July 6-7, 2019
At sea, somewhere south of Burgeo, Newfoundland
Sometimes, a mind just has to get away. Not just from the same familiar places, but from the same circular thoughts, the ways of thinking and being we all fall into. It’s a human necessity to have a place we can’t be reached or found, a place to reset from the world and the routine. For me, this happens to be a ferry from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland, on a vacation with my parents, (planned and assembled by confederation and delegation – we’re each in charge of different parts, and to get it all together as smoothly as one could, didn’t touch each other’s plans except to make sure they almost fit), out of reach of the internet (kept safely on land, or at least within the range of a cell tower), and of them (upstairs in a different cabin). It’s not where I imagined I’d be at 30-and-a-few-days… I always envisioned myself on my own adventure by now, more independent – not less – than a decade ago. But I certainly don’t want this to be a braggadocious travelogue, or yet another ranting of a rudderless millennial.
On this boat, the world disappears for 15 hours or so, at least the world beyond this one ship, out of sight of land. There’s not too much to do, and a whole lot of room to think. It’ll come back in the morning, buzzing to life through impatient cell phones when the port of Argentia is finally within range, but for now, it’s out of sight, almost irrelevant. And when it does come back, it’ll be, at least mostly, in the past tense. A flurry of stored up notifications letting me know what happened, what was missed, who might have been looking for me… or worse yet, the absence of anything, that no one even had the chance to realize I was “missing”… or perhaps worst of all, the vague but important notice, “1 Missed Call.” With no idea who missed me, or what they wanted to say and didn’t get to, or didn’t feel quite motivated enough to leave as a voicemail. But what if our minds do the same thing?
I’ve been experiencing these events, whatever they are, since the summer of 2004… at least that’s the first time I noticed one. They arrive suddenly, without any clear cause, whenever and wherever I might be; although being outdoors seems to make them easier to receive, it’s by no means an absolute requirement. The “symptoms,” if we can call them such, usually consist of a heightened awareness and a feeling that something very important is about to happen (or just did happen) despite the lack of overt meaning. Sometimes there was even a compulsion to act in a way that seemed incongruous, or inexplicable, at the time and would only make sense later.
I never had a good word for them. I’m not sure there even is a name for them. Even trying to discuss the phenomenon with a friend who had shared a majority of the ones I’d had up until that point, we were unable to find a name we could accept for them. The best ideas we could come up with were “findings” and “the bag of bricks” – one for the effect, and the other for the symptom. What we did think we knew, though, was that not everyone had them, or at least knew they did.
At first, I tried to take these events at face value, as signs that what I was doing, or even what the compulsion made me do, was itself right, important, and inherently my own. It seemed to make sense at the time, to listen to these rare events and do what they said, and the results seemed solid enough. I’d had five of them total during my high school years – always at summer camp, or on a school trip, or somewhere else I’d been set free from my parents for a few days – and all of those original ones opened up new friendships, new interests, new opportunities. Then in the summer of 2007 alone, I had five more, in as many weeks. I even thought that going to college would make them a constant occurrence… that maybe this was the taste of freedom, even of normality, and having only a teenage perspective of it (and only sharing the experience with other oversheltered helicopter kids) made something entirely mundane seem unique.
My friend had a different idea: that we somehow completed each other’s minds, that we were the cause of our own discoveries. The logic we developed, after midnight one night, having been fished out of the woods by an entirely unnecessary search party, was that we needed each other, and an element of danger, or at least the unknown, and weird, good, exciting things would happen. And so we planned and dreamt, and plotted a triumphant return to nature and enlightenment,
But the moments didn’t get any more frequent after the summer of 2007. There was one monstrous case in September of freshman year, that induced me to go to the theater and see “Into the Wild,” then climb a half-built radio tower. And another transformative moment a week later, back together and climbing Mt. Marcy in a savage rainstorm, and singing at the top of our lungs on the way down, to try to hold onto any scrap of reality while we were miles off trail with no working lights, as if belting out “Space Oddity” would somehow keep us from going any farther adrift. And then right as it seemed like I should be blossoming and thriving, the moments of clarity went away. And stayed away through the rest of the college year. But I knew, with a ferociously burning desire, that I needed to get back to the mountains, first thing next spring, and counted down the days to the end of finals in anticipation.
