By Catherine DiMercurio
I awoke on a recent summery May morning to a cool breeze sighing through the open window and the smell of someone’s backyard woodfire still clinging to the air. It felt peaceful, but despite this fine context my first thoughts of the day were despairing ones. They were emotion-thoughts more than word-thoughts. I anticipated the coming day and recalled the previous one, wondering vaguely what I added to the world that had value. Thoughts like these result in anxiety and restlessness for me, and managing those emotions means I have to pep talk myself about what I contribute, what matters, what I’m grateful for, etc. It seemed a bit early in the morning for an existential crisis, but truth be told, I’ve been thinking about such things as long as I can remember. What is the point of all this, I wonder, often. Not just why am I here, but why are any of us? But given that we are, what should we be doing?
We live in a capitalist society in which many of us have internalized the notion that value and worth are tied to what we produce, and what we accumulate. To counter that, a whole culture has grown up around the idea that our personal value is tied not to those material things, but what we’ve done to make the world a better place.
Another way of looking at our personal worth centers on the love we’ve created in the world. Who we love, who loves us. For a while, this perspective really worked for me, but children grow up and move away, relationships dissolve, and there are plenty of people who haven’t felt loved, or haven’t had the opportunities to find and create love, and it doesn’t seem fair to tie personal worth to things that are often beyond our control.
Some people don’t question these things much because they have found answers in their faith. I was raised Catholic and my thoughts on why I’m not anymore could fill a book, which I likely will never write. A lot of people these days say they are spiritual but not religious and that means different things, depending on who you ask. It’s hard to say if it applies to me. I consider myself agnostic, meaning that for me, if there is anything divine in this universe, which I’m not sure of, the nature of it is unknowable. I do believe that energy cannot be created or destroyed, and this scientific principle seems more divine than anything else I’ve encountered. But the point of all this is to say, that I don’t believe there is a consciousness at the helm of all this, and certainly not one that has a plan for me, or anyone else. People also say things like “the universe is trying to teach you this or that.” It’s pleasant and nontheistic to think that, in a way, but that statement is not different from the “it’s all part of God’s plan” line of thinking and I’m not convinced the universe works that way. If the universe thinks I’m supposed to learn things, then it must be because there is a path it thinks I should be on. The whole notion of a plan—God’s or the universe’s—boils down to the centuries-old debate about free will versus determinism, and if theologians and philosophers have been playing this game for hundreds of years, I’m certainly not going to figure it out.
It makes me think of the University of Michigan football stadium at full capacity, with half the stadium yelling “Go” and the other half yelling “Blue.” It’s a battle of who can be louder, but it is also about the harmony of the message. Similarly, we seem to need to believe in both free will and fate. We want to believe we have choices, that it isn’t all preordained, but at the same time, we want to believe there’s a plan. When things happen that we don’t understand, people say it’s all part of God’s plan. Or when we are not where we expect to be in life, or have a setback, we are told it is because there are things we haven’t learned yet, and the universe will find different ways of sending the same lesson until we get it, and then somehow things will get better, or make sense. On any given day people believe what gives them the most comfort. On any given day, I see both chaos and order in the universe and I don’t know where I fit.
Everyone has advice. Find your purpose. Chase your dreams. Do what you love. Don’t overthink it. Others tell me that we are here to simply enjoy ourselves as best we can.
I think of all the philosophies I’ve embraced and either discarded or incorporated some parts of. I have sought clarity, but sometimes it accumulates as clutter. I often forget that moments can feel longer than they are, and time is like pulled taffy. Getting lost in ruminations about purpose, value, and identity is something my mind does every so often. But in other moments, I’m living less inside my brain, and I’m doing things I love, or just muddling through, and it all somehow makes enough sense. I don’t know if I’m on the verge of figuring things out for myself, and all the other things are a distraction from the work my brain wants to do, or if all the ruminations are the distraction, and real life and real meaning is in all the rest of it.
Both, I realize in flashes of insight. It’s both. It’s the harmony between thinking and feeling, between doing and being, between contemplation and action. I do know that in all the advice I’ve internalized over the years, the phrase “be yourself” continues to ring true. This is the way my brain works, always has. But I think truly embracing the notion of being who I am might be the north star that I’m looking for. Maybe it is the way to recalibrate when I feel lost. Maybe it is the only way to understand our place in this mysterious universe. I just read something online about the dandelion, and how useful all its components are, and how resilient it is. A dandelion succeeds as an individual plant and has succeeded as a species for centuries because all of its parts work together to insure it thrives. It supports the lives of pollinators—it does good in the world—but it doesn’t exist in order to do so. It just is. It doesn’t need a plan, it just maximizes its resources: the sun, the rain, the wind that disperses its seeds (or the human making a wish).
I am this collection of cells and memories and have lived and evolved right up until this moment. I have a hard time believing there is a Plan beyond that, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make squishy, flexible plans for what I might want in the future. And letting go of things I had once planned for my future—things that I imagined were solid and fixed, things that will never come to be—that is some of the hardest and most necessary work I’ve done. But for now, it makes sense to be. Be myself. Maybe be a little like a dandelion.