Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life. -Epictetus
Life is a series of unfolding–of unwrapping gift after gift with the uncertainty of what’s inside the bottomless box. Each layer of the box reveals itself to us when the time is right, regardless of whether we feel ready for it or not. A blanket may be perfectly folded, but it will not keep you warm in that state. It might look pretty on the shelf of a linen closet, but to truly utilize it, we must take it out of that tidy state and explore its manifolds. The unfolding may be messy and there is no guarantee that it can be refolded the exact same way it was before. It is this uncertainty of the unfolding that scares us to death.
Unfolding can be messy. It can look like a toddler hastily unwrapping a birthday gift, throwing the scraps of gift wrap on the floor in a pile. Unfolding can look like a businessman carefully opening a letter containing important documents, careful not to rip or tear anything. But life is not an envelope with perfect perforations–we are bound to make accidents; but these accidents are all part of the unfolding. How we go about unfolding is what truly matters.
Unfolding requires bravery. Sometimes it’s easier to let the envelope sit on the counter than open it. Sometimes you unfold the shirt from your drawer and it’s wrinkled and stained, but would you rather wear the same shirt everyday? Maybe you can iron it, maybe you have to wear it as it, wrinkles and all, and embrace the imperfections. When things are folded, we feel in control. Folded things give the illusion of perfection, of order. Unfolding always has a certain amount of chaos. We’ve been conditioned to organize, to clean, to perfect, to trim our lives like a rosebush. We try to fold our lives into tidy little boxes.
My manta this week has been, “I trust in the unfolding of my life.” I surrender to it. I let it reveal itself to me without judgment. It is easier said than done, but I am slowly learning to love the process of unfolding.
I was recently talking to a friend of mine who expressed her fear that she wasn’t “doing enough.” As a twenty-something also navigating the pressures of career changes, familial expectations, and uncertainty over the future and my role in this big wide world, I knew the exact feeling she was talking about. Deep rooted anxiety over not accomplishing “enough,” having “enough,” and being “enough,” have plagued me since I was a child. As soon as I felt like I was finally on the right level, I’d let something (or someone) diminish my accomplishments. After years of this, I realized that no matter what I did,I would always feel this way if I judged success solely by actions.
Living in the “grind” generation, most of us define our worth in terms of work. She’s successful because she runs her own company; he isn’t successful because he’s a waiter. He’s worthy because he’s an engineer; she isn’t worthy because she’s a sales associate. This hierarchy or worth doesn’t lead us upwards to happiness or satisfaction. More often than not, it takes us down a never-ending ladder of hopelessness, exacerbated by our constant judging of everyone else’s placement on the ladder in relation to our own.
As I talked my friend off the ladder with reassurance that she was already enough, I remembered being in her position not so long ago–and if I’m being honest with myself, I have a tendency to teeter on that ladder whenever my ego feels belittled, especially when I see someone else doing “better” than me. “I should be doing that,” I tell myself, turning off my intuition and turning on that stubborn little voice of fear and comparison. Eventually, a hike in the woods taught me how to silence those voices.
Taking in the beauty of the trees–the moss that covered the trunks, the splintered bark blanketing the body, the sunlight glistening through the cracks of the limbs–I felt the contentment and simplicity of that tree. It wasn’t doing anything–it was just existing. And that existence looked so peaceful, so euphoric. As I continued my way up the mountain, I allowed myself to exist the same way that tree did, not thinking about my steps but just experiencing the journey. At the top, my spirit basked in the warmth of the sun and sang with the songs of the birds. It was one of the most profound feelings I had experienced, and the first time I realized that feeling is just as important as doing.
It wasn’t the physical act of climbing the mountain that I remembered–I didn’t say, “Wow, those were some great steps I took!” It was the feeling behind those steps that stuck out. That isn’t to say that the physicality of the journey wasn’t important, because it was–but would I say it was more important than the sensation of the hike? Absolutely not. And the same goes for our everyday life–what’s the point of doing something if we’re not feeling anything? As Kerouac once said, “In the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Go climb that goddamn mountain.”
It breaks my heart that my friend doesn’t think she’s enough–that she needs to do more in order to be valued, to be successful. But success isn’t just about what we’ve accomplished; life isn’t a to-do list. If the spiritual experience behind the action isn’t bringing awareness or love–do we need to do it? And how can we shift our focus from the physical results of action to the emotional ones?