Once again, the mountains provided – if there was any question before that I had found the right path, it was answered now. What should have been a miserable experience, lost on the wrong side of a peak, plodding through spruce traps and snow fields, is a decade later still one of my most profound experiences. By the end of the ill-advised adventure, even reality became subjective, a shared distortion where we were reading words in the trees, and saw a herd of alpacas in a meadow that couldn’t possibly have been there. And the more wrong things went, the more right it felt that we were there… and that we were there for a reason. As always, it was anything but clear exactly what we were learning, but it was abundantly clear that we were learning: that there is something to be learned in flow, in making it to the edge and coming back in more or less one piece, that can’t be learned in any other way.
(This is actually an accepted fact in behavioral psychology, called “edgework”. Stephen Lyng developed the idea in a seminal 1990 paper, and Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi refined it into the concept of “flow states” in the following years. Meanwhile, outdoor writer Jon Krakauer called it “Type 2 fun:” an experience that is miserable, even regrettable, while it happens but in retrospect is the optimal experience, and intrinsically worth doing again, pain and all. Of course we had no idea about any of this research as we independently discovered it in our own experiences; we called it “flow” too, among many names, but from having a bit of background knowledge of music and parkour; our synecdochic name for it, that consciously made no sense to anyone who wasn’t there, was “seeing alpacas,” even though later iterations had no Andean ungulates, hallucinatory or otherwise)
It even seemed like we had the recipe to make it happen: which seemed to consist of ambition, adventure, and uncertainty. As long as we were set up to fail, we would thrive.
Then came January 16, 2009. The day everything went wrong. The day everything should have, suddenly, devastatingly, made sense. I knew I was wrong – sort of, anyway. But I also felt that old bag of bricks coming down, out of the blue, and right on campus at that, on a frigid Friday afternoon, and I knew it was time to act: being wrong felt so right. In one tremendous, misguided flurry of righteous decisiveness, I landed in the wrong major, with the wrong girlfriend, and in the wrong urbex group. But with so much force behind me, being so convinced by the compulsion, the moments of clarity that had never failed me until then, I let myself believe I’d done right. I went through the motions even as they felt wrong, guided by the profundity of the “finding.”
This is a fundamental aspect of these moments: they take shape around the smallest of decisions, but let you know, in no uncertain terms, that they are no mere moths – they are the butterflies whose flapping will eventually set off a devastating hurricane, or a welcome wind of change. (Unfortunately, they rarely let you know which of those options…)
It only took until that Monday morning, walking around the woods behind my dorm on one of those bluebird days that make you believe in spring again, for that delusion to go away. I don’t know if it was having time to stop and think, or if that cursory exposure to nature was somehow enough, but within a few minutes I was physically sick, having emptied my entire digestive tract into the snow at the mere thought of what I’d done.
Ten years later, and quite a few “findings” later, it finally makes sense. Not just that I’ve gone horribly adrift in routine (which I have), but that the only thing I “found” was what I was losing. These moments weren’t just an alert that something important is happening, but that something important should happen… or should have happened. Not necessarily in an explicitly decision-based way – certainly not in a way that can be interpreted in one direction or the other – but an error message to let me know that if I made the wrong choice, I had ample opportunity to seriously screw up. These moments are not the opportunity to gain anything: the optimal outcome is to fail to lose what had been available, at the very instant the losing is about to take place.
At first I thought it might be a multi-dimensional passage through time, a way to see the future, or at least for a future version of me to attempt to shine a light back and get my attention on a soon-to-be-important moment.
At another point, I thought it might be an exit sign, going along life like a busy highway, and every once in a while amid the traffic jams and fender-benders there was an exit ramp. But exit ramps have signs, and destinations… the very essence of these was having no particular direction or destination, only knowing something big was about to happen.
Both of these models might very well be true for Successful People – there is a class of human out there, not separated by wealth, or power, or upbringing, but by agency – who have an unnatural ability to correlate what they want to do and what they can do. But neither adequately explains the compulsion, the direction; neither accounts for the fact that it is just as possible to go gloriously, painfully wrong, given the opportunity.
