I woke up at four this morning. It’s one of the only hours that seems quiet in New York, very little movement with the early light wrapping the city in a dusty blue. I wake up more often at four than I’d like to admit. It explains why so much ginger tea is consumed in our house. Though I do love that our cat shows me extra affection those mornings for coming out to see her early, on balance, it is an anxious time. My entangled thoughts pool out and fill the void.
My anxious thoughts these days circle around my transition to graduate school and not knowing where I will land in a few years. I struggle in the gap between not knowing and imagining what life will be like. I also do a lot of thinking and planning in that gap, ultimately energy I waste, the way steam escapes from tea on a frigid winter morning.
When I was graduating from Middlebury, a fellow classmate said to me, “It’s so great to see that you know where you’re headed and that you know what you want. Congratulations!” Um, I’m sorry. What gave you that impression??!!? I was dumfounded. Before I had a moment to respond, he moved on to greet another graduate. In that moment and the year that followed, I never felt I had a clear sense of my direction.
Though our generation receives criticism for our indecision, the confusion is justified. We are inheriting a world rife with dizzying complexity, one in which the systems are failing the most vulnerable among us and in which the urgency of dire global issues has reached new heights. The existential panic surrounding career choices rises from a sense of responsibility and no right answers. Our culture presents many choices and many considerations, bolsters many varied voices and arguments. Yet in a world that is increasingly connected through intangible rather than concrete means, there is a persistent and worrying sense of not being truly useful or effective.
Our culture is a culture of distraction. It gives us an escape from discomfort, sleepless nights, sleep deprivation, loneliness, difficult questions, sadness and all the change that follows emotional work. Immediate gratification and relief are constantly at our fingertips. Watching videos or scrolling through social media can immediately quiet discomfort and distract us before we’ve had a chance to register the weight of our concerns. When I really do not want to think about the next five years and unsolvable uncertainty, I disappear down an Instagram rabbit hole, looking at pictures of beautiful homes, cooked dinners, beach vacations to avoid confronting my messy humanness. Learning to sit with the discomfort is key to unraveling the existential knots. If we don’t witness and process our emotional blocks, we cannot become wiser.
Technological progress is making our culture very entertaining, but ultimately, our culture lacks wisdom. It is preoccupied with youth and with newness, with ease and with speed. In the blur of blue lit screens, we don’t receive the daily doses of insight and support that we need to make conscious decisions.
In the heat of anxiety, I do not buy into the just take it one step at a time platitudes for building a fulfilling life. However, with some breathing space and coffee, I find the image of stepping-stones makes more sense and provides some comfort. The intention of making one good decision at a time refocuses my attention on the present moment, on the life that is directly in front of me. When I feel the grounded power of present attention, I see more clearly. I feel gratitude rise. Gratitude fills the emptiness that uncertainty leaves in its wake.
Every evening I write a list of what I am most grateful for. I am always grateful for my health and safety (and the health and safety of my loved ones), gratitude for the Beautiful (that which reminds me of human flourishing), and gratitude for the abundance of love in my life. The love I share with Jack, with my family, with our sweet cat, with my friends… it is truly enough for me in this life. All the work that I hope will unfold is important, but it is fundamentally secondary.
We are not angels. We must live in this world that is driven by status and marked by fear. We can easily lose sight of what is real and true. We get carried away into the future, into anxiety, into frenzy, into an internet spiral. No one should be expected to maintain perfect calm at all times, but gratitude is what takes us back to source. Gratitude guides us under the noise of anxiety and into the space of wisdom where grace, love, and humility reside. Grace is what will set us free from the pettiest to heaviest concerns.
Come back to the life that is in front of you. All of this is much sweeter when lived with presence.