You grew up worrying about the best, fearing the worst, wondering what little thing would go wrong next, stomach curling over the fear and the anxiety that prowled just under the rush of everyday routine. You saw evidence, undeniable proof that the world was disappointed in you, there were people expecting to be let down, the people who didn’t think you could make it, to do what it is that you wanted to do, that you had to do, to be successful in a way that everyone could finally accept you for you. You strove for success, in all the ways they made success known to you, you looked for it in money, in power, in fame, in the gold stars given to people for perfect marks, in the cool aloofness of that slicked-back greasy-haired guy from that movie that you were forced to sit in and watch during a boring day of music class, in your parents’ lectures about getting an education and math and science and medical school. You worked and worked, you studied and wrote and recited and sung and ran and hated your running and tried not to forget to eat in the middle of all your reading and running and hating. You figured that you had figured out the way the world works, that doing all these things to be successful meant that more and more people would care, that the more working and reading you did, the more you had to read and work so people would recognize you for the scholar, the creative, the athlete, the cool aloof slightly less oily-haired guy who’s going places. You needed to maintain the image, to carry on the performance, so you looked like you were doing the right things and acted like you were going to the right places, because you knew that any small misstep could send you to the wrong kinds of places, and everyone was watching, just waiting for you, expecting you to falter and fall and fail.
A few applications, welcome booklets, and a boatload of money later, and you’re in a whole new world. Glistening buildings, manicured walkways, you were suddenly a stranger among hundreds, among thousands. It happened over a lifetime and in the revolution of a second. You were a nobody. You were nothing. Your working and reading and hating and doing had gotten you to a place where you could do it all over again, starting from nothing, doing nothing. You had gone to the right place, at least that’s what you kept telling yourself along with mom dad and bro and friend group a and b and c, if you had a c, you did the things that people wanted you to do, that people expected you to do, that you expected yourself to do, you wouldn’t dare let them down, wouldn’t dare let yourself down, would you? You did it for success, for the money, for the fame, for all the things that people told you to want and to need and to seek, to want to need and to need to seek. But here, in the now, you feel nothing, nothing but an overwhelming sense of comfort in the anonymity, in the weightlessness of having to do absolutely nothing, of not being told to want or to need or to do or to hate, just breathing. And living. And being. You liked just being. You like strolling along the paved marble pathways and weaving through the elegant archways. Your favorite is basking in the picture-perfect sunlight, warm and pleasant to the touch. Hours could’ve passed by as minutes, such was the state of world and mind you occupied. It was probably for the best that you didn’t remain that long.
Because obviously there was no time for you stroll and bask and breathe and be, oh no-that wasn’t the right thing to be doing for a person like you in a place like this, oh god no especially not at a time like this. Before the others catch on and catch up, before they turn themselves into something, you need to turn yourself back first, need to start planning to be in better places, with better people, doing better things. No no breathing and living and being are exactly what they want you to do, what they’re expecting you to do, the very thing that they knew you would do to let them down. Doing those things, enjoying those things, even thinking these things, is wrong, it’s playing your cards right into their hands, you, the baby, giving your candy to them, the adults, the ones with the power, the money, the success, the ones who have made it. The only thing to do is to keep working and doing and studying, things that will help you get to do better working and better doing, why the class schedule is out already and you’ve got to go to that orientation thing at that guy-who-may-have-made-a-lot-of-money-destroying-our-earth auditorium, and that’s not even mentioning the route you’ll need to plan for the club fair to talk to the right people to get to the right places, to move closer to success, to prove just how wrong they were about you all along.
And so you go, through the manicured walkways and packed lecture halls, the binge drinking and the not sleeping and the stress eating of college, through the long hours of spreadsheet grinding and crazy client dealmaking and crazier boss sweet talking, followed by the long glasses for happy hours and lunch hours and any hours when it’s not work hour of your cushy professional job, through the length of your roaring twenties, except minus the roaring because you think you’ve suffered some hearing loss from the deluge of screaming and demanding and partying, all for them, for their expectations of you that you can’t break, no, especially not now when you’re in so deep and up so high and out so far. You go and go to where they tell you to and then you go some more to where you think they actually want you to go to, teetering between seeking the need to go and hating wanting to seek the need for the going, the hamster wheel of life where you’re the cute little obedient hamster, running around and around for their enjoyment and repeating to yourself “I’m having fun” each time you make it around. You guess you enjoy it, sometimes, at least on the good days, well that’s what you’d like to believe, what you have to believe… Until the break. A rift in time and the endless revolutions of the wheel, where you find yourself thinking things you definitely shouldn’t be thinking.