Then I thought maybe it was a railroad switch, two tracks you can’t see the end of, and you’re committed to take one or the other no matter what else is further down the line. Hopping a freight train might seem like the epitome of freedom, belonging to the long thin rails, carried illicitly to the horizon… but as much as you might want to go to Chicago, there is no guarantee the train you’ve chosen to attach yourself to is going there. Sure, it’s possible to look for one pointed westward, or consult a schedule (as much as one exists) in the crew change manual, to have a general idea, but every switch on the track, every signal, is only a vague sign, hard to understand without further information, and impossible to act upon. The only recourse when riding freight is to jump off a stationary or moving train: not to select a new track, but only to dispose of the current one.
Was there really a choice? Looking back, I could have ignored my parents and declared for computer science and music, instead of mechanical engineering. I could have gone to the basketball game with Katie, instead of seeing “Slumdog Millionaire” with Laura (and by all accounts, I should have – I only missed two home games during my entire time at college, and this was one). I certainly never had to join UER and play with fire in a group I already knew I wouldn’t belong in. But that’s hindsight: at the time, there was clearly only one path, and there was that force, that compulsion, behind it that I’d only ever felt before in a context of exploratory growth, when I was able to feel my mind opening.
This is the dilemma of life outside the innately liberated plurality of Successful People: you can live at your own chosen speed, but with a marked lack of direction. There is always another train to catch going the same way as the first. Every once in a while, there might even be one going backwards on the same track. But by the time you see and pass a switch, it’s too late to take it, at least without a long, wasteful, slow, and/or expensive backtrack. Or, you can pursue a direction, away from the tracks, at a pedestrian speed, stumbling through signless wilderness searching for a new track, and a new train to ride, risking running out of energy, supplies or time without even getting measurably closer to your goal (and while getting perilously far from the reliable forward motion of the old train, even if it wasn’t going the exact place you wanted to be). Understandably, this then leads to a total feeling of, and subsequent fear of, failure, and (hopefully, for the victim) a learned ability to ignore these callings and stay on the tracks.
So what, then, are these “findings”? Why is there a compulsion involved, if there is no way to go but forward or adrift? I think it’s a reminder that there was a decision to be made. A rail yard of sorts, the train stopping, the opportunity to hop to one of many trains in the yard, or to take a break from the train to explore the surroundings, acquire new items and/or travelers, perhaps even gain some information. After all, even though many of these events led to a clearly defined outcome months or years later, the actual decision point lasted mere hours, perhaps minutes for the very fastest ones. While the profound, important feeling of the decision point is often blatantly obvious, the reason why it was so important often isn’t visible until the final outcome is known. During that time, it is difficult, if not impossible, to know which train goes where, when it is inevitably time to get back on. (If one were to ignore the finding outright, or try to continue with no decision at all, outside factors can and will decide for you – consider the bulls at the railyard – ensuring the least optimal outcome.) Yet, even so, there remains the distinct possibility that every train in the yard is going the same place eventually, that the choice is only illusory, or that the best option was never attainable at all.
Psychedelics, then, occupy a similar but distinctly different role than true moments of discovery, albeit one no less necessary for the wandering mind. The psychedelic experience does not directly open doors… one doesn’t come back from the dimension of the mushroom with added skills, or new opportunities that didn’t exist yesterday. What it does provide is a map – a birds’ eye view of the tracks ahead and behind, the positions of the switches, and maybe even a few glimpses of parallel tracks close enough to reach with enough motivation. Using these signs correctly, we can redirect ourselves onto a different path, taking the direct route instead of having to rely on methodical, incremental and repeated self-discovery through meditation, a useful shortcut especially when attempting to explore many paths before selecting the right one (and yes, admittedly, sometimes taking a detour in an extremely wrong direction), without the same degree of investment or as profound of an eventual reward.
Even with the assistance of this mental map, we still run into the issue of the immovability of these “switches”. Having the choice (if you can even call it such) of living in a society at the mercy of Successful People, or drifting alone and isolated in the wilderness (actual or metaphorical) on the fringes, most of us – all of us, to at least some degree – are pulled toward the track, the one and only path of least resistance. This is not an expression of weakness. This is, rather, a demonstration of the extreme imbalance of strength and power, the normalization of subservience and exploitation as an acceptable way of living… and being lived upon. Our society’s very definition of success is measured in terms of manipulation: how well you can get people to follow you is the direct, maybe even only, predictor of how well you can do what you want, or have what you want, or BE who you want – the usual measurements of success. While we euphemistically frame success as empowerment or freedom or wealth, it is inextricably linked to this causative factor: Successful People are able to clear the path ahead of them, make the automata at the switches pull the levers to their liking, and provide the nonchalant outward appearance of riding the tracks just like us and happening to end up exactly where they want to go.
