Thursday, April 9, 2015

There's a Purpose, Not a Destiny

Grad School, Life, and The Art of Deciding

(MFA decision included!)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
To where it bent in the undergrowth . . .
~ Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken"

Few poems have been quoted as widely or as colloquially as Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." For decades, it has been commonly admired as a rebellious sanction for the road "less traveled by," and is seen as a bold statement against following societal standards blindly. While the poem certainly holds a place for this optimistic view, it has always befuddled me (and several English teachers) that no one ever seems to remember anything before the final three lines. Readers are apt to quote the final stanza while ignoring Frost's prevalent tone of despair, his disappointment that he will never know what lies down that other road. (The title, after all, is not "The Road Less Taken," but "The Road Not Taken.")

Having been drowning in some major life decisions lately, I can relate strongly to Frost's agony. I was recently accepted at two graduate schools for my MFA (no fully-funded ones, sadly), and the past few weeks has consisted of many phone-calls, much hair-pulling, and much sleep deprivation as I weighed my financial and family needs carefully. In the end, I decided to attend Southern Connecticut State University's MFA program in the fall, going part-time my first year.* When I was applying for grad schools, SCSU just seemed like a safety-net option, but after speaking with past students and current professors I realized that it was a perfect fit for me right now: it seems to have that same close-knit, supportive environment that I've become so dependent upon at my undergrad school, and because it's only an hour away, the home-girl in me doesn't have to uproot her life alone. It wasn't an easy decision, though. By nature, I'm extremely risk-adverse -- which is good for keeping me out of trouble on the weekends, but it makes life decisions absolutely terrifying. No matter how much I analyze or map out each and every possibility, there's a paralyzing fear of the unknown, of the variables I can't predict or control.

Certainly, I'd say that my fear of life decisions is influenced in part by the prodigy-mania -- the cultural glorification of youth claiming that dreams must be achieved in the prime of our life, or they'll never be achieved at all. I gave up writing at 13, for almost a decade, because I foolishly thought if I didn't have my first novel written by 18 (Mary Shelley's age when she first drafted Frankenstein), I'd already failed. Yet I think there's been another, stronger factor in my fear of decisions: the vision of a single, perfect, right decision. As a Catholic, I've sometimes found that the concept of a vocation (God's personal call for your life, e.g., to the married or religious life) can invoke a sense of a destiny set in stone, some predetermined path that contains the highest achievable happiness for one's life. Of course, God doesn't expect perfection, I knew. We may stray from that path or wobble on it here and there, but if we only stay as close as possible to it, everything will fall neatly into place.

Unfortunately, from a young age I created my own obsessive, warped perception of what a vocation meant, and as a result developed a sense of guilt around the idea of not "getting it exactly right." I felt as though I'd be tampering with some perfect, divinely ordained system if I messed up along the way. As I've gotten older, I still struggle with a subconscious belief that if my life journey isn't clear-cut and well-planned, it means I haven't dedicated enough time or thought into it, or am wasting part of myself, or am letting others down.
This kind of thinking can be especially hard on writers (and artists), I think. In an ideal world, we'd write to our heart's content, publish a New York Times bestseller by age 30, have big-venue publishers begging us for a contract, and spend the rest our days churning out a couple books a year while balancing a professional career in the English field. Add an MFA degree in there and you've got what I've often thought my life "should" look like. But, for a field as competitive as ours, it's not reality. I may not publish anywhere beyond no- to low-paying magazines until I'm 60, and that may be a self-publish breakthrough at best. I may try a professional career like teaching and decide I hate it, even after working so hard for it. Life has interruptions, unexpected turns -- in short, it's goddamn messy.

I've matured a bit, thankfully, from my guilt-ridden days of vocational extremism. While I do think that God is active in our lives and has plans for us, I've realized that the idea of a concrete destiny is both absurd and harmful. I think it's easy for religious people (or even non-religious people, like Myers-Briggs fanatics or horoscope followers) to find solace in the concept of a predetermined path, to feel that the direction for our lives is not on our shoulders. I relate, but I disagree now. Though it may give us some comfort to think that it's not all "up to us," I don't believe God would give us the beautiful gift of free will and then impose such a fastidious life map on us.

We have a purpose, but not a destiny.

That may sound depressing and intimidating, but don't get me wrong: I honestly believe, with all my heart, that we each have a purpose, in the form of unique gifts that we are meant to pursue passionately and with generosity. How we pursue those gifts, however, is anyone's guess. It depends on where our interruptions and unexpected turns take us. Hell, I may figure out at age 35 that I can't stand writing and want to be a fencing champion instead (okay, bad example, but it could happen, hypothetically). It's easy to feel shame for those miscalculations, to view them as marks of failure. But those feelings all stem from the idea that success is measured by the smoothness of our journey, by its predictability, by how close we stay to one path.

Self, and Reader, I give you permission, right here and now: do not feel guilty for how messy your life looks, for how imperfect it is. You are not letting anyone down. If tangles, steps backward, and a little (little) debt is what eventually makes you realize that fencing is for you (ha), so be it.

It is this realization that gave me courage to accept enrollment at SCSU. There were so many factors to weigh, so many what-ifs, but I finally sat myself down and came to terms with the fact that mistakes won't kill me. I may love SCSU; I may not. I may want to stay; I may not be able to stay. That's the nice thing about not having a destiny: there's no reason I can't go back to that road not taken.

There will always be a million and one things you can do with your life. The only things you must do is to be good and happy.

Grace and peace to you.

*Writer's Note: Since the writing of this article, my plans at SCSU have changed; thanks to the generosity of the graduate program, I will now be attending SCSU full-time with a graduate assistantship in the Office of International Education.

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