the underlying problem over the centuries. From Kierkegaard, to Sartre, Agamben, Deleuze, or Watts, security matters, and it matters most for what it hides than for what it reveals.
Indeed, the majority of us live life in search of ways to guarantee ‘security’ or, when that isn’t possible, to distract ourselves from our very real (and uncomfortable) feelings of insecurity. We look for certainty, security, and safety, for example, by having a good education, a good job, a decent bank account, or a unified idea of who we are. Put simply, we want ‘solid ground under our feet’ and we feel very contraried whenever we can’t find it.
This is not uncommon, nor unreasonable. Indeed, we are raised to tick this way, which essentially explains why things like rules and systems and clearly established methods and paths are so popular. They give us structure, a steady road to follow, and the illusion of coherence in a world made up of transient and changeable experiences.
Faced with our vulnerability as beings with an unknown (yet certain) expiration date, we turn to security for solace and make of 'finding security’ one of life’s most pressing goals. So most of us do something not short of bargaining with the present. We agree to give up parts of our present in hopes of finding a measure of security in the near future, just the right amount to then be able to live with the certainty of knowing ourselves safe and sound. But often this moment never comes, or comes much too late in life, and until then, we are left with a great deal of anxiety, fear, and stress –emotions that we don’t always know how to handle.
To put an easy example: fear of insecurity is the reason we agree to devote on average a third of our time to our jobs even when we don’t like them. As mentioned at the beginning, I am a good example of this! Having a job, and if possible a career carved from it, is such a socially charged thing that it pretty much defines who we are. We organize our time around it, our habits, eating routines, where we live... And we convince ourselves this is reasonable because, well, ‘we need security, food in our mouths, a place to live.’ Everything we have, ‘everything we are,’ depends on it. So, long story short, we become what we do. If you don’t agree, think of the last time you met a stranger and were forced to introduce ‘who you are’ to her/him. Didn’t you estate your name and shortly after go straight to saying ‘what you do’ for a living as a way to summarize it? Funny how we all do that, right?
Paradoxically, surveys on job satisfaction in different parts of the world rank dissatisfaction as high as 80%. The same goes for the things we study. Many of us spend years literally suffering through our degrees to qualify for more or less well-paid jobs that we frequently don’t really like after all. You can extrapolate this to other realms. The logics is nuts. We convince ourselves that doing something we dislike is better than not knowing what we want and, afraid of being stuck in the ‘not knowing zone’ –and thus, with 'being no one’– we rush into being someone by doing, much like sleepwalkers on a highway. Our obsession with security, then -–or, to put it differently, our pathological aversion towards insecurity– is one of the main reasons for this; because, we are absolutely shit-scared of not knowing what to do, how to live, and who to become.
The ‘single personality’ disorder
I like to call this condition the ‘single personality disorder,’ since most of our efforts are put into getting a unified sense of who we are in the world through an ‘either/or’ labelling method. This is partly so because of the legacy of the Enlightenment and Descartes. We westerners have been trained to divide experience in dualistic, either/or terms. Some of our past entries have already dwelt on this topic, so I’ll spare you the repetition, but let’s just say that we have narrowed experience down to two different types of processes: those of the rational mind and of the emotional body, reason and passion –or, in everyday terms, mental stuff and physical stuff. And we have put a higher price tag on the latter. As Alan Watts argues, “we live life with our brain.”
This categorization of reality in terms of either/or permeates EVERYTHING, although perhaps you have not yet realized it. It dictates, for example, whether something is a rational fact or a mere speculation, a psychological event or an emotional experience, a wise decision or an irrational idea, adding moral values to the division. And this way of categorizing experience is actually at the root of a great deal of existential myopia, because we humans do not work in such clear-cut terms!
Believing in ‘acting rationally’ and in making ‘sensible, rational decisions’ –about our studies, our relationships, our career, our life– we fail to realize that rational understanding is also a limited or biased way of interpreting reality. Experience DOES go beyond the limits of the ego-centered rational mind; which explains why many of our decisions –decision we apparently make ‘freely’– do not really represent what we honestly, truly want.
We have then taken this ‘either/or’ mentality to every possible sphere, building our entire identities around the same dualistic principle: either I am one gender or another, one culture or another, one race or another, one class or another, one profession or another, one coherent person or… a mess. We use these tags to compare-contrast ourselves to others and separate ‘us’ from ‘them.’ And we have learnt to perform the identities these tags represent even when we feel they are not the right fit for us. Why? Because, early in life, we learn that is best to try to fit the either/or categories we are handed than not knowing ‘who we are.’ We must know that, right? If not, what are we? So, better a pair of shoes that’s too small or too large than no shoes at all. Again, the logics is nuts.