The dichotomy of this intermediate state, having gained enough awareness to find not only the destination, and the best path there, but also a clear view of all the switches pointing in the wrong direction, creates the mechanisms necessary to sense these “findings.” For the majority of us who do not have the influential gift of the Successful Person’s destiny, we are forced to choose when to accept going the wrong way, and when to take the substantial risk of finding and choosing a new path. We substitute success for Success™ and freedom for Freedom™, sticking to the on-brand notion of someday being able to make whoever we want give us whatever we want, whenever we want, as the ideal of a pleasurable and meaningful life, the realization of the American Dream.
If it were possible to live truly passively, as a caboose, one would be able to escape them, and find contentment not necessarily in stagnation, but certainly in forward progress on a path not at all of their own choosing. Many, if not most, Americans are as satisfied as they need to be with this path. Without an adequate map, some might not even be aware of another option. This surrender of choice is an unfortunate embodiment of this American Dream – we accidentally (perhaps even intentionally, going as far back as Horatio Alger, Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie) created a vision, in the name of freedom, of total conformity, where the peak condition is a stable and rising position at work, a comfortable home in the suburbs, and the gradual substitution of luxury for adventure: riding an increasingly well-appointed train back and forth on the same tracks, from home to downtown and back five days a week, building a whole adult life between two points, raising a family in your own image, who will eventually go to college themselves, and find, then abandon, their sense of discovery in the futile pursuit of stability, if not upward mobility. In a society built around that structure, money naturally becomes a numerical measure of Success, and success becomes a prerequisite for happiness, leaving behind a bleak world where money truly does buy happiness.
Living truly and totally actively, on the other hand, and ignoring the tracks entirely, leads to a life adrift, following every compulsion to its fullest with all-too-often fatal results, brought down by the likes of a misjudged climb, an overdose, or a jar of wild potato seeds. Since we are not the Successful People driving the train (if we even need to realize this is a choice, we have already fallen off that exquisite path), the completely active lifestyle is not as a locomotive, or even a car, but as a pedestrian. While that life has an absolute short-term attractiveness, and its very difference makes it a powerful lure to the young and adventurous, the length and isolation of the path leads almost everyone back to the tracks eventually – minus the years spent, and dollars unearned, and careers unbegun, while wandering around – only to find themselves far behind, and suddenly envious of, those who sought the path to stability, forever stunted in potential and earning ability and looked down upon for trying too hard to pursue a deviant dream.
Most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes, somewhat closer to the caboose: aware of the tangled maze of paths outside our own, but unmotivated, and/or unable (by our own perception, or by actual limitations), to pursue them. We all have dreams deferred, and the younger generations inevitably have more, as the paths around us narrow – eventually, these dreams either fall by the wayside, not just deferred but abandoned, or lead to derailment in one form or another, whether this expresses itself as radical career change, self-destructive behavior, or something as minor as impulse-buying an accordion and making a spectacularly unsuccessful foray into busking. But even as the understanding develops that the system itself is the cause of these issues, we intensify our focus on changing ourselves to fit within, and advance in the system – our very actions that we think are liberating bring us, more often than not, directly toward the back of the train.
In a society as interdependent as ours (even when it nominally relies so much on rugged individualism, and tries to teach us that we can bring ourselves up by our own bootstraps, in direct contravention of the laws of physics and economics), success is not measured by what we have, but by who we can influence. The ability to achieve a goal completely on one’s own is vanishingly rare, especially when those above us explicitly try to make it more difficult, to keep us subservient (and implicitly move us farther from our goals, using us as fuel toward their own ends), to the point that almost no assets or resources, except those that can directly be used as tools of manipulation, can contribute to long-term growth or success.
The American Dream as such, then, is not just a dream, but a dangerous delusion – itself the most potent means of manipulation in the last century and more – that we can follow directly back to prolific New England author Horatio Alger, and his antihero of an everyman, Ragged Dick, a wayward 14-year-old who, in a series of the teen novels popular in the era, rose to become a member of the petit bourgeoisie: a satirical story of prurient interest to the middle class, but unexpectedly inspiring on a literal level to the child-laborers and schoolboys developing delusions of adequacy, even affluent comfort, that might come as an eventual reward for a Puritanical dedication to hard work. (Ironically, Alger himself wrote no fewer than 93 novels after Ragged Dick, prospering himself by churning out what amounted to literary busy-work, retreading the same rags to riches story over and over again until it became cemented into the American capitalist liturgy).
