Having What I’ve Always Wanted Scares The Hell Out Of Me

Whatever we are scared of—fucking up or having more to lose; free falling or feeling trapped—we have to get cozy inside the discomfort. Without incessantly fixing everything or requiring tangible proof at every step.

I am standing in a long, white hallway.

Brightly lit doors line both sides unmarked. Institutional and The Shining-like, maybe 20 lie before me. I step down the passage, opening them gingerly at random. Now methodical, I poke my head in every single door. Time is running out.

There is a Versailles-esque palace; barren mountain ranges sheltering fields of snowy, sleeping horses; a velvety green forest where jeweled birds sing out, and a ‘60’s kitchen echoing a Polaroid of my grandma and aunts at a Formica table—all of them in curlers and housecoats.

The last door faces me at the end of the hall opening to flights of gleaming stairs. I climb and climb until I realize that I’m dead. I spent my whole life in the hallway.

Then I wake up.

I have been freaking out about wanting what I thought I wanted. I have a good man, a good job, first-world problems. The things I thought I might want personally (kids?) and professionally (book?) seem suddenly, imminently, threateningly viable.

And I’m just standing here holding my breath.

Commit. That’s what I whisper to myself, about myself.

My friends from home (Wisconsin) are all partnered and/or babied. My closest friends from college are single and non-parenting, not because they don’t want those things…some do and some don’t.

All of them are whip-smart, capable, humorous, and well traveled, from all over the country and a variety of backgrounds. All of us, with or without partners or children, are treading water between where we are—professionally, romantically, geographically—and where we say we want to get to.

This is what being a mid-30s woman looks like now, oriented not just to family or career, but to life. We don’t talk about “leaning in” or out. We talk about what we want to see and do and make before we die.

We have varying degrees of privilege and luxury, as educated Americans. Is it a luxury to travel Southeast Asia for a month? Is it a privilege to have children in today’s economy? Everything is a tradeoff and we want to know what it is, crunching complex algorithms of timing. Maybe we can have, and do, and be, it all. Like we were raised to believe. But we can’t have it all, all at once. At least until the Higgs Boson delivers, we are limited by the confines of time and space.

We are not preoccupied with “mortality” or “biological clocks” exactly, but a tide of anxiousness—we should be further along in life and love by now, we should be somewhere we are not—pulls at us, that is painful to behold in each other. Worse would be a slow, dull resignation like apathy. Our mothers laid no path for this.

A friend’s college theory: Everything you need to know can be learned by how a person reads Choose Your Own Adventure books. Did you read until you met your demise, and not a page further? Starting over and over every time you died? Or straight through, page 1 to 240—in opposition to the entire concept?

I read them backwards. I read the opening premise. Then I read all the endings starting with the back of the book, picked the one I liked best, and figured out exactly how to get there.

We all want to choose our own adventure; we all want the best ending.

We are the Oregon Trail generation, driving our oxen from analog to digital. As children, our lives were in living color, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Our phones were mounted on walls. “Privacy” meant pulling the curly cord as far as it would go around the corner and whispering. Then: cordless phones! AOL! Napster! My college email was the first one I didn’t share with my parents. We remember a time before information was infinite, available whenever and wherever. We sound like the grandparents we taught to use email. We have more in common with them than with teenage cousins. We’re forever running to keep up, complaining how fast it’s all changing.

We are extensively nostalgic, not just for Fraggle Rock, but for more reliability. But we don’t want to feel trapped, railroaded through life in cubicles, either. We plod our way through a rigid, antiquated education and then circle adulthood, warily. The 20s are now an “emerging adulthood.” And if the 50s are the new 30s, what are the actual 30s? How many of my generation will be able to afford the American Dream?

Most of what we fear comes down to money and sex. Security and affection. Being safe and being chosen.

Our first loves—whether people or jobs—ended in all-out, devastating heartbreak. All do. That’s what first love is for: to lure you in unaware and then to break you. Because love requires vulnerability, and to know in advance what the price of that vulnerability is (emotional ruin) but to choose it anyway makes you an adult in love. Or in any risky venture you care about.

On average, American adults change careers seven times in their lifetimes and most change jobs every four years. The old economy is dead and a new economy has not yet flowered. The women in my life aren’t going to jump ship just because things get hard. We aren’t afraid to fight for something, to make something from scratch, or go out on a limb. But we feel time is running out to keep starting over. We’re anxious to at least start doing the thing we hope to do for most of the rest of our lives—if that even still exists.

So why aren’t we?

Americans are not taught how to be uncomfortable. Stuck between fight and flight, some avoid and distract and strive and self-medicate. In the face of uncertainty, some crave control. In the face of inevitable disappointment and imperfection, some choose fantasy—retreating into sim games with ideal versions of people we can’t touch or hear. Smelling roses written in code.

How do we commit to job insecurity in a failing economy? How do we plan a future in an unknowable climate? How do we risk a broken heart? What if we get what we want—that job/lover/success just to have it pulled out from under us?

My family is sturdy, pragmatic, dogged, ironic, and dryly cynical. In Wisconsin, winter is always coming. We know how to make-do and survive—not raise the stakes. Over-abundance is a foreign land where there is simply more to lose and the other shoe is bound to drop. For me, heartbreak is boring. It’s actually having what I’ve always wanted that scares the shit out of me.

Whatever we are scared of—fucking up or having more to lose; free falling or feeling trapped—we have to get cozy inside the discomfort. Without incessantly fixing everything or requiring tangible proof at every step.

We don’t accumulate life; we experience it. We aren’t spectators; we are makers and builders. It requires a certain rolling up of the sleeve, getting sweaty and dirty, and screwing up and starting over. This is our vocation.

Perfection is paralysis, overcompensating for our basic humanity. We have to give what we love a deep permission to break out hearts, to disappoint us and be a mess, whether it’s opening a restaurant, going back to school, moving across the country, or having a baby.

Love is curious, more than cautious. Commitment is devotion, not obligation.

We can’t commit to what we can’t see, or know, or predict. We commit to our selves, to figuring it out as we move forward together. Without glancing backwards over our shoulders or frantically paging ahead.

Leona Palmer is the content specialist for the Omega Women’s Leadership Center. A former plus-size model with Ford and Wilhelmina Model Management, Leona cofounded Curves for Change, a nonprofit promoting positive body image and is a contributor to The Huffington Post, HandpickedNation.com, and Heygorgeous.com where she writes about gender, media, and sustainable living. She’s on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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