Goodbye to All That

In a little more than a week’s time, I’m planning to move to a new […]

David Peterson / 7.7.17

In a little more than a week’s time, I’m planning to move to a new city. I don’t know where I’m going to live, or what exactly I’m going to do, but I’m moving nonetheless. It’s one of those big life decisions that people my age have to make, however prepared we do or don’t feel to make them. We’re an indecisive bunch what can I say. In my case, I’ve already put off the move for a year—sticking around my college town, encroaching a little on the goodwill of people at my church. And it’s been an amazing time. The journey of self-discovery that I planned to take never really got off the ground, but that’s rarely how those things go, and it’s impossible to measure the results. I trust God was preparing me in His way throughout the year.

One of the scary things about graduating from college and entering into the stage of life where you have to make big decisions (my parents call this growing up), is that, to a certain extent, you’re on your own. That’s not to say that no one cares about me or what I do. Of course my parents and close friends and church community want the best for me, to see me on the path to success and happiness and all that, but in terms of what I actually do, or how I spend my time, or choose to make money, those are all part of being an adult. It’s kinda up to me. (right?) So, turning to the Bible and some other books for wisdom as to what I should be doing, or how someone in my position might be feeling, I found some solace. Books are good for this sort of thing.

William Deresiewicz, conference speaker who’s experienced with kids my age, discusses the tendency toward ambivalence in Excellent Sheep. He uses two great works of literature, Middlemarch and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to build the image of the webs and nets hurled at young people. Stephen Daedalus says of his native Ireland, “When the soul of a man is born in this country, there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.” The freedom implied in his flight is powerful. Those “nets” cling to young Daedalus, and they remain with him, if you’ll allow me to call Portrait of the Artist‘s Daedalus a young Joyce, into the writer’s later, soaring achievements. “Today we have other nets,” Deresiewicz writes. “‘What are you going to do with that?’ is a net. ‘Instead of finding yourself, how about finding a job?’—that’s a net.” I found this metaphor to be so helpful because I always crawl with anxiety when I sense that question (or net) coming. Having a reasonable answer that will be met with approval becomes more important to me than having an honest answer, and that’s an unhealthy place to be.

Deresiewicz continues with the idea of “inventing your life.” He presents the point carefully, and I appreciated his words, but, as you might assume, my gnawing anxiety about the future was still there when I finished reading. My nerves were especially piqued when he called moving to Brooklyn a “salmon run, for a certain kind of kid”—since that’s my provisional plan, I sincerely hope I’m not that kind of kid!

In another section, he was more encouraging. “The best advice I ever got, the thing that saved me, at the age of twenty-two, from becoming a lawyer, was this: Don’t try to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. You’re going to be a very different person in two or three years, and that person will have his own ideas. All you can really figure out is what you want to do right now.” To me, that’s a more manageable question. (One that I can control, maybe?) For this advice, and his encouragement to call a net a net, I am gracious to Mr. Deresiewicz.

But there’s another chunk of worry that accompanies me: I’m afraid of what I don’t know. And I know that I don’t know a whole lot. In this way, I sometimes feel like a blunt instrument; ignorance mixed with youthful energy in a destructive alloy bent on hurting myself and others. Joan Didion captures this feeling wonderfully in her iconic essay, “Goodbye to All That.”

I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there—but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance and be able to pay whatever it costs. I still believed in possibilities then, still had the sense, so peculiar to New York, that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month … Nothing was irrevocable; everything was within reach.

Didion’s essay showcases her characteristic urban chic, and it stands partly as the foundation for my literary love of that city. Her attitudes—excitement, confidence, fecklessness—track with Deresiewicz’ insight into that common dichotomy of youthful spirit: grandiosity vs. depression. The world is at her fingertips, as it is often promised to be at mine and my peers, not un-problematically, but she’s not thrilled about it. She reflects on getting older.

That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.

I think this gets to the heart of my anxiety about moving on, starting a life. It’s stepping into the realm of the “irrevocable.” That freedom from the nets for Joyce and the self invention for Deresiewicz and having everything within reach in the big city for Didion—those all hold so much promise in my mind during this chapter. But it would behoove me to remember that my mistakes, even the “irrevocable” ones and the ones I’ve yet to make, have already been atoned for. And they’ve been atoned for by Someone who doesn’t really care what I do, He loves me and has already loved me. The secular freedom implied in Joyce, Deresiewicz and Didion comes best served with a little grace.