I was poking around on Twitter, looking for blog post ideas, and I ran across Christopher Barzak talking about graduation season and the ridiculous “welcome to real life” rhetoric that goes on at this time of year. He had this to say:
“Your life is real no matter what you choose to do with it. Don’t let others impose their definitions of what’s real and what isn’t on you.”
I grew up with a very narrow presentation of what reality could be, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Our worlds tend to start out small. We model reality after what we have witnessed and experienced. Part of gaining wisdom, then, is being able to move out of the shadow of the Way Things Were during childhood to see the many realities that people are living.
Happily for me, I was always full of questions and an insatiable curiosity. I wanted to understand the people around me and the systems in which they participated. I wanted to know what else might be possible. And I read a lot, which meant I knew that in fiction, a lot was possible. The open question became, how much was possible outside of fiction?
And I was aware of this ever-present tension, this pervasive idea that when we grow up, the responsible thing–the realistic thing–is to settle.
I don’t care what people do in their lives: if they do it with the attitude of settling, it’s going to be unfortunate. Settling makes us dissatisfied, bitter, and resentful. It leaves us thinking about hypothetical what-ifs from the past instead of doing something with our present.
Believing that there are only certain versions of life that are “real” encourages us to settle. It also blinds us to the realities of people who are different from us: people who face different struggles, people with different life experiences, people who have made different decisions. It puts a value judgment on what gets to count and what doesn’t.
Who gets to define what is real? For me, real meant getting a reliable, steady job and holding onto it for as long as possible. It meant mirroring certain aspects of the lives of my parents before me. In my real life as an adult, I would get to drive my decisions even while their narrowness meant most of them were already partially decided for me by this shared view of reality. Real meant settling for what other people had decided was best.
Which is all patently absurd. My life didn’t become real when I was graduating at age twenty-two. It was real when I was a child and didn’t have as much power over my own life. It was still real when I went to live abroad after graduation. It was real when I started my own business. It was real when I was bored to tears, and it was real when I was taking a risk. It was real whether or not I chose to follow the standard blueprint, whether or not I was financially independent, whether or not things worked out the way anyone, including myself, expected them to, and regardless of my own personal range of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.
We welcome people to the “real” world during periods of transition, often with the perceived judgment that they haven’t had to deal with any serious problems until this point. Newsflash: we all have problems. Some of them are more invisible than others, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
We’ve all been in the real world this entire time.