The Boy and the Fig Tree
Every time I start making changes in my life, my mind wanders back to the passage about the fig tree in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
I know that I’ve written about this passage and its metaphorical resonance in my life, but it keeps coming back to me, keeps slamming me in the face.
The passage, for the unfamiliar:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.
One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
This passage resonated with me from the moment I’ve read it, sometime back when I was in high school. It’s stuck in my head because there are a million different lives I could have wandered into.
In high school, I was a newspaper editor, an actor, a musician, a poet, and a motivational speaker. Any one of those careers would have been one that I could have settled into. In the years since, I’ve considered going into politics, going to law school, going into ministry, novel writing, teaching high school, teaching college, applying any of the previous careers into being an advocate for poor or queer kids, and becoming a vagabond freelance writer that wanders the world.
And these are just the practical lives. After a session of binge watching Grey’s Anatomy or ER or House, I also consider going into medicine. A few episodes of Scandal, and I’m going to become a political fixer. And so on, with just about every TV show.
Never mind the fact that, for most of these careers, I have absolutely none of the requisite skills. In fact, every bit of research has shown that I’d be miserable as a doctor or a politician. But I still dream myself into those shoes.
While I was living out the worst years of my depression, I was looking up at the figs in the tree. I have never known what I’ve wanted to do wanted to do. I’ve been occasionally swayed to moments of fancy, but that’s about it.
Any time I’ve ever tried to make any kind of permanent declaration, to chase any one career, I become instantly and immediately aware of what I’m losing by giving up on the rest. One permanent choice means a multitude of possibilities, a multitude of lives that could have been, lost.
It was only recently that I realized that the figs were rotting away.
Somewhere along the way, I got old. I don’t know when that happened, exactly, when I first noticed that some doors were closing behind me.
Maybe it was when I realized that I would never become a Rhodes Scholar, or when I realized that I was getting too old for most youth programs. Maybe it was when most of my classmates started graduating with their Bachelor’s degrees, or when one of my dearest friends from high school got into USC Med School, and another one got into a prestigious theatre conservatory.
They were out their living their dreams and making things happen. Meanwhile, I hadn’t moved from the tree. I had wasted so much time looking up.
A lot of people will tell you that mid-to-late 20s isn’t old. They’ll tell you that you still have your whole life ahead of you. They may even have a point. But when you are staring at square zero, with nothing to your name, and no concrete plans to do anything, you begin — or, rather, continue — to worry about the ravages of time.
Growing up with depression, I never expected to live to see 18. 20 sounded like a joke. And, now, I’m closing in on 30.
And I still haven’t chosen a fig.
And all of the good ones are rotting away.
And I’m scared.
I can’t help but feel that I should have some part of my life together.
Maybe I’m not meant to be rich, or famous. Maybe I’m not destined to write viral articles and to have my finger on the world’s pulse. Maybe I am not meant to matter in the grand way that I’ve always wanted to.
That’s fine. It’s rare, after all, that someone gets to have that kind of an impact on the world.
But I still feel like I should have done something. I should have picked a fig, at the very least. I should be on the road to pursuing something. I should have something to show for the years that I’ve been alive, right?
Maybe it is enough to just live and be, without being something.
Maybe it’s okay not to accomplish any great things. Maybe it’s okay not to do anything worth writing home about. Maybe it’s okay to not have a flashy life worth bragging about on social media.
I’m hearing that. I’m beginning to understand that intellectually. But that knowledge is doing very little to assuage the five-alarm existential crisis raging through the irrational emotional parts of my brain.
Zach Payne is, to borrow the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive Payne.” He acts, sings poorly, and writes poetry, plays, and young adult fiction.
He’s an assistant at Ninja Writers, where he helps new writers find their voice and their tribe. He was the query intern for Pam Victorio at D4EO, and his novel Somehow You’re Sitting Here was selected for Nevada SCBWI’s 2015–16 Mentor Program. He lives in Reno.