While the media by which this story is promulgated have shifted over the last century, from the first Gilded Age to the ongoing second, the narrative remains, and if anything has even grown. In an age of instant gratification and social media we have it shoved down our throats in highly distilled hashtag form (#workflow, #hustle, #workhardplayhard and the like, providing a constant flow of work and workout ‘inspo’ in the rationally unglamorous photos of pre-dawn commutes and sweltering workshops and overly long Strava tracks snaking around our cities), from micro-influencers just a tiny bit closer to Successful People than ourselves, creating the pervasive, and erroneous, vision that we could be just like them, if we just put in a little bit more work, and the horrendous reality that they are the way they are because we put in that futile effort.
Of course a concession of sorts does have to be made here – work out enough, and you will get stronger than if you didn’t. Work more hours, and you admittedly will have more cash than if you left early (unless your job is salaried, in which case all you’ve managed to do is heighten the expectations asked of your [and your coworkers’] future performance, for no reward at all except the dangling carrot of a nebulous raise or bonus somewhere further along that may or may not arrive at all), but even then, there will always be someone ahead of you, either set upon stopping you outright, or on doing more themselves to stay ahead of you and keep their status above yours. And this system, left unchecked, creates a systemic rat race, a runaway stress reaction that eventually breaks the economy – or at least its participants – with the perverse effect of driving down wages, even as productivity rises, as the expectation of doing more for less becomes the new normal and workers resign themselves to the new economics of increasing inputs for diminishing outputs.
In this reality, we have three real measures of success (or lack thereof) by which to compare ourselves unfavorably to others – to Successful People – to understand just how little progress we make. The first and most obvious, of course, is financial success… which is little more than a vanity metric. While the total might seem impressive, and there are certainly advantages to a comfortable, affluent lifestyle, coming from money doesn’t mean lasting success, or necessarily any advantage in continuing to earn. (All it does mean, living in a world where money buys happiness, is that wealthier people tend to be happier about the path they are destined to be on, even when it does not provide fulfillment).
The second metric, influence and manipulation, is much more difficult to quantify, but also much more of a leading indicator. While social media follower counts are a decent proxy for it, and a reliable way to identify influencers, there are also Successful People who act more as manipulators who do not necessarily develop a visible cult of personality, or personal brand, of their own, but still manage to get other people do to what they need to be done to build up their own positions.
The third and most innate ‘measure’ is almost entirely in one’s own perception: are there doors opening around you, or slamming shut? Are your opportunities growing or shrinking? If either of the first two measures is less than satisfactory, it is virtually assured that it is shrinking, and that crashing sound is yet another door shutting in front of you as you slam into it at full speed… this is the coefficient, of sorts, that separates Successful People from the rest of us. Where nominally, in an equal society, everyone should have new opportunities opening as others close, Successful People do a little bit of work and have more doors opening around them than they can ever go through, while those of us dragging around the most unsuccessful destinies find that every door we try and fail open closes two or three or four more, and we quickly learn to simply avoid doors.
With these surrounding of diminishing marginal opportunity, where every year you have fewer possibilities open to you, and the world is a clam shell closing too tightly to ever open again (and doing its best to pinch your hand off in the process), it is only natural that we would eventually learn to feel those opportunities going away, perhaps when it is only a little too late, when there is still time to at least savor the scent of the greener grass on the other side, before the fence is completed…
This brings me back to my hypothesis – rather than an instruction to follow, the moment of “finding” is really a notification: “One Missed Calling.” The bag of bricks arrives not as a warning, but as a reminder, letting you know that an opportunity is about to slip away – and might inevitably slip away – and giving you one last chance to take a guess and do something wild. It’s the rumble of the train on another track, the glimpse of a different path forward, not necessarily better, but authentically yours. It’s absolutely a compulsion, but one from the inside alone: a rare intrusion of your actual hopes, dreams, ambitions, or even your personality itself, that are suppressed by society. It’s the message, late and incomplete, that if you don’t make the right choice, right now, whatever it is, you’re about to lose a very important aspect of your future.
