Opting out of the conventional societal funnel guarantees you only one thing: discomfort.
The choice to quit an unfulfilling job is celebrated widely but acted upon rather infrequently, and the narrative of going out into the Alaskan wild to see what it is one might find there is a popular one (as evidenced by the major motion picture) in theory but equally unpopular in practice.
There is a reason for this, and it has precious little to do with finances or know-how. These, of course, are the reasons people give for why they do not take the action they claim they would like to. The real reason is that removing the corporate teet from your mouth is as unnatural as weening a baby from mother’s milk. No part of your being wants to turn down a steady supply of placating food and finances, Friday night margaritas and Monday morning blues. Plus, setting off into the unknown “sounds so darn lonely,” in a way that a stream of average dates and lukewarm appetizers and motley crews of acquaintances at backyard barbecues somehow never does.
In spending over a year seeking out the alternatives to unquestioned convention, I have learned something: loneliness is everywhere. It is in the whipping winds on the Arctic tundra and it is in the raucous din of the local hip happy hour bar. It is in writing a book at an expensive mid-century modern desk in a cozy house in Arkansas, and it is in commuting to the office in downtown Dallas, surrounded by muckety-muckers and people to grab lunch with. It lurks around the corner of an epic mountain bike trail as surely as it plods on the treadmill beside you at the after-work gym session as the sun sets through the industrial window panes.
The truth is that we are fundamentally lonely people, and we are only variously adept at distracting ourselves or forgetting. We can be gregarious at work or on Saturday nights, but this offers little by way of feeling understood. We can sit alone and cook elaborate meals and feel that we are doomed to loneliness, but at least there is a direct acknowledgment of the void. What scares me most is hiding the truth beneath a thick, lacquered-on veneer of life; running out of principled steam and accepting the first decent-paying job, settling into a healthy routine of improving my times on the local bike trails and eating healthy dinners at 8 PM and falling asleep trying to pray and not feeling it and waking up and doing it all over again. Swiping numbly on dating apps while a baseball game drones on the TV, knowing that the circumstances create a permanent sense of desperation between two people who could have had a good thing if they’d met more naturally, if their fundamental flaws didn’t leave them with no choice but Tinder. Waking up in a plummeting nihilistic solitude, squeezing tightly on Hank’s barrel chest just to make sure we both still exist.
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I claim to have been fighting this lately, sucking the marrow out of life and making meaningful relationships with people, putting myself in a wide variety of situations in hopes that I will learn something profoundly and universally true through the alchemy and contrast of beers in Ohio and coffee in the Yukon Territory. But conscientious objection does not pay the bills, and we cannot escape bills.
So I feel the weight of the world catching up after ‘a good run,’ and I am tempted to move to a place more familiar, with a network of acquaintances that could occasionally interrupt my streak of meals eaten alone and perhaps introduce me to a person or two the old fashioned way. I try to free myself of the thirst for material goods, only to notice that in lieu of spiritual satisfaction, a project car or a more specialized bicycle or new camera lens might offer up a convincing diversion. Besides, what is so wrong with just being comfortable?
The reality is that discomfort breeds growth and creativity, that a miserable principle is better than the cushiest compromise. If all we want is to have our neurons tickled and our gnawing, empty hearts filled by something, then we are a few white lies and numb nine-to-fives away. If what we want is to feel understood and to exist outside the realm of vague obligations, then we have much work to do yet.
Lately I have seen people put their hope in promising first dates, only to lament to me that they feared they were “ruining their chances” by being authentically themselves.
If you will read that sentence a few times, you may see the fundamental flaw in it. And yet, this is how most of us live most of our days, acting “professionally” to secure jobs through the interview process and acting “mysterious and powerful and attractive” to play the dating game or the networking game, to seem like we are worth knowing by teasing at half-truths in dim-lit bars. Earnestness is a failure, questioning the status quo is a dangerous chink in the armor, admitting your beliefs without hedging your bets is a fatal flaw that puts you in a position of weakness in the power dynamics of life.
People balk at this because it threatens their own houses of cards. But I do not mince words to be liked, I spend months on end contemplating the nature of being known so that I can perhaps spare one soul a few hours of confusion. And I know that admitting you are dissatisfied or lonely is the fastest way to lose most of your “friends,” or perhaps the fastest way to find out who your good friends are. People run away from admitted loneliness like it is The Plague, either because the first person to admit it is the first one to ruin the game or because someone who is lonely must possess a fundamental flaw, because everyone is supposed to be able to fit in somewhere.
I do not offer Five Steps to Being a Better Person or Three Quick Tips to a More Social Life, because the world does not actually work that way. It would get me a hell of a lot more website clicks, and maybe I could finally generate at least a tiny bit of revenue from this website which is the sole repository of my honest and self-directed writing. But I refuse to lie to myself or to others for financial gain or convenience, because it is impossible to conceive of a life worth living that is built on the sands of lies and compromise.
I could write volumes about soul-searching in a trendy Porsche or exploring the uncharted North in a vintage Land Cruiser, but I do not wish to posture myself as an unknowable approximation of The Good Life. Those trips taught me a lot, but virtually all of it was learned independently of misty-eyed poetics about old machines or the open road. Instead, it was learned laying on crunchy motel bedspreads listening to men yell at their prostitutes in the room next door or around campfires with people who could buy my entire life with their checking account but were asking me for advice about or on empty hiking trails where I sang Willie Nelson to the wind in hopes of avoiding a hungry grizzly bear.
And even then, it is not about where I have been or what I have done, but what the mind thinks about when given the chance, what the soul longs for and what fulfills it. It is about placing oneself in the position to question whether the new car actually made you any happier or whether moving solved a single one of your problems, and then listening to the answers. It is about trying to pray and falling asleep instead. It is about watching a dog live life so vigorously that it actually changes you; it breathes some alacrity into a life that could easily settle like so many others, like all the dust that blows through North Texas when the spring winds blow and settles when the days become hot and still.
There is no tangible reward for trying and there are no guarantees when you choose principle over practical. But what are trappings won reluctantly if they only beget more inauthentic trappings? And how can you solve problems if you spend your days avoiding them instead of shining a spotlight on them for yourself and all the world to see?