Tyler Robertson

Further thoughts on goals and purpose

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Hi! πŸ‘‹ Thanks for being here β€” I just want to give you a quick heads up that this post is a lot more personal than I usually publish, and delves into topics of loss, death, and grief. I debated whether to post it at all, but writing it helped me work through some things, and I'm hopeful that it might help others who are going through some of the same feelings. If any of this post resonates with you, know that you're not alone, and it's OK to talk to someone!

I was surprised and humbled by the amount of feedback I got for my last post, where I explored my desire for some sort of goal in life, but inability to find one. A lot of those responses have been from people who never really had goals either, and have either made peace with that, or prefer it to the alternative. I'm actually a little worried that I offended some of those people by implying that Definable Life Goalsℒ️ were some kind of universal need β€” I'm not sure that they are, and I admire a lot of people who never planned to be who they are today. And the advice from those people, which I think is very sincere and wise, is that having a capital-P Plan is missing the point.

Life, the general consensus seems to be, is a series of events that happen no matter what you've written on your bucket list. It's "what happens when you're busy making other plans," to crib the Lennon quote. It's about the not knowing. The best plan you can really make is taking what you're given in each moment and making the most of it; help others, be curious, pass on what you've learned, do what you can. With just a few ingredients and a good amount of practice, you've got a recipe for a happy and successful life.

It sounds great β€” really, it does. But… I can't honestly say that that answer brings me joy or peace, at least right now.

After the last post, I was asked if I could articulate why I want a goal or purpose so badly. Is it an appeal for structure? Do I feel like I need something tangible to show the world? And to be fully transparent, I'm not sure I know the answer, so I'd like to use this post to maybe tease out parts of it, and see if we can learn to be happy without a plan (or just happy in general).

So: why do I feel the need for a Big Life Goalℒ️? I call it the someday scaries.

I doubt I'll be able to fully suss out all of the layers behind someday scaries without many more therapy sessions, but I can at least name what feels largest: grief. This weekend marks five years since we lost my dad to cancer, and two months since we lost my little brother to suicide. Like a lot of people who have lost someone they love, I find myself thinking (too often) about the time we have in this world. How it's too short for some and too long for others. That my time will end at some point. What that might feel like. I try to keep myself from doing the math in terms of days, hours, minutes. There's nothing I can do about it, so there's no point in dwelling on it. But there it is.

And when you count the time like that, it's difficult not to think about life in terms of completeness. It's like β€” and this is a real stretch of a reference, but bear with me β€” it's like renting a video game from Blockbuster, and seeing that it has a set number of achievements, and realizing that you definitely can't get to all of them before you have to return it. It's paralyzing. You start weighing every option, wondering whether each wrong choice will be what ultimately keeps you from reaching the ending you might enjoy the most. All the while you know that if you spend too much time weighing the options, you'll run out of time, and you won't get any of them.

What's worse is that part of being human means having long stretches of time where you can ignore your own mortality, and be distracted by the fun little things we fill our lives with. But, at least for me, eventually something reminds me and I drop into a sort of temporal tunnel vision, suddenly aware that I could be doing a million other things right now. Like waking up in a cold sweat, without the benefit of having been asleep first. I'm not sure how often that happens for other people, but my list of triggers does seem to be growing.

It strikes me that this awareness of the void β€” the one that surrounds and assumes us before and after consciousness β€” also defines the more joyful parts of human nature. The reason we're drawn to tales of heroes or "chosen ones" is not only because we enjoy seeing dragons slain, but because the ultimate fantasy is that life will suddenly make sense. That there could be a call to action which sets our life on a course of ineffable purpose. That we might recognize it. That we might answer it.

Then, there's the grief of the pandemic. This is something that I saw a lot of writing about in 2020, but not so much now, which seems concerning. For me, the COVID-19 pandemic hit while my partner and I were living in a rural part of Cambridgeshire, our only connection to the city being an hour-long bus ride, which arrived less and less as time went on. I was already working from home, and my partner was finishing a Masters degree, so despite a few initial struggles (such as how we would get groceries, or what would happen to the remaining hands-on work for her course) our life did not seem to change substantially. In fact, it had made some things markedly better: my friends in the US suddenly had more time for Zoom calls or playing games. For the few weeks of the first UK lockdown, I joked β€” not realizing how right I was β€” that, given the number of people tweeting about how angry and depressed it made them to live like I'd been living for years, maybe I'd been secretly depressed the whole time.

Woof. Sorry, had to step away from that sentence for a few days.

Lately, I've moved into the next phase of pandemic grief: I'm angry at it. I'm angry at the people who have allowed it to continue. I'm angry at the systems that have failed us. I'm angry that it's socially acceptable to travel again, so we're traveling again, but I have to weigh each interaction against the possibility of contracting something that could change the course of my life. I'm constantly terrified of catching it, because both family history and my sheer bad luck tell me that I'll be stuck with it forever. I hate that most people aren't wearing masks anymore. I hate that we're ignoring statistics, and ignoring the most vulnerable groups. I also hate that I can't ignore it. I hate that I can't just go have a nice time with everyone who seems to have forgotten about the last two years. I hate looking at their Instagram stories. I hate that they aren't all as chronically online as I am anymore, and that we're no longer bonding about how much we hate our four walls, and our little walks, and our laundry, and our dishes. I am… intensely jealous, of people who are out there, having lives.

So that's the mindset I had when revisiting the topic of life goals, and where a lot of that feeling of need stems from. I figure that if I have a plan, I'll have work to do that interests me, that keeps me busy. There's a big part of me that wants it as a distraction; from the anger I feel, from the sadness that comes after, and from the cosmic countdown timer that keeps me up at night. The people who brag about achieving life goals β€” these loathsome influencers and tech bros and TED-talkers β€” don't seem to worry about those things. Logically, I know that it's because those things don't sell, and the parts of their lives that I see aren't real, but here we are. I had convinced myself that having a plan would be like finding a cure. It's a conviction that I'm working on undoing, but the going is slow.

The last thing I want to do is turn all of that into some kind of feel-good life advice, with a checklist of things that you can do if you also want to beat the someday scaries. I don't have a checklist like that in front of me, and honestly I don't think it exists anymore. If someone gives you such a checklist, unsubscribe from their Patreon immediately ("Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something." - The Princess Bride). But I need to end this post somehow, so I'll share the advice I've received from friends and family, filtered down to just the stuff that's been helping me lately. Take it all with a grain of salt, etc., etc.:

None of these are "magic bullets", and I don't even know for sure if any of them will actually help in the long run. But they're what's helping today, and that's enough to get me to tomorrow, and maybe the next day. And that's good enough for now.