One of my most bitter misgivings is that I never quite figured out who I am or what I stand for. In some ways, I stand as a paragon of rationality: I carefully think through my lifestyle decisions to make sure they are coherent. But at the same time, I realize that in a larger sense I am not rational at all. Logical systems need frameworks of assumptions to have external purpose. No matter how efficiently I drive myself, it’s useless in the end unless I have a destination.
I am a very different person from when I was in high school, and yet, those ghosts still haunt my life. Paul Graham wrote that the best way to determine what you love to do is “to try to do things that would make your friends say wow.” I think this cuts to the heart of my problem: I am not good enough at being pressured by the rest of the world, by prestige.
Let me tell you a little bit about Exeter, the high school I attended. It sits on 619 acres of gorgeous wilderness — rivers, lakes, forests, plains — nestled next to a sleepy New Hampshire town. Autumns and winters are especially breathtaking: one constantly feels part of an elaborate landscape oil. Maybe one of the anonymous weekenders in Seurat’s famous Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte:
Just as they observe time sail slowly by, one can’t help but begrudge a feeling that these might be the best years of my life. Not a constant reminder, but more of a background hum that sharply spikes on particularly winsome days. One moment you’ll be fading asleep against a languid spring sun, and the next you’ll feel a sudden chill as dusk presses overhead. The passing of seasons is particularly poignant in New England.
It was a collective feeling. I think the greatest gift Exeter gave us was not an education or a ticket into college — it was a glimpse into our own mortality. It was an unspoken thought that what we were journeying through was not some passing phase: it was a camera pinhole into our days in the wider world. Like that old Semisonic song: “time for you to go back to the places you will be from…”
Even years afterwards — years after I have last seen or heard from many, if not most, of them — when I think about what I want to do with my life, I recall their voices. What we had in common was a sense of our own urgency. That what we do with our lives is sacred, that it matters deeply. No where else begs that sense of sincerity.
Their voices tell me that I should try harder. Strive to make something of myself. Reach for power, the ability to make a difference. It doesn’t matter what you do so much as being unique while doing it. To rise up the corporate ladder is good but not enough. The important place is not the bottom-line: it is in the infinite starry sky.
I’ve followed this exhausting compass for years. It has been with me through rough roads, calm skies, euphoric celebrations, abject failures. Ultimately, I believe it is a gift. To regard one’s own life as a noble undertaking is enough a reason to live it. But it is also a curse. Throwing away the mundane means foregoing pleasant commonalities and feeling every disappointment deep in your bones.
“Life would be so much easier to live if I hadn’t met you.” I’m sure the saints and martyrs had their own private moments of self-doubt. I’m no saint. I long for the familiar, for the easy. I wish life were a happier coincidence of moments. I wish my ambitions were smaller; I wish more things made me happy. Every lover has wondered is there a way to go back in time, to when things were simpler…
EMILY: I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.
She breaks down sobbing. The lights dim on the left half of the stage.
I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.
Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners. Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking… and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-honed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.
She looks toward the stage manager and asks abruptly, through her tears:
Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it-every. every minute.
STAGE MANAGER: No.
The saints and poets, maybe— they do some.