The narrative that often goes untold

We often hear about the go-getters. The driven ones with ambitious goals. The ones who want to climb the ladder, who want to get to the top and run the world. We hear about how hard they worked to succeed, the first seeds of their big dreams and why they sacrificed almost everything for them. We’ve grown accustomed to these stories, held up as beacons of success. We are primed to be drawn to their light. What we don’t hear about as much are the ones who opt for a quieter way of being in the world. The ones who don’t have a grand calling or big plans for a revolutionary company. The ones who are contented just existing, making a living and spending time with those they love.

The writers who enjoy writing but have never dreamed of writing a best-selling book.

The workers who aren’t interested in rising the ranks at their company but are fine with keeping their job a job, something they can leave behind when they go home at night.

The artists who create for themselves and don’t feel a need to get their art into galleries around the world.

Perhaps the obvious reason why we don’t see these stories represented as often is because they don’t make for the most scintillating entertainment. Who wants to hear a story about someone content with their small life in this big world? Yet even as we see the general consciousness slowly become more expansive, as it slowly starts to open up to show different viewpoints and lifestyles, the underlying message still remains the same, and I argue, bears noticing. The underlying message being that we should have big goals and we should want to do whatever it takes to achieve them. If we don’t want that, whether our goal is to become a travel influencer or CEO at our company, then we probably aren’t pushing ourselves hard enough.

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When I look at this message, I see the ways in which I’ve internalized it. I think back to all the times when I’ve despaired about not having a true calling, about not having much desire to chase the money or prestige of big careers like I see my peers doing. I think about the moments when I’ve accepted that this probably means I’m mediocre, that I’m simply too lazy and too full of excuses. I remember the self-criticism, harsh and biting, urging myself to be and do better, to find a larger purpose or goal to apply myself to. Ultimately, I see all the times when I’ve been made to question myself, question if I should want these models of success too.

At the heart of these worries lies the central grand-daddy fear: that my life will add up to nothing. That I will live an indulgent existence only in service to my desires and wake up one day to realize that I’ve made no real impact on the world. It’s a fear I can rationalize myself out of. I can recognize that this phase of my life, focused on travel and exploration, is somehow essential to my becoming, and that’s why I’m not willing to drop it just yet in favor of a more “stable” existence. I can tell myself that we all make an impact, maybe not one that reverberates widely, but surely we all make ripples that touch the ones we love, that is felt and reciprocated in our immediate circles. I can tell myself that it’s actually quite arrogant to presume that my life alone can or should change the world. I can tell myself all these things, but then I’m reminded of others living out their hustle, grinding every day towards some lofty goal or dream, and I can’t help but fall back into the same pit of worry and despair. I absorb the underlying call to action that a contented life is an unrealized life. Instead of questioning my own desires and motives, looking at what it is I truly want and need, I look outside of myself for answers, for new examples to follow, for reasons why I am so behind. I end up invalidating my own existence by comparing myself to others.

This is the part I find most pernicious. The ways in which a cultural narrative can get under my skin and tell me that I’m not enough. That even though I was feeling pretty good about my life up until a few moments ago, now I have the sneaking suspicion that I’m missing something. That I should want more and do more. Sometimes these outside signals can indeed be motivating and inspiring, the kick in the pants we need, but oftentimes they can slip into our consciousness and do more harm than good. Cropping up unasked for when we least need to hear them.

Sloughing off these narratives is not easily done either. We’re all imprinted by the messaging around us. Like those snowflakes that change shape depending on which words are spoken to them, I’m in many ways a product of my surroundings and the stories I’m consuming. I absorb the narratives and in subconscious and conscious ways allow them to steer me. But herein lies a bit of hope as well, a reminder that narratives have to be told. To the wider public, to ourselves. And that someone has to do the telling, which means we have the power to tell ourselves something different. To dig down deep to our honest truth and throw it up on the wall in the light of day. To craft that into a story, one that resonates with us and our circumstances. A story that holds the keys to who we are and where we need to go.

How do we begin to craft this new story?

For me, it helps when I can zoom out. When I can crane my head up and be reminded of the universe or look down and think of my feet, the way they are rooted on the ground. When I can remember that, in fact, I’m just a little speck stuck between molten lava and a great black, unknowable abyss. It helps when I can talk to my good friend, too, and together we can vent out all our fears and frustrations, finding clearings between the worries, clearings that become our paths forward. It helps when I can think of my yoga teachers, all the ones who’ve said: “Ask yourself: are you pushing too hard or too little?”. When I can ponder that phrase and apply it beyond whether I should sink deeper into warrior two or not, and think about it in the larger terms of my life. When I can resolve to let myself be the judge of whether I’m pushing too hard or too little. Not as a way to disregard all of the other narratives out there, but to remember that they are not mine and that through the very act of teasing out the first lines of my own narrative, I’m drawing my proverbial line in the sand. Giving myself the freedom to rub it away with my foot and redraw it as many times as I need to. Remembering that narratives are just stories and that stories can always change, characters can veer off in unexpected plot twists or course correct just when it looks like all is lost. Remembering the truth that we always have the choice to write ourselves into something that fits better.

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