Working in childcare has completely changed how I view adulthood. Being around these tiny humans is exhausting, invigorating, frustrating, humorous, and rewarding, all at once. To see the world from a six-year-old’s eyes is to see it through a kaleidoscope of vivid colors, imagination, and, more than anything–endless fun. As I listened to my students’ stories from our writing class in all their incoherent and bizarre glory (The Potato King’s tragic bludgeoning-to-death by a jealous watermelon, leaving him in a puddle of mashed potatoes and gravy may be my favorite), I was amazed at how easy it was for them to have fun, how unabashedly silly and strange they were. Even the most mundane tasks could be turned into something playful. How can I be like that again? I wondered. How can I get back to seeing life as something meant to be fun? And at what point did I stop seeing it that way?
We teach kids to learn about life through games, but we don’t do the same for adults despite the fact that life is essentially one giant board game. You move back two spaces when you draw the wrong card, you roll a dice and move forward according to the number—and all the while, you laugh. Maybe you win, maybe you lose; either way, you enjoy the game. You lost your Monopoly money? Oh well. Better luck next time. But for now, you are so absorbed in the game that nothing outside of it matters. And while it may seem like the other players are opponents, you become closer to them through this shared experience of play.
But something happens to the game if you take it too seriously. It’s no longer enjoyable—you can’t wait for it to be over already. You’re either obsessed with winning or completely apathetic. The more I thought about it, I realized this is what’s happened to not only me, but a majority of people who call themselves “adults,” a label I’ve been reluctant to give myself. And why have I been so hesitant to call myself an adult? Because I’ve been taught that being an adult isn’t fun. It’s supposed to suck. It’s hard, thankless, and above all—it’s painfully serious.
We come into the world as curious and playful beings, but seeds of shame and inadequacy are planted in our heads at a young age until they grow into Venus Fly Traps, devouring moments of simplicity and turning them into complex problems. We torture ourselves by creating problems out of what is nothing more than a game; and instead of playing the game, we see it as something that needs be “solved.” We grow frustrated and disheartened when we can’t find the solution because we’re incapable of accepting that there is no “solution”—nothing needs to be fixed; it simply needs to be experienced. Life has given us an invitation to participate in this universally connected game, and instead of accepting the invitation as we should, we dismiss it as unimportant.
With each passing year, we shed our childish behaviors to become mature and adult-like; “stop acting like a child,” we tell our partners or colleagues, the connotation being that behaving in a childish manner is unacceptable. So while we lock our toys in their chest and bury our dreams and interests in the sandbox, we strive to distance our “adult” selves from our former selves in the name of “growth”— but are we really growing? After all, plenty of adults cling to the negative mental and emotional patterns of their youth that have gone unresolved and are deemed as upstanding adults by societal standards. In this attempt to “grow up,” we think we must forsake that innate desire for fun and play. Bills need to be paid, mouths must be fed, beds need to be made…these are all “serious” things and therefore we must treat them as such; and because of this, we come to despise the cards we’ve been dealt. It isn’t fair I got this one while she got an ace. It isn’t right I got this piece of the puzzle, it’s too hard to find where it fits. We grow resentful of the game and say, “This isn’t fun anymore!” when the reality is that we’re the ones who stripped it of fun by constantly trying to control where the dice lands. But what if we accepted it? What if we stopped judging ourselves for our place on the gameboard with the understanding that we land exactly where we need to? So what’s the point in rushing? Maybe you lose a round but say, “Alright, I lost this time, but I had fun. Let’s play again.” And maybe you have to do that over and over—but it never gets boring because there are countless ways to play, countless outcomes, countless possibilities. You start at zero with a few fellow players, but some fall behind and some bounce ahead. Maybe you catch up to them later, maybe you outpace them. If the game has taught you anything, it’s that nothing is permanent—you can go back to square one in the blink of an eye and you can land on a bonus square just as quickly. The game wouldn’t be fun if you reached the end straight away. Easy may be quick, but it’s boring.
I find it strange that we spend most of our childhood playing and then abandon it by the time we reach a certain age. Shouldn’t we continue playing the game, but this time better? Shouldn’t the game become more fun as it gets more challenging? Sure, it’s not Candyland, but would you really want it to be? We tend to think childhood was better because it was easier. We long for a return to the “simple days,” but maybe childhood was better for some of us simply because we approached it with a sense of curiosity and playfulness. Why do we see play as inextricably tied to childhood but not adulthood? And how can we hang on to that spark inside of us that sees the magic in this game of life?