I Used To Be…

Oh, the places you’ll go.

I used to be a student, a relatively good one. Not that I got all A’s (until the last 3 semesters of undergrad) or that I didn’t procrastinate on any homework or studying (which I did. Religiously). But I was driven to do well, overcame that belief that I was only being a B student (perception is reality) which pushed me to receive a Department Award for one of my majors. I reveled in being a student.

I used to hit deadlines for papers like sniper hits a moving target. I had it down to a craft. I could start and finish a research paper the same day it was due. I could write. Nonstop. It felt close to flying through a forest without hitting any trees. Sure, if there as a mistake, it was a tiny backspace — just a little twig in my way. And overall, I could focus. Blinders on. The building could be on fire, but the deadline was 2 minutes away, I would not budge.

I used to be a lot of things. I used to read (though they were books required for school). I used to go to the gym (I mean, who wouldn’t? It was free to students). I treated my calendar like a woodworker; my time was carved out pieced together, and everything had its place.

And now…

You know how after a big life event, the mind can go haywire? Connections in the brain are weakened or strengthened; social circles change; daily routine is uprooted. Humans thrive at knowing what comes next. There’s a reason why the mind notices patterns easily — whether it’s a face in a tree trunk, a repeat sequence of numbers, or the 12pm cry that informs the parent that baby needs feeding. Knowing what comes next means knowing how to act in the next situation. It can keep a person safe, and it keeps a person sane. These big life events can disrupt that.

Well, my big life event was the transition between student and non-student. So aka, graduation. A year before it even happened, questions were asked along the lines of: “What are you doing after graduation?” and “Do you know where you want to work?”.

My answers were either a confident BS’ed explanation of the current non-profit climate and Illinois’ budget for certain programs, or an honest, but less expressed, “I don’t know.”

That second answer is one of the scariest phrases a person can utter.

“How’s grandpa?” I don’t know.

“Where are we sleeping tonight?” I don’t know.

“What are you doing for the next 5 years of your life that have the ability to shape the next 30 years of your life?” … I don’t know.

It’s been 3 years since my first “I don’t know.” Has it gotten easier to say? Sure, since familiarity breeds less fear. Do I know the answer to the questions now? Not at all.

But I learned.

I learned that accepting myself as I am now means accepting what I used to be. Those same traits I believed I used to be, my “studiousness” and frantic focus, are what shaped me into my being. Am I even more studious and frantically focused? I can’t say that I am, but there’s a foundation of a forever student and an aching desire to be captive to an endeavor.

Perhaps the lesson that stands out to me most is the one centered around “I don’t know.” Given that perception is reality, I have a choice. If I want my reality to be uneasy, afraid, hesitant, then by all means, allow my perception of the unknown continue as a scary place. Or I can create a reality where the unknown is liberating, open, and worthy of pursuit. It may not be at all times, but I learned to revel now in the “I don’t know”. Anything can happen, and I plan on making sure of it.

Yes, I know there are bigger, worser life events out there. But that doesn’t discount how we’re shaped because of them. Your story matters, too.

Was there a moment where your life split, creating a “before” and an “after”? What’s your story?