I don’t know about you but I’m feeling 23 and like nothing matters
It’s 3 pm on Sunday and you’re staring into your fridge. Milk. Eggs. A fluorescent light and a low hum.
Sure, I guess you could make eggs. There’s some apricot jam in the door shelf. A plastic bag wrapped around half a raw head of broccoli in the lower bin. You could put the jam on some toast or roast the broccoli — but you’re not hungry, since you just had lunch a few hours ago. And you count yourself lucky to have so much in your fridge, after all, many fridges are much less fortunate. But it’s not about the contents of the fridge either. There’s just this vague feeling that you’re looking for something, but you don’t know what. You didn’t open the fridge expecting to see it, you just hoped that you might glance at it by chance and all of a sudden you would just know.
That’s what being in your twenties is like. Staring at that milk and eggs under the fluorescent light and wondering why you opened the door in the first place.
A second metaphor: ever since I was a kid I’ve felt like I was sitting on a train, passing by elementary school and middle school, through high school, to college, and eventually to the final stop. The views were great and the seats were comfortable, and at first I didn’t think much about that final stop. But as the train got closer and closer, people sitting next to me helped me gather my luggage, and they started to ask me which stop I was getting off at, and what I wanted to do when I got there. Growing up, I thought, was the process of figuring out how to answer those questions.
I went through phases. In middle school I wanted to be a doctor. In high school I wanted to be a musician.
In college I realized that I didn’t know what I wanted to be, and then I started to panic because I thought I would know by now and the lady with the fuzzy voice on the intercom said this stop was the end of the Yellow Line. So I joined a clump of Computer Science majors and thought to myself, “Hey, I’m pretty good at this! I guess I could do it for the rest of my life.” And as we shuffled out the dented sliding doors and through the station towards the turnstyle I realized that even though I was off the train, my life was still on tracks.
People find meaning in all sorts of things. They form communities. They push themselves to achieve. They write blogs.
In college I took a course on the philosophy of happiness. (Unaware that this would become a sad allegory for my own obsession with pedantry over practicality.) I learned about a theory called Preferentism — that we are happy to the extent that our current preferences are fulfilled. It’s appealing and intuitive; not getting our way makes us less happy, and getting our way tends to make us happier. But two weeks later we discussed a thought experiment, which we called Lois and the Dinosaur, that challenges this theory:
Lois is a tour guide at the Museum of Natural History. One day, while giving a tour to a class of 5th graders, as she leads them through the dinosaur exhibit, one of the students says, “I sure am glad I’m not being eaten alive by a dinosaur right now!” This makes Lois think of what that would be like, and she decides that she also prefers not to be eaten alive by a dinosaur.
Oddly, this fulfillment of her preferences doesn’t make her any happier.
So having our preferences fulfilled is probably not the sole constituent of happiness. Lois was never really worried about being eaten, and in five minutes she probably won’t be thinking about it anymore either. There’s something missing, some passing experiential feeling, or else some lasting depth that eludes Lois.
I think this kind of meaningfulness is missing the same thing. We form communities, reach achievements, and write blogs. These things are filling, but not satisfying. They are milk, eggs, and jam.
There is comfort in being on a track. There is comfort in being on a track, but there is also tedium. If you’re having an energetic day, sitting on a train makes you restless. It makes you cramped. It’s not enough to crane your neck to enjoy the view, you yearn to stretch your legs and run around outside, exploring and adventuring. You want to feel alive! Instead you’re sitting.
But if you’re having a lazy day, being on train is pleasant. You can sip your coffee and relax into the rhythm of the rail. If you close your eyes and lean back you can feel the slight tingle on your skin of perfect compression and release as you breathe.
In the course of any given day I am subjected to all sorts of moods. And during any given week I go through days where I love being on tracks, and days where I hate being on tracks. This conflict makes it hard to commit to choices, since I’m always just in a passing state, and nothing is forever. I could make a major life change, or I could just wait for my feelings to change.
Nothing is forever — except for the endless stream of passing states. There are no guarantees — except that my own feelings will always be changing. So if I’m waiting until the stream ends, or waiting until I’m sure of myself, I’ll be waiting forever.
I often find myself frightened by my own freedom. Having the liberty to lead my own life also means I have the responsibility to make it meaningful. I am lucky enough to have only myself to blame when I am unhappy. My kitchen is full of food, and yet…
And yet, I still find myself back at that fridge. Wondering what to do. Wondering what I expected.
No food will keep me full forever, but it’s not that I’m hungry.
I sing with friends and write songs because there is a unique momentariness to music; it’s there in the air until you hear it and then it’s gone forever. I blog every night because there is a permanence that creation offers; words that weren’t here are here now because of me.
I’ve heard it said that architecture is frozen music. The patterns preserved in cathedrals are what you would get if you could capture the motifs of Mozart and build a plaster mold around them. The stuccoed painted ladies of San Francisco are the embodiment of acid rock — the very walls seem to be perpetually melting. Something as fleeting as a tune can actually have a lot in common with something as archaeological as a building.
So maybe when we look into the fridge it’s not the contents that we’re interested in, maybe it’s the fridge itself — the low hum reminding us of the constant fight against entropy, the slow rot of the universe countered only by a freon tube and some condenser coils, the coming of eternity, and our insolent human ability to take temporary things and make them last just a little longer.•
If you enjoyed this post on what it feels like to be 23, out of school, and questioning my place in the world, then you might enjoy Jordan’s Blog, a mere figment of your imagination with an aesthetic of minimalism, built from scratch over three to four years of screaming into the void, in which you will find similar posts of a personal and introspective nature under the tag #personal.