Ok. But, then, how does this relate to the letting go part?
Simply put, we just don’t like to be in the ‘not knowing’ situation, in the 'I-don’t-really-fit-any-pair-of-shoes’ type of spot. It makes us feel exposed, uncomfortable, and precarious, which brings us back to our discussion of the idea of security.
In a world where success stories are cherished and hero-identities revered, only the bright and sunny side of things and the coherent ‘single personality individual’ is welcomed. We want closely unified identities, people who know where they stand and who are committed to the labels meant to define them; and so, we do not encourage anyone to tread out of the boundary lines of their identity, neither to dwell on the dark side of things for too long.
To distract our thinking and feeling mind from those darker or unknown places, we are raised in the doing, the having, the becoming, the succeeding, the needing, the perpetual wanting of more and more of something; of what exactly? Whatever. Anything that may keep us busy not thinking of that that itches, throbs, or hurts. To me, this is a backwards way of raising functionally and emotionally intelligent humans, but the truth is that our world does not play easy on those who, for whatever reason, cannot fit into its boxes. So most us do, one way or another –conscious or not– and repress any feelings we may get pointing us towards a different direction.
The road less taken
We all have these feelings, mind you; but repressing them or acting as if they didn’t matter is what we’ve been trained to do, what is generally called ‘leading a normal life’; and most of us have a higher or lesser degree of success at doing life this way. At least until something happens to jolt us out of our routine, or until we stop for one second too many to take stock of where we are in life –if curious to read further on this topic, have a look at this entry by Dr. Gabor Mate.
Most people get this in their forties, though it can also happen before that. And anything can trigger the thinking, no one seems to be immune. Life can be apparently perfect on the outside and everything we always wanted be at our disposal –a partner, a family, friends, a nice job– but somehow we start pulling from the one thread of ‘why am I so anxious?’ or ‘why am I feeling so dissatisfied?’ and there goes our world!
Dissatisfaction in life is a very real, yet rarely discussed, malaise. It is characteristic of our era for reasons too numerous to name. But one of them has to do with letting go, or rather, with not learning to accept ourselves as we are and embrace our emotions, desires, and feelings any size or shape the may come in. I call this getting to know oneself and, I’m sorry to tell you this but, chances are, you may not truly have taken the time to do so properly. And it’s alright! We are not encouraged to. The process can be tough.
So where to from here?
The truth is that there’s only one way possible from here and it requires a tough love exercise on your part. The exercise is called ‘just being,’ and it begins with the letting go part. Indeed, nothing short of giving up a job you hate without a better plan. Decisions don't have to be rational at all times!
Ramiro A. Calle, a Spanish yogi and writer I really like, suggests the following method:
Te haces muchas preguntas: por eso buscas;
pero preguntate por el que pregunta.
Sientes angustia: por esos buscas;
pero indaga por el que experimenta la angustia.
Experimentas pesadumbre: por eso buscas;
pero inquiere por el que se apesadumbra.
This translates as “[y]ou ask yourself a lot of questions: and so you search / but ask about the one asking questions / You feel anguished: and so you search / but inquire about the one experiencing anguish / You feel encumbered: and so you search / but ask about the one feeling encumbered.” His words, I believe, are a great road map for the type of work lying ahead of anyone interested in letting go of any attachments to the ideas we (and others) have built about ourselves –ideas often standing in the way of us being who we really are at heart.
So perhaps, a first step in the right direction is to be more aware of who we are and who we are not; to get acquainted with our values and with what we stand for. And then, to begin paying unbiased attention to our emotions, longings, feelings, and desires, doing so without judgement. I am here speaking of learning to develop the witness in ourselves, being equally open to experiencing bliss or suffering if those are the experiences we get. As the saying goes, you can’t have the rainbow without a little rain… So forget about the implicit requirement for you to always be the hero of your own story. Life is really not always supposed to feel like a night at the Willy Wonka factory...
Just forget everything you think you know about yourself and begin asking honest questions. Devote some time to getting to know yourself as you really are: What do I want? What do I love? What do I believe in? Then, take time to accept the answers, slowly, without a rush. Life is not a race, though it may sometimes seem otherwise. You may not always like what you discover, but learning to accept how you feel and who you are before any labels or pre-determined answers is the whole point of life. I mean, if you can’t be yourself during this lifetime, when are you supposed to get a second chance?