What does this knowledge actually mean, though, in terms of how to react to these missed callings? Unfortunately, probably not much for those of us who aren’t Successful People… at least not for any lifelong change of direction. It is a fact of late capitalist life that most of us don’t have a map, can’t turn the train, and can’t survive for long off of it – but what we can (and should) do is make the most of the detours and excursions, even if that does mean only truly living for a couple of days out of every year. So the most we can do is take a guess, do something a little bit crazy, and someday see the fruits of our labor, as delicious or rotten as they may be.
It might seem cynical to measure life by regrets, let alone to celebrate the birth of a new regret, but just like the missed call on the phone, it’s possible to ignore it (natural even, with the prevalence of spam), let it go to voicemail – or try to call back while whatever it was was still important and relevant enough to act on. And, since there is little or no option to radically change one’s course, this is still not a wasteful option, even if it isn’t quite the optimal choice.
Even these somewhat expanded options, however, aren’t enough to truly be considered free will. For one thing, without the agency inherently restricted to Successful People, the only way most of us get to see opportunities is after the fact, too late to truly seize them, but close enough to at least get some enjoyment out of it, if not long term success.
While the absence of free will is far from original thought (Schopenhauer, for one, exposed a pessimism even deeper than this one, surrounded by other even more problematic concepts of the human condition), the idea of free will existing for only certain individuals can unify, and validate, vastly different thoughts and movements. It suddenly becomes possible for both Positive Psychology and a less magical realism to coexist – for the very definition of reality, even, to differ – between Successful People and the rest of us, and perhaps in still more groups than that, people who can shape their reality, and those who are only shaped by it; people who control their destiny, and people whose destiny controls them.
Unlike Schopenhauer, I don’t believe the end result is that life is futility. I recognize that there is a dangerous possibility to interpret what I’m suggesting in that way, but that is not at all my intention. I believe that life within the cage, or on the track, is at least as enjoyable as life with free will, as long as one makes the philosophical leap of realizing that the narrative pushed by Successful People, psychologists and capitalist culture itself is at best irrelevant. The perception of misery, stagnation and failure inherent to not being Successful People arises not from one’s own status, but from the constant state of comparison expected of the modern mind.
If these realizations are of no use to individuals who have lost their free will to the pursuit of the illusion of the same, to whom are they useful? Do we only retain them as a vestigial trait of when Successful People were the only people – if you even believe that was ever the case? Are they something we carry only to be exploited by others, ideas to be stolen away for someone else’s credit and profit? Were they implanted solely to taunt us of what could have been, and remind us of our status? There becomes only one reasonable conclusion: that we can take these moments as face value for what they are: incremental steps to make the most of life within the limits sent around us.
I have to wonder now, after starting to wrap my mind around itself and develop some understanding of this, whether these Successful People live in a perpetual state of what is to us only a momentary clarity and purpose. If so, it seems immensely liberating – and overwhelming – looking at it from the outside, to have such a powerful sense of purpose, and such an intense drive, as to be able to accomplish almost anything they put their mind to… and to have such reliable guidance that whatever they do put their mind to, is in fact the right option for the long term, without the fear inherent to wandering off-track for most of us. It is a frightening realization that simultaneously validates and eviscerates some of the most repugnant thought of the business establishment of the past two or three decades.
What can we do with this hypothesis? It may at first seem possible to act on your sense of purpose, and you may at first be pushed to make a rash decision toward it – to derail – quitting your job and throwing your life at one of these callings. For Successful People, this works. There’s a reason you read about stories like this all the time in the inspirational literature of business and self-help: some people have the safety net to pull this off, and do it once, or even multiple times, in their Instagrammable lives. These are the ones who turn into influencers, and show us their #hustle and #grind on the beaches of Ibiza, as if this is a life we can all emulate, where our vacation is their day at work in some beachy mockery of the office world. These are also the ones who impress Silicon Valley investors with their flashy vowelless startups; the ones who can afford a mortgage AND avocado toast – in San Francisco, no less. And almost every one of them will claim to be self-made, a fact about which they are rarely wrong. The difference is, they are self-made from ingredients out of reach of most of us: they have a place to fall back on through failure after failure, until they find the one that sticks; they have the network to find the contacts in high places, to get that skiing sponsorship or that writing job for a tech blog, or even the first seed funding for their fourth startup attempt.
