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The Path is Hard
There’s no point when I remember first feeling the need to prove myself. It’s not like one day I was a child, happy and content to ride my bike across the park to the tadpole stream, then a specific moment suddenly manifested a gaping hole in my identity that begged to be filled. No scene where I suddenly become sentient and think “I’m not enough.”
Similarly, there was no triumphant moment at the end of a montage when my need to prove myself disappeared. I wish I had the perfect shot, the close-up of my face filling the screen as I have my ‘whoa’ moment, my eyes expanding in realization that “I’ve always been enough” before descending down the mountain one sandaled step at a time. My mind searches for the perfect moment, to impart the perfect lesson, but I come up blank.
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What I do have are memories of the in-between – of teenage rebellions and mental abysses. Memories of stuffing CDs into my backpack, just large enough to fit around the plastic anti-theft sleeve, and sliding my bounty around the alarm gates as I daringly slipped out on my way to gloat to friends. Memories of fighting in deserted parking lots to prove that I was tough. Mostly I remember feeling like an imposter, an anti-hero with a dark secret as I stood in the spotlight during the day and hid in the shadows at night. I wasn’t so much rebelling as searching, sucked into the dark arts by the absence of an example I would have rather emulated.
I also remember moments of feeling like I had impressed myself. The first time I completed the obstacle course at the Naval Academy, scaling log obstacles to get to the rope climb and touch the top, three stories high, I couldn’t believe I’d done it. I was scared to look down but proud enough to want to go again. My first solo in an airplane was so cool, feeling the responsibility and the freedom all at once. Then there was my first carrier landing, which I don’t have words to describe the cocktail of terror, pride, and pee-my-pants fun. Every time, I felt like I had just been through an ordeal and come out the other side. But what I don’t remember in those moments is others, which is strange. I had cleansed myself of the sins of hyper-individualism, washed in the rivers of my fellow brothers-in-arms. ‘Ship, shipmate, self’ was a new religion. But in my memory, I was still the hero.
These days the urge to prove myself rarely surfaces. It’s been gradual, like healing always is. That’s not to say it's any less lonely. I always thought once I figured life out I’d be confident, standing head held high as I walked into the sunset surrounded by a tight knit circle of co-conspirators. That didn’t exactly work out. Instead, I was shocked when I couldn’t hold a conversation with a lot of friends anymore. It was like sitting at a cafe in Paris, me trying to order in English while my date can only speak Russian. I was lonely when no one wanted to take time off work to enjoy the splendors of Montana summer at 11 am on a Wednesday. What do you mean you have to work? Seriously, don’t do that. I sometimes get frustrated when I can’t explain those feelings to anyone.
At the center of it all is my loneliness, my frustration, my shock. Me.
Even though I don’t need to prove myself, I still want to grow. I want to find depth in the timeless themes of life. I want to balance myself with others, as both a learner and a teacher. The goal may be different, but the path keeps going.
It feels even more difficult to find examples to emulate on this part of the journey. I no longer feel like I’m being lied to through obfuscation or platitudes (okay, maybe sometimes I do), but I realize how few people are piecing together the whole path. As much as I love having access to the best thinkers and teachers on any one subject, I also want a guide to bring them all together. To integrate them into a whole.
The space between myself and others still confuses me. I don’t want to do everything alone. It’s difficult feeling like an outsider, sometimes even like life forgot about me. But I can’t ignore the stillness that comes from being alone, from having different life experiences than my peers, different life goals. Even different priorities.
Maybe it’s enough to put up a beacon. Maybe it’s enough to declare that this is hard, but also that it’s worth it, and hope for a little help. And maybe this is my offer to help anyone else struggling with the same thing.
If that feels true, I hope you’ll consider this an invitation, my permission, to open up about the struggles. To know you’re not alone. To find what we need.