Everyone talks about the simple life, myself included. We pine for the simple life. I started trying to take it apart, to understand what it was about “simple” that pulls us. What I came up with was that the more simple a life appears, the easier it is for us to delude ourselves into thinking that we are or can be in control of it. The times when we find ourselves most longing for a simple life are most frequently when we feel the most horribly overwhelmed by life. If we could just shed all the overwhelming and complicated things, surely we would find more peace.
It’s not true. I know it’s not true, but still I find myself scheming about how I could just make my life simple enough that I would be at ease. Sure, I might have to work hard, but honest labor never hurt anyone. I would just be content all the time, if I could just make my life simple enough that I could control it–do away with being at the whims and mercies of other people and their systems. (I suppose maybe that’s a train of thought that leaves some people to embrace anarchy, but that’s a thought for another day.)
I always thought I was going to have a simple life. That I didn’t have great aspirations. That I’d marry a man worth marrying, and we’d raise a family in a modest (but well kept) house on a lot of land. I would take care of my babies and mop the floors and can peaches and sew clothes for everybody. I would still have concerns, sure, like keeping up with the green bean harvest and taking care of the neighbor with dementia and maybe being brave when there wasn’t enough money to fix the car, but basically, my adult life was going to be like my childhood except better. Because I would be running that show, and guess what? I rock at running that show.
When I went for college the first time, I went for a two-year associate’s degree that would make me immediately employable. It seemed like it was going to take forever to complete, and I do mean forever. I wanted to get out, get employed my a rural clinic a la the romantic stories of the only-medical-help-for-miles-around country doc. It wouldn’t matter that I had a small paycheck, because I would live very simply, engaged with doing and learning and not at all with having. And after a few years (tops), well, you know–I’d marry a man worth marrying, et cetera, et cetera.
I did allow that learning things was interesting and that maybe “someday” I would go back and get a higher degree. But honestly, I never could get school to sound very romantic–the epitome of allowing someone else(s) to run your life. Not cool.
And now I am angry. And I think it is because I don’t get to have control over my life.
I’m in a doctorate program for physical therapy. And part of me says I should be thrilled, over the moon to just be here. Overjoyed. And it is interesting. And I am very grateful to be here. And I am angry.
I catch myself thinking, “What am I even doing here?” It is not the simple life that I imagined. Not the life I thought I had all planed out for myself. I have no idea what comes next. And my imagination is crippled to imagine what might come next because all it can see is the looming black hole of debt that will surely dictate all of my choices and force me into a suburban life that’s identical to everyone else’s. Clearly, there is no hope.
Sometimes, I still catch myself thinking, “And when I get out of here, I’m going to get a yellow house. . .there will be tulips. . .my dog would be able to run free.” And when I catch myself thinking that, the anger bubbles up again. Because, debt. And also, who would I share that yellow house with? What’s the point of having an empty house?
All around me, people are getting married and having babies. I used to just be happy for them, and now I’m happy for them and jealous. People said this would happen, but you never understand it until it does. I think, “why them and not me? What’s so bad about me that I’m not worth being a wife and a mother?”
One time, when I was thinking those angry thoughts about not being allowed to have what I wanted, I heard an echo in my head: Maybe I want you to do more. Maybe anyone can be a wife and mother. Maybe that was supposed to be comforting, but that made me angry, too. I wasn’t planning on ‘more’–wife and mother would be plenty fulfilling enough; who needed more?
The idea was, the other people. There are a lot of people on this orb, more than just me and my imaginary family. You can’t stay safe and you can’t stay in control and help the people. Maybe that was supposed to make me happy, too, but it also didn’t. Was I going to have to sacrifice my dreams, my desires, the only things I wanted out of my life, just to make others happy? People say you have to give up all the things you really want to follow God. Nun-like images rolled through my mind. Clearly, I have a life of misery cut out for me. I don’t want to live like a nun; I want to have my yellow house with tulips, and my man, and my children and my life.
This seems to be the place where I ought to be segueing into the part about, “and then I saw the light, and I was joyful, and all was right with the world, and I’m here just to tell you that if you’re unhappy now, you shouldn’t be. . .!”
But it’s not. Because it’s not. Too many people wait to talk about the hard times until they can look back with those rosy-tinted glasses, and say “Ohhhhh. . . if I knew then what I know now, all would be well. So you all hear me, and always be well.” But the truth is, it’s not all well. It’s ugly, and we have to walk through it anyway. And I have no interest in devaluing the struggling of being Here. Is there an ultimate truth of beauty? I do believe yes. Does it always make this present bitter cup taste like honey? I do believe no. It goes down bitter. It may yet be turned to honey inside of us, but it goes down bitter.
