Yesterday afternoon, I pushed a box of tissues at the student sobbing in my comfy chair. My third sobbing student of the day. I was trying to (gently) convince this one that dropping her organic chemistry class would be in her best interest.
“I’ll never get into med school if I drop orgo,” she wailed.
“You can retake it when you’re ready,” I told her — knowing full-well that she would never retake it because eventually, she would realize she wasn’t going to med school. All in due time.
“If I don’t go to med school, I don’t know what I’ll do. I need to get my life in order.”
“No you don’t,” I said. “You’re 18. Now is the perfect time to explore different avenues and figure out why you want to go to med school in the first place.”
“I want my life to be in order. I look at adults — real adults — and you all have perfect lives and perfect careers and I’m such a mess.”
“I don’t know what adults you’re looking at,” I told her, “but I don’t personally know any with perfect careers or lives.”
She looked pointedly at me. “Your office is in perfect order and you have two degrees and you always, just, look like you’re at ease. You have it together.”
I burst out laughing. Hard.
“Oh, honey,” I said between gasps of breath. “No, no I don’t. Oh god. I really don’t. No. It’s all a facade. All of it. And you know what? That’s fine. I’m making it, and so will you.”
“You cannot measure your level of success by someone else’s standards,” I tell my students daily, and I mean it.
My sister is successful. She has the husband, child and house she’s always wanted — but she has a job — not a career. If she measured herself by my standards, she’d feel like a failure.
Conversely, I find her life stifling, and don’t want to live it. Her house is always a mess because her daughter leaves her toys everywhere, she doesn’t derive any true happiness from her job and is entirely tied to the schedule of a two-year-old.
I have my career and my freedom, but I won’t be hosting a Norman Rockwell Christmas dinner any time soon. If I needed a traditional family of my own to feel like I’d made it — I’d be in significant trouble.
To that end, I often wonder if we actually want the lives we covet. My student wants her life to be “in order,” and she pointed at me as an example of that — but she has no interest in being a counselor at a university. So, why look to me as her model of success?
I sometimes find myself steaming with jealousy at the pictures I see of happy couples and their children picking apples and posing strangely in fields — exuding happiness from their pores.
But, why am I jealous? I don’t even like kids.
That is not my measure of success.
My life is far from in order — by conventional standards. I have two degrees, but no husband. I have a career, but no children. I have a condo, but I eat macaroni and cheese for dinner most nights.
I drink too much and exercise too little. I cry a lot, clean obsessively and am wracked with anxiety so constantly that when I don’t feel anxious I become anxious over my lack of anxiousness.
And, it’s fine. Truthfully, I don’t really know anyone who is doing better than I am.
Sure, plenty of times, I’ve looked at a friend and thought, Wow, you really have it together. But then, I show up at their house and realize that they haven’t done laundry in two weeks and feed their kids frozen pizzas three nights a week. They’re busy, and they have to make sacrifices to fit it all in — just like I do.
There is no one formula that equals “life in order.”
People with advanced degrees can become alcoholics, succumb to numerous addictions, have affairs, ruin their marriages, become estranged from their children.
People without any formal education can lead monumental social movements, invent the latest and greatest app, settle into happy, productive and meaningful lives.
We need to let go of the notion that any one person in particular “has it together.” None of us do; all of us do.