Chances are you’ve looked at your life at some point and asked, “How on Earth did I get here?”
As children, we are curious, carefree, creative beings. We dream of being hairdressers and firefighters and teachers. As the years roll by, our choices begin to be shaped by extrinsic forces and before we know it, we are living a completely different life to the one we imagined. This is not necessarily problematic: as Srinivas Rao writes in his insightful book, The Scenic Route, taking an unplanned route in life, “also means you’ll go places you never would have been, meet people you never would have met, and have experiences you never would have had. It means that amazing things will happen.”
Sometimes, though, the life we end up living can make us feel trapped. When we try to figure out where and when our unhappiness started, we may uncover hidden fears surrounding money, status and confidence, among others. We feel we are to blame for not having had the courage the follow our dreams, the discipline to take care of our bodies or the foresight to spend more time with our families. At this point, some of us try to muffle our misery with food, alcohol or Netflix feeling it’s too late to make a change. Others plunge into a never-ending self-help spiral or seek satisfaction from climbing up the career ladder.
The fact is, we could have made different choices, but there is strong cultural (and often parental) pressure to take a traditional, seemingly stable path. Life in the modern world revolves around the work we do to subsist and our strange obsession with technology, with relationships, purpose, community and play being relegated to the time we have left. We chose our priorities not based on what we value but based on what allowed us to fit into society, and lead independent (read isolated) urban lives — a troubling and impossible goal, seeing as we actually depend on other people and the Earth for almost everything we need.
All those seemingly regrettable choices we’ve made actually seemed like the right thing to do at the time, or at least we unconsciously thought so, else we wouldn’t have made them. So there’s little point in blaming ourselves for these choices, though we frequently do. As Johann Hari points out in his brilliant book, Lost Connections, “You aren’t a machine with broken parts. You are an animal whose needs are not being met.” Our needs for real human interaction and nature and physical activity and rest are not being met, and the outcome is a confused, anxious society with no idea how to feel fulfilled.
So is all hope lost, or is there something we can do about this?
Part of the answer, I think, lies in something that was casually mentioned to me by a wise and wonderful 8-year old whom I was tutoring several months ago. At the end of the session, as I stood up to leave, we were discussing what she would draw to decorate the front of her Maths notebook. She turned to me and said:
“My friend and I like to draw potatoes. I’m not sure why, we just do.”
That simple sentence struck a deep chord within me.
We need to return to that which we do simply for the love of doing it, rather than because it allows us to acquire income or approval or thinness.
I know that this is easier said than done. As someone who didn’t particularly focus on money and a feeling of security while growing up, I feel their almost gravitational pull now, given the culture of scarcity that we live in. But alongside making a living, I must continuously remind myself to do little things just for the fun and satisfaction they provide. Things like making a little joke to lighten a tuition session with my students (even a bad one!), or making a little gift for a friend, or actually relaxing while watching a film, instead of feeling like I should be somewhere else, doing something productive — whatever that means. I’m a human being, not a computer — and so are you.
Having said that, some of the things that don’t really appeal to me all that much initially might feel good if I found a different way to do them, or just became more familiar with them — time in nature, healthy food, exercise. If this is true for you too, again, it’s not because you’re faulty in some way, but because you’ve lost touch with the things that are important to you as a human animal (small wonder — we live in our heads and almost entirely ignore the intelligence of our bodies, unlike other creatures). Your connection with what nourishes you can be reestablished in small doses, through short walks in parks near your home, morning smoothies with fruits you actually enjoy, spontaneous dance sessions and stretching at random times of the day, just to see how your body feels.
Don’t limit yourself to things that are supposed be fun. People find joy in the most unique hobbies imaginable. You may want to spend time collecting objects that seem weird to others, learning to make sourdough bread or reading comics from your childhood. If something brings you happiness and reconnects you to what Jayne Stevenson calls the Dream Self, then it’s worth doing. It was a little sad to me that my 8-year-old friend, at her age, already acknowledged other people might find her potato-drawing to be less valuable than other activities.
Experimenting with pursuits just for the sake of satisfying our curiosity and finding new avenues that lead us to joy may seem frivolous, but it may be key to restoring our mental, emotional and physical health.
That’s something to ponder, but for now, you’ll have to excuse me: I have some potatoes to draw.