Hello from London! Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column.
Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer (and please keep sending because I have like 567 writers that want to answer your burning questions. Click here to submit a letter or email email@example.com.) Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. We are “making messy okay.” Today’s letter is answered by author Sukey Forbes.
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I’m writing to you, whoever you may be, in hopes that you are in possession of a road map for life that I could borrow. A step-by-step list of directions for how to achieve a happy life: get this degree, live in this place, get this job, marry this person, have x number of kids, die happily on this day. Or maybe none of those things, I don’t know. I’m not saying that I have an unhappy life- that is not the case. In truth I have nothing to complain about. And I shouldn’t complain anyway because as Teddy Roosevelt said, “complaining about something without offering a solution is called whining”, or something like that. I live in Barcelona, an amazing city, I teach private English classes, which is a pretty painless job, and I spend much of my time with good people, drinking wine and enjoying the Spanish life. Doesn’t sound bad right?
My problem is that I left my life, job, friends and family in America behind six months ago to come to Europe and “find myself” and now that my time here is almost half done, I find that I spend most of it in a constant state of anxiety that I haven’t really found myself at all, or that I haven’t found the right version of myself, or that I’ve actually just wasted a year of my life and all my money living illegally in a foreign country and achieving absolutely nothing. And that is my biggest fear. That my time here won’t mean anything, won’t have been the life-changing experience I thought it would be, and that when I go home, nothing will have changed.
All my friends and family say how proud they are of me for taking this risk and that they are so jealous of my life living in an amazing city in Europe and that this will be the best time of my life. But I’m scared that this isn’t the best time of my life, or that I’m trying to force it to be that. I feel like if I don’t come home having made some epiphany about my dream career, or with a new boyfriend, or some life-changing revelation about myself, that it will seem like I have failed in some way. And I don’t really feel that I can talk to my friends and family about what I’m going through because it will be like admitting that I can’t do it alone or that maybe this whole thing was a mistake.
I know in my heart that this is all wrong- that my time here is a life experience like everything else and that I should stop worrying about what it all means and just spend what little time I have here enjoying myself. But my head is hell-bent on worrying and obsessing and planning and all-in-all making my life full of anxiety and dread for the future.
I guess I kind of think of this year as my last hurrah as a “kid” before I go back to the real world, buckle down, get a big-girl job and start looking for someone to marry. But maybe that’s not what I want. Maybe I want to keep travelling, live in another country, work at a bar, date lots of people I have no intention of marrying, etc. Maybe I want to be Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love and eat lots of spaghetti and then ride off into the sunset (literally) in Bali with a handsome Brazilian man. But is that realistic? I think maybe not.
I also can’t help but think how much farther I am falling behind my friends in the game of life. Every month I’m here “finding myself” they are getting promotions and raises, saving money, buying houses, becoming fiancées and wives and mothers. How do I stop comparing myself to everyone else and what other people have? I want to be content with my life and where I am and what I am doing, but I don’t know how to do it.
I’m sure I am not the only twenty-something in the history of the world to not know what they are doing with their life and I hope this letter reaches someone who may have had a similar experience and has some insight to offer. Or at the very least, a kind word of encouragement.
Thank you, dear adventurer, for reaching out to me for advice. I see so much of who I was 25 years ago in you. And you know what? You’ve got this. You really do.
Before you read one more word please do this one thing for me. Ready?
Breathe in. Now breathe out. Now smile. Do it again slowly. Then we’ll talk.
First let me congratulate you on being a seeker. You are part of the small minority of the population that is intent on moving through life with their eyes wide open. You want to suck the marrow out of life and have purpose. That is clear from your letter as is your sense of courage and determination. Being a seeker will serve you well over time though for now it seems to be acting as your master. My dear A, I fear from reading your letter that you are your own worst enemy. You’ve got a whole lot of inner dialogue going on that’s talking smack to you.
Do you really believe that you are falling behind in life by being in Spain? Has it occurred to you that your friends back at home getting promotions, saving money, buying houses, and taking the so-called conventional route are likely lying awake at 3am staring at the ceiling berating themselves for jumping on the treadmill of societal expectations so early and easily? I’m betting an easy 50% of them are envious and admire you for taking the time, yes TAKING THE TIME to be present in your own life. They are likely quite aware that while you are across the pond with your heart and mind open to inspiration they have not allowed themselves the space to do just that.
