How many layers of a “picture perfect life” are our true selves buried beneath?
Perhaps the most pervasive question in my confusing life is which version of myself is the realest and where the edge between righteous discontent and selfish ingratitude really is.
We are taught to be happy with what we have, to be present where we are, to enjoy whatever it is that’s around us. To find meaning in the hard work and contentment in the suffering. And these teachings are all valid.
There are far fewer models for knowing where the line between contentment and complacency is, for understanding what exactly we are supposed to strive for or settle with. Life is so full of possibilities and even more full of responsibilities. To chase a dream is a beautiful thing. It is so hard to stick with a dream after setbacks and surprise expenses, to point towards that mountain top amidst recurring car payments and the physical limitations of our corporeal beings. Especially in a world which models and rewards certain trajectories while mashing and mocking others. The very fabric of our society provides tax breaks for parents and homeowners, the logistics of rent payments and living quarters favor the cohabitating partnered relationships, the marketing material convinces us we need newer, faster, better, brighter. It all feels so real. How do we know what we can do without so that we can become what it is we’re supposed to be?
Truth is a subjective concept. We want to believe that there are absolutes; life is easier to navigate this way. That is, until the gnawing feeling deep inside of us gets louder and stronger and we suddenly realize that there is nothing easy about the songs of our souls being suppressed by the black and white confines of structured thinking. The truth is, I took over a cycling lifestyle + apparel company because I believe that this sport I love needs more fun and good design and less competition and exclusivity. The truth is, I despise aspirational marketing and creating more products in a world that is already overrun by them. No matter what is true, the profit margins in trying to do things the “right way” are so thin that it is discouraging to the point of not seeming worth it. The truth is, I should be happy where I am with all that I have in front of me. The truth is, I have landscapes tattooed on me that only exist hundreds of miles from where I live, that there are sirens that visit me in my dreams and sing songs that drive me over the stern, and then I wake up in a half-decorated bedroom, alone again. The truth is, I’ve spent so much more on this “responsible” life I’m living than I ever would have on the dream life I’ve been told is radical and impractical. On a good day, the truth is that I’m depriving the world of good art or great counsel by following this numb path that is a facsimile of independence and creativity. On a bad day, the truth is I’m still several years behind my peers and I’d better walk the straight and narrow and tell a convincing story about why I am where I am, why I love what I’m doing, how much I can’t wait to triple down on this shaky ground I inhabit.
People often mistake these little written dispatches as something of a “blog” or personal diary; we want to see first-person writing as wholly personal or subjective. The reality is that I have always loved sacrificially, and my writing is no different. I would gladly cut off a digit for the sake of art, would trade comfort time and again for the profound satisfaction of a completed work. I will write about my own experiences in unblinking detail not because I am self-important but because it is hard to be a trustworthy narrator when all you do is talk about other people. Again, truth is a fickle muse. And it is inconvenient to make one’s personal life part of the project, because there are always the real-life interactions with people who will use your own work against you. The thing is, the artistic soul is damned and tortured either way. Silence and conformity are the worst punishments, but weaponized misunderstanding of your plainspoken craft isn’t much better.
No matter whether someone considers themself an artist or not, life is a constant form of creative expression. We get to choose whether to invest the extra few minutes or dollars in making our meals something soulful or something utilitarian; we stumble upon forks in our paths and at any time can zig or zag towards things that edify us or stumble along towards that which placates the deeper longing. For all the ways it may seem I march to the beat of my own drum, I never trust the satisfied feeling for long. My own traumatized and prescribed life has shown me that there is always a price to pay for the life you choose, and so at times I feel mighty low and fold under the pressure of payments due. To navigate an unfeeling world as a curious empath is a rich and rewarding experience, until one day you find out you were the rabbit in the sagebrush all along, dashing from place to place, too motivated by survival instincts to stop and smell the unbelievable aroma of the high desert. And ultimately, your life flashes before your eyes as you feel the unknown yet unmistakable sensation of coyote teeth in the nape of your neck. It could’ve been a good life, if it hadn’t been run in survival mode all along. And now, there is nothing to do but surrender to the chemical process of dissociation while you are chomped on and slowly transition from sentient to deceased. I always wonder what it is like to be eaten, how many bites before you are actually gone.
Because, in a way, we are all being eaten every day. And indeed, my body routinely dumps the chemicals needed to endure the experience, until it is hard to discern between the dancing shadows of the blossoms of the bush I am hiding inside of and the existential threat of a hawk’s shadow painting the ground beside me.
People have a way of reading these words and thinking they are exempt from them. We all want to be. It doesn’t matter what type of metaphor we choose, they always speak something true. I can write about harebrained bike adventures and have someone who follows me from a bygone era of automotive journalism remark that, they too feel most alive when trying to undo the consequences of their own dumb actions. I can write about the mechanical poetry of an antiquated machine and have people who scarcely care about cars at all find some truth inside the triumphant narrative of doing something we always wanted to in a world that seems to tell us we can’t. But it is just as easy, if not easier, to gloss over the truths because the vehicle doesn’t feel indicting enough, because the nature metaphor isn’t relatable to a city-slicker and because their life is lacquered up so thick in picture perfection that they can’t even begin to risk taking an acetone bath in the question of what could be.
I am confused by which truth to believe because I am a subjective being with a multimodal nervous system. Pretty faces dump a certain type of chemicals into the brain which motivate us to power through red flags. Years of moral conditioning and scare tactics like heaven and hell leave us unable to live the truths we intellectually believe deep into our thirties, our bodies still betraying our allegedly evolved minds with visceral guilt and dysregulation. And, above all, the buzzing energy of our innate motivation and desire makes idle minds workshops for “devilish” ideas, at least according to the puritanical legalistic society we were born into. So we seek cause-and-effect outlets for our energies and aspirations, until we find that we like the dopamine hit of a paycheck or an empty compliment just as much as we love the validation of likes on the internet. It is ultimately meaningless, but it is a good substitute for the less immediate gratification of a life well-lived.
Instagram doesn’t know you’re dead until someone contacts customer support and asks them to add the “Remembering” tag to your profile. And then what? You are no longer a monetizable set of thumbs and eyeballs, your content no longer gets engagement, just the occasional comment-section vigil by people who remember your date of birth or date of death. The pleasure we receive from this manmade construct of cyber accolades does little to reward the parts of us that yearn and strive. The multibillion dollar industry of social media favors mimetic repetition over original thinking. And so, no matter how much I believe the handful of people who say they like my writing, I am screaming into a tornado, trying to make words matter in a world that only wants pretty pictures. When I am alone and exhausted, I succumb to the monkey brain temptation to scroll the pretty pictures, to remember a time when I had a few things I wanted and a lot of things I didn’t. When I am not in right relationship with my soul’s desires, then the images of others’ highlight reels can induce a type of vertigo that makes it hard for me to tell up from down, right from wrong, truth from filter.