Choose Your Own Adventure

Life is considered unfair when you're given challenges you never asked for. The dream is to only have adventures when you choose to take them on. Higher level education is one of those big ones, which is why I didn't really expect anyone to feel bad for me or Carrie over the past few years. We chose that life. At the same time, I never chose to grow up in a toxic family. Carrie never asked to be born in a refugee camp. Privilege puts some people ahead and others behind.

Privilege also means having the freedom to ruin your own life. Throw a few years away on a hopeless romance. Burn a few more on an interesting but ultimately unemployable degree. Take up smoking to look cool in high school. Train to become a professional video gamer. Spend disposable income on collecting sneakers and sunglasses. The height of banality in my mind when I was young was spending money on clothes. Most of my friends' parents made good money, so they flashed all the nice labels. Some of them aren't doing much these days, but at least they had nice clothes in school while I struggled to fit in. I always wondered "don't these people have bigger problems than looking nice?" and only now am I realizing that the answer is no. I feel like I was pretty unique in having a bigger share of problems, and I'm glad others didn't have to experience the same thing. It's kinda nice that people don't have to wrestle with being abused. It's great that my friends are able to be confident in themselves, something I still find hard to do for myself.

Pain wakes you up. It forces you into the moment. There's a threat to your system causing undesirable feelings, so your body responds by summoning an appropriate response to remove that threat. I think it's no coincidence that being conscious is also described as being woke. The ones who suffer the most see the clearest. My worst subject in school was English, which is funny to me because so many people have commended me on my writing on this blog. I never really thought anything about being a writer or a novelist, but I do however have this objectionable image of a kid growing up, idolizing being a writer. They wanted to write a novel, but having no real problems, they had nothing to write about. They just thought writing was cool. So they created their own problems and sabotaged themselves so they would finally have something to write about. It's like when Eminem, the Average Joe in 8 Mile struggling to get by as a single parent with his daughter in a trailer home, roasts his opponent in the final rap battle because his parents are rich and have a good marriage. I feel like my writing has gotten more fluffy since I stopped struggling so badly, which is a tradeoff I'll take any day. Why experience so much pain for the sake of being able to write? I had so many different layers of complexity to make sense of as a kid that it felt like nothing would ever make sense. When things did somehow click, I would latch onto it like a small connected section of a jigsaw puzzle that made everything else make sense. Pain was my friend in this pursuit.

I started reading "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up." Not sure how I feel about the whole topic, but one idea that has stuck so far is that of only keeping things that spark joy. The context they use it in mostly has to do with discarding belongings that no longer hold any significant meaning for us. Does your body and soul light up when you touch it? Throwing things away that are old or no longer functional doesn't necessarily work in every case compared to only keeping things that spark joy. Even if something doesn't work anymore, it might still be worth keeping because it can still brighten your dark days. Growing up with three siblings, we were strong believers in the hand-me-down system, which doesn't age well. It creates an imposition on the younger siblings to keep the items handed down, making it hard to let go of those things due to guilt and merely shifting the hoarding problem to the younger ones. When Carrie encounters a pushy salesperson, she tells them she doesn't love the article of clothing. That pretty much dismantles all attempts to close the sale. Now we ask that of everything. Should we make that brunch date? Should we attend that show? Carrie asked me if she should keep her graduation cap, and I asked her if it sparked joy. She threw it right in the trash. Certainly this idea applies to those that are a bit more privileged, who have the ability to replace items if they feel like it or who are advantaged enough to own too many things in the first place. I've been using this principle unknowingly, so that's why I like this particular phrasing. Every good revival I've experienced started with discarding things that didn't spark joy.

Sources of strength. What gives you strength and what takes it away? It could be anything: people, animals, art pieces, culture, tradition, philosophies. Some people are leeches of your life force, and they'll bleed you dry if you let them. On the other hand, it's really rigid to require that everything give you strength all the time, and frankly it's a bit selfish. You need to give and take. It's hard to argue when a certain coping mechanism gave you enough strength to get through a hardship. If smoking makes you feel better, how can you argue with that when your day exploded? Yes, long term you'll suffer from severe health effects, but what happens if it gives you the strength to die another day? It's tough to reckon with that day if you do survive to see it. I don't mean flatly that the ends justify the means, but we are constantly stuck between rocks and hard places. It's hard to care about the future when you're stuck in a dilemma in the moment. There were countless times during the two year period of counselling, which I'm heretofore calling The Struggle, where I thought "This much drinking is going to reduce my lifespan, but it's also going to move me past the crushing defeat I faced today." It's easy to respond that one should just tough it out and do the right thing. Okay. That makes sense on paper, but then the strength required to make that brave decision subtly removes your willpower from another area. Which one? I've denied myself fast food at lunch only to face a snack attack full of junk food for dinner. Sources of strength look completely different to us in different circumstances. It could be a friendship or simply a line from a book. It may break the rules or go against the grain, but who's to say it's not good when it gives you the strength to get unstuck?