I am struggling right now because I can’t find any way of shaping the future I imagine myself to be heading toward into anything I want. Like an animal inside of a cage, I keep trying–first this corner, and then that corner, and back to the first corner again. Surely there must be some way to hammer this into something I want. But the harder I try to pull it all together, the faster every plan in my mind seems to shatter. I can’t square the circle. No matter how hard I try to swing about, everything just leads to dead-ends, wastelands, mockeries, taunting voices that wear the name of “Reality.”
You aren’t any different than anyone else. You are going to graduate, an average student with incredible loans. You will need a job. You will take a job to pay the bills. You won’t leave the job, because there’s no place else to go to–too few jobs to go around–unless you move far, far away from family and friends. You will work full time, and be too tired to do anything when you come home. Your life will never move beyond the shriveled husk of existing to pay bills. No one will love you as the only person they love. You will grow old, and childless, and never really know what it’s like to be alive.
If that’s not a monster in the closet, I don’t know what is.
And what do I think, but that if I could just live simply enough, maybe I could escape it. Maybe I could still have the charmed life that only the pious third daughter ever unearths, the corollary to “the wood-cutter’s son.” Simple and honest and deserving, and anyhow, for this plot line to go anywhere, you need a love interest to drop into the story from out of nowhere pretty soon.
I have come up with a lot of different scenarios for what might happen after school. There is the defiance of limitations: I’ll work as a traveling therapist until all of my debt is paid off, and then I’ll be free! Ha! So there! (This is usually followed by some math in the margins, and then an addendum: well, till most of my debt is paid off. I guess I can live with SOME debt hanging over me that I keep whittling away at. But it will at least be a manageable amount.) There is the heroic measures that I don’t know how to actually make happen but sound good on paper: I’ll never work for filthy lucre. I’ll work in third worlds, or open up charity clinics. There are the have my cake and eat it too plans: Well, I’ll work part time for filthy lucre, but the rest of the time I’ll do something else, like work in a green house or run a soup kitchen. There are flirting with reality which scares me half to death thoughts: If I have to get a job, I should at least get a job I enjoy at a serious rehab center. This will mean moving away from my friends and family, and living my life alone. There are bargaining with God schemes; a lot of those, actually. Look, I have no problem with a long courtship. I think by the Fall semester of next year we should be courting. We’ll have to be apart for the year after that when I’m on all my clinical rotations, which will be hard, but it will ultimately make us stronger. I like that one, poor fool that I am. An even more desperate version goes something like this: Look. I’ll go where you want me to, do what you want me to do. I will leave behind whatever you want me to, and I will take on whatever uncertainty you want me to. But don’t make me do it alone. That’s an honest one, at least.
In the end, though, they’re all dust to me. None of them rings of the truth. I keep trying them all out, one after the other, and they just won’t sound true. I get more and more frustrated, and cycle through them faster and faster, trying to find some vision of the future I can sink my teeth into and hold on to. But they won’t hold, and right behind me is the voice that calls itself Reality: the best you can do is learn to be happy while being miserable. Those are all dreams and dreams don’t come true. You have to just learn to be happy with what you’re dealt.
That makes me angry, too.
Why? I want to know why: why all this schooling? Why all these years that seem so meaningless? Why the imposed schedules and the arbitrary grading? Why do I want the things that I am not given? Why can’t I just not want them? Why the debt? Why is any of this worth anything? Why couldn’t I just have a nice, simple life?
I know all the verses that people hand out like band-aids. I can stack them up and rattle them about. Do you know what they say to me? They say, your version of reality doesn’t really exist. So you can renounce everything you are thinking and feeling and experiencing as false, or you can have fun alone in your little mad-house. Good-bye. In my self-pity, I think I will go and read some psalms, except they rapidly turn into, Evil men are trying to kill me and I fear for my very life! and then I feel silly, because what are my problems compared to that? Except that my problems still are, and I feel no more sufficient to pass through them.
I have tried to plan my way out of them, with figures and schemes and math and house plans. I have tried to Pinterest my way out of them, as if by selecting all of the Simple Things, my life would begin to make sense. I have tried to convince myself that I want something more attainable. I have tried to re-frame my life as an adventure. I have cut myself slack and eaten a bag of chocolate chips in a week, and I have tried to crush myself into such a framework of diligence and routine so as to make myself totally safe.
Nothing ever touches the core of the matter: I feel alone in my own life, and I feel like I have nothing to look forward to. I feel powerless to change either one of those, and so I feel like a prisoner inside of my own life.