But even more than the unequal distribution of opportunity, or the lack of a safety net, there’s an even more important class effect at play: not everyone can afford mental health anymore. I’m not talking about the spiraling costs of health insurance, professional care and therapy – I’m talking about even having one’s own independence and a mind free enough to think for oneself.
I’ve come to realize that my moments of purpose have become far less frequent as I spend year after year circling around in a holding pattern of a job: not a true dead-end, nor a job totally lacking in status, but one where expectations constantly rise, and wages don’t, while doing generally fulfilling work around enjoyable people – far from the worst workplace imaginable, even better than average for my city – and find it devouring my creative mind. Part of this is the constant nagging stress of being permanently broke: a member of the millennial “precariat,” the new-to-us social class recalling the workers of the turn of the last century, the huddled masses who yearned to breathe free… and learned that only the breath was free in the robber barons’ company towns and the slumlords’ tenements and the stifling mass of relocated humanity that was Alger’s Manhattan.
The process was never quite understood when it was happening: CEOs never actually strove to separate workers from access to the outdoors. Rather, it happened gradually, and insidiously, from making changes in other aspects of the working class lifestyle, as a constant refrain of side effects from one policy change, one social movement, one cultural shift after another. The typical American human’s connection to nature found itself attacked on every front: first the great migrations from the countryside to the cities (and then to the suburbs, where backyards with a few trees became a passable enough substitute for nature to cause forests and parks to seem superfluous), then the shift to a car-based society, allowing sprawl to separate the cities from the wilderness with miles of office parks and shopping malls and faceless little boxes all the same (combined with cuts to transit, removing interurban train lines and streetcars and buses that used to pass through beachy and bucolic areas, if not outright wilderness), then finally the fear-based overstructuring of the life of the American child, creating tightly regimented packages of education, rest, and sport to replace the freedom, discovery and adventure necessary for developing a competent, confident, curious mind (not just the overblown fear of drugs and strangers and rampant crime burnt into 90s kids’ brains, but also the fear of failure, of not getting into an ivy-league university – or a seedling-league preschool – that permeates the parenting of the newest generation), so that now it’s not only possible, but probable, that an urban or suburban child will go twenty years or more before their first real experience of pure, wild nature. Which they will just as likely pursue from the implied peer pressure of copying some influencer’s epic national park selfie, as from any curiosity or adventure of their own.
As a culture, we have replaced outdoor adventure with a proxy for it, in front of a screen, exploring the “free-roaming” worlds of video games, or taking in our drama in neatly metered-out 44-minute packages on Netflix, bingeing one episode after another to find out what happens next, where we can go next. We make these choices because they are safe: there is no consequence, really, for anything going wrong. If you die in a video game, you get to start over again, with a bit more experience how to do better next time, having lost nothing more than a few minutes that were fun until that one stray digital bullet, or that one fall into an imaginary abyss – and if you’re lucky there’s a save point, so you truly lost nothing at all, even time. If you just watched an Oscar-winning “masterpiece” that turned out to be a four-hour history lesson with all the drama of a textbook, you haven’t wasted the cost of a plane ticket to an underwhelming destination, or invested in gear you’ll never use again for a sport that looked like so much fun on TV but turned out to be a painful exercise in awkwardness. In such a softened world, it’s almost hard to blame parents for a conscious deprivation of adventure for their responsible children… but even if it means starting at a later age, and making up for that lost time in college, in one’s twenties, or beyond, there’s no logical reason for adults not to take a few chances, to focus on enriching experiences, and connections with something larger.
How can we fix this? Unfortunately, I’m clueless about that part. The best I can do is share what used to work for me:
Get outside more, away from the pressure of the rat race?
Find the person, or people, you’ve shared these experiences with, and spend more time with them?
If you think you’re feeling something very important coming up, and you don’t know why, go against your gut feeling, because what you feel is what you’re about to lose?
Try something dangerous, but not too dangerous, every once in a while. If you do it “correctly,” or the way that has worked for me, you should not only feel like you’ve been to hell and back, but that you want to do it all over again once you’ve recovered. Go find a friend – or make a new friend – go somewhere far away from here, and have some Type 2 fun! You might – emphasis on might – get to experience one of these “findings”, and get some clarity on a totally unrelated aspect of life, but I can’t promise it. You will, however, have an experience you’ll never forget, and awaken a side of yourself you may never have met before. In a world of downward mobility and lost opportunity, it will be one thing you don’t need to regret.