That all sounds well and good (and preachy, like I'm standing on some digital soapbox), so am I practicing it? I can talk a big game, but can I live up to it? Looking back to The Struggle, I was facing a lot challenges and pressure from work, at home, and from counselling. It felt like I could never get ahead no matter what. Sleeping was a struggle because I was so gripped by anxiety in bed at night, and other days I would be so exhausted from the battle that I'd sleep by 8 PM. Eating wasn't really a joy anymore because everything seemed so far away, even when ordering in because I would still have to wait so long. Very few friends could understand or empathize with just how badly I was doing, and it was too uncomfortable to hang out with some people that I still had a lot of affection for. I realized that the pain was what had always made me so conscious of my surroundings, especially from my childhood. While I would agonize over issues or competing interests, the pain was necessary for me to analyze and dissect my problems into their smaller components and further to their root causes. I would take a problem, let's say my loneliness, and wonder why I felt that way. I'd basically throw as many different explanations at my heart to see which would ultimately soothe it. I quit my job, so maybe that lonely feeling comes from not building community with my coworkers like I used to. I had a unique problem that few people could relate to, so maybe that's why I feel so isolated. There were tons of other explanations I'd try, but what it came down to was that Carrie was my rock, but she was often unavailable to me and also became a source of the pressure.

In response to that pain, I grasped at anything that would spark joy in me enough to keep going for another day or hour. Pokémon Go in October was huge for me because it was a reason to go outside and to get some basic exercise. I worked my way up to about 5 km a day, developing a nice route around my neighbourhood through all the Pokéstops. Then my friend took me to the gym and helped whip me into shape. That was fun and deeply rewarding. I got deeper into EDM and hip hop music, especially the conscious raps of Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. Certain games sparked joy enough to distract me from the burning sensation in my chest for a few minutes like Super Mario Run. Plus I learned to embrace being alone and enjoying my own company. I discovered many more activities that proved to not spark joy in me anymore, so I discontinued them in the interest of surviving each day.

Despite finding items that sparked joy, they weren't enough on their own to really drive me through the barriers. This is how I discovered that only people and not possessions would be my strength through The Struggle. Objects and activities sparked joy in their own way, but the people involved with those items were much more substantial in my experience. An hour for coffee with a friend, whether we were just bullshitting or genuinely connecting and catching up, could keep me going for days longer than snacking on my favourite candy. Grabbing a meal with a buddy was even better because it was always such a struggle to eat in general. Going out to dance with friends was by far the best, which could power me for weeks. It became really clear who was willing to stick their neck out for me. That was also what made The Struggle so devastating, when a lot of my good friends moved out of the city. That's why I was always grateful whenever I got even a single Facebook Like on a post or a general message of encouragement. Surrounding myself with the right people was so important because they were such huge sources of strength in my dark times, as was removing the wrong people, who took my strength away.

That covers it, right? Pain is your friend, only keep things that spark joy, identify the people that give you strength. If you live a privileged life, you'll have time to decide when you want to choose your adventure, but if not, I hope these words help to get you through the path that's been chosen for you. Carrie and I chose for her to go back to school, but along the way we encountered problems that we didn't necessarily want to assume. J. Cole says there's no such thang as a life that's better than yours. Circumstances won't always line up the way you want, but your response to those circumstances is always within your control.

Carrie got a job. I'm so proud of her. She got multiple interviews and turned down two offers. She attended a few interviews, one outside of Calgary, and she decided on a position that sparks joy. I'm really proud of her. She took some time after graduating to decompress. It was really disorienting for her to have so much free time. Sleeping the days away was possible, but she didn't want to do that. There were a lot of times where she didn't know what to do. However, creating that space made it easier to not only apply for jobs but also for her academic credentials to be approved by the College in order to apply for her provisional permit. When she was looking for a job last time, she felt very unemployable because of her heavy time commitment for school, and she was either under- or over-qualified for everything. This time around, it almost felt easy. I'm very proud of her. She worked hard through school, and now we can both start our next big adventure. No, not kids.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le