You seem fearful that you might be missing the boat. But fear doesn’t count. What counts in life is what you do with the fear, anxiety, and all the woes that keep you up at night and prevent you from engaging in life RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW. You have courage, Ms Alcee. You are bada*ss. Don’t squander it and whatever you do, don’t discount that. It is huge and it will serve you well.
With very few exceptions I would say that it is better to regret something that you have done than something you have not done. I like to take the porch rocker approach when trying to figure out a problem I have with making a decision in the now. I picture myself in a porch rocker in my 90s (I’ll of course still have great hair and decent figure, and my body will be fit and I’ll be sharp as a tack and witty and attractive in that kind of aged and alluring way; and most people will think I’m only 60… hey it’s all part of my dream) and try to imagine if I will regret having done or NOT done something. I find that by distancing myself from the decision it gives greater clarity and perspective.
While it seems a very important stretch of time, over the span of an expected life a year or two is nothing. Unless you are asleep and never leave your bed the entire time you are Barcelona I’m guessing that the experience of being there will source you in ways you have no idea. This will happen naturally. I am not sure what it is that you mean to achieve in this time period. Write the next bestselling memoir of travel as a means for transformation? (those books usually are written long after the return from a trip once the author has fully processed the experience; Ask Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert, Frances Mayes) Fall in love? (oh, please do. Just for fun). Map out your next 40 professional years of unbridled zest for life step by step? (Really? Do you really want that level of clarity? Or do you just want to know it will all be ok and you are on the right track?)
What if, darling girl, what if you just enjoy Barcelona for what it is. Marvel at Antonio Gaudi’s architecture. Drink coffee. Keep crazy hours. Meet friends. Shop. Go to museums. Treat this time as an extended vacation. But open your eyes and enjoy it. It is your life and you are in it right now. Wiggle your toes in your shoes Alcee. You are in Barcelona. Maybe you don’t need to label it as the ultimate inspiration. Maybe you are meant to achieve, as you say “absolutely nothing”. What is so wrong with that? You are growing a soul and living a life. Enjoy this space while you can. Are you looking for permission to do just that?
Here, I give you permission to enjoy this time without knowing what comes next. Will you please give yourself permission as well?
See the thing is, very few of us really know exactly what we want or what we should be doing. It’s part of our human condition to question ourselves at every turn, especially those of us who are seekers. You are in that group, dear Alcee. The best we can do is be open, be present and keep moving, thinking and feeling. We need to stay in touch with our courageous bad*ss selves. Inspiration will come. And life is happening right now. Right now. All this anxiety and brow beating that your doing? It’s mostly a waste of your time. It will follow you wherever you go. You, dear girl, YOU need to manage it. And I know you will. You already are.
The ONLY way to fail is by not engaging. Wiggle those toes, dear girl. Enjoy your time in Barcelona while you are there. You will carry bits of that experience with you forever. Enjoy now, with an open eye and ear towards inspiration for your next move.
You are an admirable, seeking, courageous bad*ss of a woman. You’ve got this one. Just breathe. And give yourself permission to not be sure and to just BE.
Love to you along the way.
Sukey Forbes is the Bestselling author of “The Angel in My Pocket: A Story of Love, Loss, and Life After Death” (Penguin 2014). She has been interviewed and/or featured on ABC, WGBH, NPR, LA Talk Radio, Open to Hope, Worth Magazine, Boston Magazine and eHarmony among others. Her writing appears on Time.com, Boston Magazine, numerous websites and as a regular blog columnist for The Huffington Post. She lectures on positive grief and embracing life after loss. Sukey is active on social media platforms as sukeyforbes. For more information please visit her website www.sukeyforbes.com.
Please note: Advice given in Dear Life is not meant to take the place of therapy or any other professional advice. The opinions or views offered by columnists are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed physician or mental health professional. Columnists acting on behalf of Dear Life are not responsible for the outcome or results of following their advice in any given situation.