Four friends, independently of one another, reached out to me this week in whispered tones and weariness, with iterations of this: Sarah, I am feeling so lost and so lonely. I am worried I’ve made a mistake, taken some wrong turn, and I feel trapped. I thought my life, post-grad, this new job, this relationship, would feel different at this point. What should I do? My friends are sensitive searchers. They are cartographers, economists, writers, budding theologians, activists, and teachers. They may map and read the world differently from one another, but they are, above all else, equally compassionate people who work everyday to take steps toward meaningful, joyful, impactful lives. They live not simply for themselves, but for others and the greater good as well.
This post is a love letter to my friends who are feeling lost and lonely, to any kind soul who feels paralyzing confusion at the daily sight of this world, and to anyone (not just those in their twenties) who is striving to live intentionally.
Beloved, this stage of life is challenging. There are lines in books about this struggle and movies made about post-grad setbacks, but nearly every millennial I know has experienced feelings of disappointment and loneliness in some unexpected way within the first five years beyond college. For some of us, romance proves to be serially disappointing. Others of us live with cockroaches crawling around the perimeters of our bedrooms. Many suffer under the weight of student loan debt. All of us struggle to connect our education, our minds, our inner lives with a sensible path.
Some of us end up isolated in a remote corner of Minnesota with a porch but no new friends. Others of us end up surrounded by people in Manhattan, but we land isolated in a cramped studio. Loneliness can mean being physically alone, can be brought on by the silence in an apartment that is only interrupted by the refrigerator recalibrating. Loneliness, however, more often than not, arises from feeling misunderstood, from learning more about the character of one’s inner life and realizing that one’s outer environment cannot nurture that in some striking and particular way. I am married now to a partner with the kindest heart, who supports me in my every endeavor, who will go with me literally wherever I ask him to, and I still feel lonely often. I sense deeply that there is so much within me that this insane culture in what feels like a dark time cannot support.
Here’s the thing: our generation’s conversations around meaning, our life paths, our careers cannot only contend with our personal concerns. While thinking about how to pay our electric bill, financial planning, the issues we contend with in therapy, the sensitive, compassionate young adults must also be thinking about fascism and the protection our democracy, global climate change, water security, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. So while we are thinking, does this city support my inner life? Will this job trajectory bring me joy? We also have to think, what the hell are we going to do about the deterioration of our environment? and the threat of nuclear war because, Trump did WHAT, now? The tension between those diverse sets of considerations is enough to make any empath crazy. The best parts of our world, of our democracy, of our communities and the long-overdue possibilities for true justice are being dismantled in front of us, just as we are learning how to put our feet on the ground and walk in the world with dignity and purpose.
While I was in college, I was matched with a mentor who was supposed to help me discover my potential and role in purposeful social change work. At the start of our first meeting, he said, “What is wrong with your generation? You all can’t stick to any one cause. Back in the day [the seventies], we just picked a cause and stuck with it. You all just need to pick something – environmentalism, education, racial justice, human rights, and follow through!” This man said this to me and asked me this question because he wanted a genuine answer, but I was dumbfounded. I wanted to say, have you ever heard of a little something called intersectionality?? I refrained. I also refrained from mentioning that all those back -to-the-landers, back-in-the-day social warriors hadn’t set our generation up for easy, clearcut work. (Look at the state of our country and world.) I refrained from mentioning that thinking about social problems in isolation, as though racial justice has nothing to do with environmental change, has prevented more effective policies from coming to the fore. Most of all, I took issue with this man’s premise: that dedicating one’s life to service and justice should be easy and linear, like climbing the corporate ladder.
For those of us who are sensitive, choosing a “path” is particularly poignant and painful, even arduous at times. Of course, we watch classmates of ours work for a cosmetics company for the cache or who throw themselves into work at an investment bank without any moral examination. We, at first, say, “What? Why are you wasting your heart on that?” But sometimes, envy can creep in. We might learn how much their salaries are and feel inadequate, young, or naive for choosing a more creative life. Or we might be envious of how linear and defined their paths are. They have steps, one right after another, with set schedules for promotion and weekend trips to the Hamptons and the potential to buy a beautiful house someday. We look down at where we are and think, What am I doing??? I am so lost. I don’t know what will come next. This is painful.
Equally painful, though painful in a different way, is the experience of looking up from the linear path and taking the blinders off for the first time in years. You might realize that, although your path is lit by shiny corporate office lighting, everything around you is empty. The next step might be a new “prestigious” title, but that title’s meaning is contrived and limited to the bubble within which you find yourself. You might watch the news and realize that while our world seems like it is falling apart, you cannot focus on marketing makeup or making a new deal.
There are a plethora of articles published about the complacency, distractedness, and entitlement of the millennial generation. While true for some, those are not labels that come to mind when I listen to the ways quarter-life pains my friends and former classmates. I believe our generation is more aware of the complications baked into leading a meaningful life and confronting inequity or injustice. There are many ways to lead a good life, and a medical degree or fellowship or salary (high or low) is not a true indicator of a “good” life alone. Finding the specific path we are each meant to traverse is incredibly challenging because it varies between individuals and shifts for each of us individually over time.
Becoming financially independent or secure might make creative pursuits impossible. Achieving success as a woman in a male-dominated field might eclipse the career of service you’ve always contemplated. Your daily happiness might be the demand that wins out over other longterm goals. Caring for one’s family financially or otherwise might be most important to you. We all define impact differently, and such questions and concerns have divergent demands. A life well-lived is a life well-considered, which begins with asking questions about what is meaningful to you in all aspects of your life, not just your career. What breaks your heart? What keeps you up at night? Where are you the happiest? What are the financial demands of your life and your family? These questions are always woven together, perhaps tangled together, but they are good threads to touch, hold, weigh.
In the absence of questioning, any person can live a relatively happy, untroubled life on the surface, skating in the middle and numb to the needs of the rest of the world. Questioning one’s own values and choices, the deeper meaning of choice and privilege, makes clear that a living a life of meaning is not the same as climbing a ladder. On a ladder, there’s only one right next step, followed by another obvious, identical step. The climb is predetermined. The experience of navigating and forging a rich, interesting, rewarding path is much more akin to walking through a dark forest.
The forest trail is rich with possibility, but winding. The trees can become disorienting, and at times, we can only focus on the details of the tree trunk immediately in front of us so as not to lose our bearings. On the trail, mind you, a path that has never been forged before, we have to live within and walk in the face of the wild, unpredictable unknown.
So, my dear, if you are feeling lost, I say, well, that’s a damn good thing. Let your wildness – the swells of joy, compassion, and fear in you – match the wilderness. Your weariness, hope, anxiety, and desire are already tangled together, so let it be. The struggle in disentangling your inner complexity, your angst and inspiration, is the natural process of uncovering who you really are, what you truly care about, the spiritual matter you are made of.
Thus, the task within this uncertainty and the lonely, disorienting woods, is two-fold: integration and integrity. To live an integrated life that marries the self’s needs and attention to the world’s suffering lays the foundation for a life of integrity. Your compass is your integrity.
Your world cannot only become networking events, mixed drinks, and dates at art museums in your twenties. And your world cannot only be self-deprivation in your twenties (because otherwise, you will never flourish). It has to be both. It has to be both your gladness and the needs of the world. You, your selving, your individuation, your sustentation, your joy, your desire AND the world’s suffering, the world’s needs, the world’s sustentation and betterment.
Such work is not intended to be easy, my friend, but it is a blessed path: a challenging trek that leads to wisdom.
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“Now, voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.” – Walt Whitman