not existential nihilism… I think.

July 10, 2010 at 3:35 pm (focus, unfinished thoughts)

I am sometimes unexpectedly bowled over by people’s actions, both in good ways and in bad.  It’s much more likely that I will be surprised that someone has acted in a redeeming manner, since it’s quite rare for me to expect that of folks.  I recently received a telephone call regarding a job I interviewed for several weeks ago.  Unfortunately, that job interview was also the day that I found out that I was accepted into the interview round for a rigorous and competitive fellowship.  The pay for the job is three times the amount of the fellowship, at least, and has much larger benefits (e.g., insurance, vacation, etc.), not to mention, it would be easier.  Still quite challenging, but easier.

The fellowship I have about a fifty percent chance of getting.  If I do get the position, it is going to be HARD.  I know that I can do it and that I am a very strong person, but in all honesty, I know that it is going to be a very difficult year.  After doing more research on the program, it is interesting to note that this fellowship is considered by some to be a bastion of socialism and everything that is wrong with the world.  I’ve always been hesitant to put anything on my resume that outright states my political beliefs (perhaps this is ironic, as a political science major), for fear that it will deter other potential employers, or worse, incite them to engage me in some political discussion that I likely care about much less than they do.  This fear has been partially founded by past experiences.  In my last semester, I was petting therapy dogs at school when I told one of the dog owners that I was a political science major.  She proceeded to go on a fifteen minute tirade about the government and everything that was wrong with it.  I stopped listening halfway through.

I believe in social change and in the great capability of nonprofit organizations to help people as individuals and as communities.  I didn’t realize that this was such a radical viewpoint.  Maybe I’m blowing all of this out of proportion.  I’m panicking at the thought of something new and something changing my view of this potential fellowship.  I always do this kind of thing—I wait to do more in-depth research until after I’ve already committed to something, and then panic at what the position, or the work, or the stance really entails.  You’d think I’d be better at cursory research by now, having had to write all of those papers during undergrad.

At any rate, the woman who called me to offer me the job is possibly one of the nicest women I’ve ever met.  And she told me to go for it.  She told me to do everything in my power to try to get this fellowship.

It was striking to me to see how clear-cut the answer was for her.  She was just as unsure about what to do as I was, after I explained the situation.  After all, she had spent quite a bit of time on me—interviewing me, checking my references, looking over my resume more in-depth—and was absolutely willing to take me on, train me, and have me start in two weeks.  If I didn’t take the job, she apparently did not have a second choice or a backup.  She would have to start over again.  Yet after a brief pause, she told me that absolutely this fellowship was the way to go.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about focus, in small ways and in large ways.  You have to have focus on the little tasks in life, like washing all of the dishes before you move onto another task or remembering to cook yourself dinner.  But then you have to have this big focus about what you want to do with your life and who you want to be.  You have to focus on what is absolutely best for you at that particular moment in time and in the future.  Like what type of graduate study to take up or what job to accept.  Having a Five Year Plan and all that.

I have neither of those types of focus.  Not in a real sense, anyway.  I feel as though I have this odd, fleeting, messy focus (that I suppose wouldn’t be considered focus at all, given the description.).   The thing is, I’m not completely all over the place.  I do absolutely have the capability to be tunnel-visioned on a project, working diligently amid all sorts of distractions in an attempt to get this one project Just Right.  I even remember to cook myself dinner on some days.  I’ve been typing this entry uninterrupted for quite some time (though I have been taking breaks to look at the sunset!).  If I am properly engaged, I have focus like no other.

The problem is the rest of it.  I’m so damn wishy-washy and crazy and distracted that I couldn’t have a clear grip of The Big Picture if my life depended on it.  Sometimes in high school I would lay awake at night, my fingers and toes tingling because I could feel all of the possibility in me.  I knew that I could do great things and that I could probably do anything.  And it wasn’t a cognitive knowledge, necessarily, because I was and am so humble and backwards—it was an internal, guttural, feeling.  I don’t get it anymore, but I still hold onto the memory of that.

Cal Newport just posted an entry about focus, in which he cites the book Rapt by Winifred Gallagher.  So, what I’m doing right here is posting about another guy’s post about a book I haven’t read.  I know.  Just bear with me, I might be able to make this come full circle.  It’s about focusing hard on aspects of life in order to feel more fulfilled and less stressed (THE focus theory, just framed in a different manner.)  Cal and Winifred write about our minds being gardens, and about how we have to take care of them, tend to them, and potentially hover over them like a worried first-time gardener.  (Like me and my dill plant!)

Sometimes in life we need someone else to look at the wild, overgrown, and potentially prickly garden we’ve built for ourselves.  They can see that there’s a dill plant quietly thriving in the middle.  What’s more important is that we realize how much of a mess our own mind is and we put on some damn gloves and pull some of that out.  I don’t know that I’ll ever be someone with amazing focusing skills or that I necessarily want to be.  (The fact that I frequently lose my shoes or keys in my tiny one-bedroom apartment is always cause for laughter!)  But what I do need is to realize that time is running away from me and it will seem to move much faster as these important years move on.

I’m always so afraid to make the wrong decision, to come to the wrong conclusion.  I think that this fear itself is the wrong decision.  In some ways, there are no wrong choices.  We can regret, yes, that we didn’t go to that Ivy League school or that we didn’t work for that company that just took off in growth.  It’s natural; we cannot do everything.  (This is obviously My Brain talking, not My Heart)  But even if it’s not always the straightest path (which would be rather boring, anyway), we’ll always get to where we’re meant to go.  That last phrase is sounds so lame, but it’s kind of true.

I tend to believe that life is a little bit predestined, but that doesn’t mean that we just sit back and keep staring out the window.  Our big-change decisions to move to a different state or to join the circus are just as predestined as it is to decide not to change.  That doesn’t mean that we cannot better our lives.  It simply means that there is No Wrong Answer.  Life is life, and as easy as it is to get wrapped up in both big and small decisions, worrying about every possible outcome, the truth is that no matter what we do, bad things will happen and good things will happen.  And a lot of those things are out of our control.  The human imagination will always be wondering What Could Be and What Could Have Been, which sometimes is a curse.  It’s much harder to keep in mind that one must make a choice (even if the choice is to do nothing) in order to have What Could Be and What Could Have Been.  Whether we like it or not, whether we follow or not, life moves on, rushing through our veins and our living rooms.

It may not be the right mindset for everyone, or for most people, but coming to this conclusion is comforting to me.  You have as much control as you want to have, but you cannot have all of it.  In my case, I think that the proper balance between passive and active involves being mostly passive, but extremely active when it comes to only certain things.  This is especially important because I am a really low-energy person.  Feeling as though I have to focus for most of the day on many different things is extremely stressful for me.  For instance, I should learn to be comfortable having some friendships, some potential romance, and most possessions to come and go.  But when it comes to finding a project I really love (like finishing a story or nurturing this blog or going to grad school), I should be able to use all of the energy and focus I’ve saved up on that given project, or rather, direction.

As usual, I’m not sure where all of this is going.  I’m not a good advice-giver, and if you’re coming to read these posts in order to find something like that, I must apologize and politely advise you to ask your favorite search engine for some alternatives.  But if you’re in a similar state and you want to know that you are not alone, and that even though everyone else has figured it out, you still don’t know if you’ll even end up with a clue, you’re probably in the right spot.


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