Graduating from college made me feel absolutely worthless. Suddenly, the ruthless structure that had me by the neck, loosened its grip and let me drop. The fall was not graceful. Everything was all typed up, turned in, and off of my desk. I crafted creative, useless papers that one would never write outside of the context of a college class. I looked for a new place to live and overpaid for a long, black, Harry Potter-esq robe that I’d wear only once. But I couldn’t enjoy the cathartic moment of handing in my last undergraduate piece of writing, ever, because I was too caught up in the uncertainty that creeped in all around me. Suddenly, I had no more deadlines, or degree threatening obligations. It was all over, and by default, I felt unneeded, unimportant, and more than anything, un-obligated.
I thought I’d be happy to be free of tedious assignments and treacherous course enrollment deadlines. I had choices, so many choices, endless choices. Yet the ambiguity of my life at that moment filled me with uncontainable feelings of anxiousness and self-doubt.
Everything was freaking changing. Everything. I was moving to a new community, starting a new life and eventually a job, but I wasn’t excited, or ready. I was terrified of making a bad life choice straight out of college and “ruining everything.” None of the truths floating around, though there were many and plenty — felt like mine.
Instead of celebrating new beginnings and closing up old chapters with all due respect, I simply began to mourn the future. Everyone warned me not to rush through college. When I tell people that I closed up my undergrad degree a year early, I’m often asked, “what was the rush?” A question I continue to ask myself every day. What’s the rush to work for the rest of your life? What’s the rush to get to the next stage? And yet I felt intense pressure to find a solid career, a fulfilling social life, and maybe inner and world peace, all within the next hour or so. If not, I’d be a total failure, whatever that entailed.
And there they were, all around me: Successful People. In Master’s programs, doing cancer research, getting fantastic jobs right out of undergrad (bless them). But seriously, they were everywhere. At Shabbat meals, in my News Feed… And I felt myself drowning in every shade of self doubt. I was working on some music and interning at a place I didn’t care about. Is this what failure looks like? Was I failing?
In a way I felt homeless, treading in structureless, muddy waters. And I felt guilty — I had the things I really needed. A place to live, food to eat, the entire bottom level of the Hierarchy of Needs. But to me, and to most, it would be ideal to flip the darn triangle upside down. How does one achieve self actualization? Do they bottle it? Sell it on Amazon? Can I get it with free 2 day shipping? But after tons of thinking, and crying, and eventually, some rational thinking, I noticed that graduating and leaving the institution I had come to associate myself with, shockingly enough, did not make me worthless, and neither did joining the ranks of all the other humans out there trying to discover their own self worth.
Belonging to an organization gives one a sense of value; an answer to the daunting opening questions: “who are you, and what do you do?” We may choose to sign up to be included in a group of people who are somewhat similar to us, and share some sort of common goal. By tying ourselves to various brand name organizations, we trick ourselves into thinking we’re satisfied, or worse, worth something that isn’t even necessarily ours.
But to a degree, it’s all fake (and that’s OK). What happens when we attribute our self worth to our accomplishments? Our grades? To the system that chooses to label us with job titles, and degrees; a system that was constructed to tell us what our worth is, instead of the other way around. What happens when all the labels fall away and we are left with nothing but ourselves?
There’s so much more to life than that, and deep down, we all know it. We are not our jobs, our careers, or even our hobbies. We are not Ivy League schools or degrees or promotions. We are not our GPAs or the fight we had with our parents last week. We’re more complicated, more nuanced, more emotional. We’re more! How ignorant could one be to assume that I am only my creations? Aren’t souls intrinsically so much more valuable than that?
I am not my day job or my hobbies. I am not my rocky relationship with my mother or my sporadic feelings of anxiety. I am not my mistakes or my past or the things I’m trying to achieve. I am not my to-do list. I am not my religion, my political views (or lack thereof) or my biting sense of humor.
What would happen if the thing you identify with most in your life; your school, your job, your community, was no longer yours? Who would you be outside of the physical things and places you identify with?
Fresh out of college and in between jobs, I learned that life is multi, multi, multi faceted. I learned to embrace the uncertainty and the excitement it can bring. I had to ask myself what identity really means when you have little to hold onto other than yourself.
What do I identify with?
What am I proud to identify with? What am I not proud of?
What am I worth? My income? My overtime? My writing? My friendships?
I’ve recognized how much more there is to life than a predetermined schedule of classes and a 9-5 position. We insist on creating associations for those around us. We must know where they work, where they’re from, what they “do.” Because somehow all of these things add up to who they really are. Otherwise, how will we connect to them? How will we understand them? If we can’t understand ourselves without our name brand jobs, organizations, and associations, how are we to understand other people? Who are we outside of the walls of our institutions, and is that self any less valuable?
Am I truly starving to classify myself? What do I really care about? Across the board I struggle everyday asking myself a myriad of times — am I living a meaningful life? What are the things that satisfy me and how can I do them, or one of them, every single day?
I think it’s extremely important to know people holistically. This means developing a sense of understanding that goes beyond classifying and stereotyping people based on their associations, roots, and occupations. It means being willing to unpack the little boxes we cram other people into, but most of all, it means allowing ourselves the ability to be more than one thing, one occupation, one role, one self.