You’re sitting in a park absorbing the last drips of warmth from the fading afternoon light, scrolling through the perfect little marriage announcements and the perfect little work promotions and the perfect little house purchases. Every little cookie-cutter thing so desired and so perfect, so perfect because it’s so desired and so desired because it’s so perfect. That’s it—that’s what you’ve wanted, what you want, what your entire life has been about, all the working and writing and running and screaming. This is what you’ve been running towards, isn’t it? what you signed up for when you started wanting that need to seek? the prize you cash in for after a few million revolutions of the wheel? to be perfect. so perfect that you’re not you—you’re their perfect image of youーwhich is everything you’ve ever wanted, isnt it? You see the wrong sorts of things starting to creep in from the corners of your mind but you can’t stop yourself from relishing the power released as they roll across your mind—things like you don’t particularly care about money or fame or success, whatever that means. You despise the preciseness of perfection, the endlessness of progression, the weariness of expectation.
And that’s when you realize it’s all been for them, for that larger-than-life regular at the kickboxing class, for the opinionated Uber driver, for the Chinese restaurant waiter and the new-American cafe barista and your achieving and over-achieving classmates and demanding and over-demanding bosses and mom dad bro and friend groups a, b, c, and d (yes even d). All for them. Never for you. The words hit you, you and the your revolving wheel: Nobody Cares. ReallyーNobody. Not even, no, especially, not you. You don’t care what they think, what they expect, what they deem acceptable for accepting. The words you didn’t know you had been searching for all your life in those brief moments of rest transcendent from the eternal cycle of the running and the studying and the demanding. All along you’ve been doing it for them. Maybe, it’s time to do it for you.
The sleek stainless steel wheel, your steady, modern, up-and-coming stage for your life is still standing. You thought it would be broken, but perhaps, that’s too much of a cliché, for a few flimsy words to break sturdy steel. Yet, something feels off. You realize you’re not running anymore, and you realize that realization is something atypical, something specialーsomething that means you can actually look to the side, off the endless highway of the wheel. The revolutions have stopped because you’re able to stop yourself. You’re free, really free. You thought you were free before, when you chose which pace and angle you took up the wheel, which speed bumps you barreled over and which you avoided, the length of your stride and the intensity of your breath. But none of these choices really changed the path you traveled or the destination you were ultimately headed towards. Even though everything around was in it’s original rightful place, you became different, and with that, everything changed. Your perspective shaped and then became your new reality.
You’re free to just breathe; to just live; to just be. And in being, you start to want things that you’ve always wanted, wishing for things for you, not for them. You just wish you had flown halfway across the world to live in a tiny apartment flush with the roar of motorbikes, stumbling through a new language, immersing in a new culture, sharing with a new people. You wish you had signed up for the classes that make you dream and love and believe. Believing in a crazy story prompt about tutu-wearing aliens and loving the freedom of expression through a blank canvas and a box of technicolored paints and dreaming of a society that promoted kindness over efficiency, sustainability over growth. Wish you had taken up that job posting on learning how to really serve up a good cup of joe. Mustered the courage to offer your free shift drink to the cute one from Spanish class. Proposed the great idea of stumbling through one of those free salsa lessons on Wednesday nights in the student center. You just want to stop… For a moment… Or two… or ten. Just listeningーtuning into the distance: the humming banter of a picnic with friends, the discordant bustle of a family-owned cafe, the mellow peace of a dozing pug. Just feeling the soothing sunlight and the caressing breeze. Just breathing. Breathing in the magic of being alive with a mind that seeks and dreams and a heart that hurts and loves and a body that toils and tumbles. Just living in my own skin, with my own thoughts, embracing my own emotions. Just being. Me.
Thanks to Avery Jordan, Ameesh Shah, and Jamie Wong for their comments and reviews.
I got the idea inspiration for this piece after watching a particularly impactful scene from Schitt’s Creek when Alexis tells David “nobody cares” while he’s freaking out over his driving test. It’s a statement that personally resonates because one of my critical weaknesses is worrying too much about what other people think, and I drew a lot of the feelings and the yearnings from this piece on my own experiences navigating school and the societal expectations I’ve always felt around me. This feeling has been amplified across society with social media seeping into all parts of our lives, forcing us to put on our best selves 24/7. Modern culture proliferates extremes. The shame around not “meeting the bar” has become a staple of society while the height of fame for embodying the idea of perfection has become unattainable. I wanted to capture the experience of the pressure that everyone feels on the need to be something different, something better based on an abstract societal notion of “goodness,” and how hard of a journey it is to even get to the level of awareness and how powerful that simple switch can be.