I read Lena Dunham’s book today, and I found a kindred spirit. Not because I fancy myself to be a successful, Emmy-winning television producer, but because we entered life with the same affliction. Born with everything anyone could ever want, the only struggle we have had to overcome is the struggle of living with ourselves. I believe it’s called “affluenza”: the flu of affluence, the disease of opulence. Anxiety about nothing, depression induced by worrying what it’s all about–these are problems reserved for people who have no real problems. Although, sometimes, I’m wont to think that these actually are the only real problems, and that for some reason some rich people were born into this life with the heavy task of trying to figure them out for the rest of humanity. Sometimes, I wonder if that’s just what I tell myself to justify having everything when others have so little.
That’s the problem of being born into privilege. Yes, some people have more real struggles than you, like worrying about bills and providing for their children and not being able to pay for their education. But in all their striving to get by, they have a deep purpose that surpasses anything I could generate through existential musings resulting from copious free time. What is my purpose? Why me, and not them? I have spent my entire life trying to justify my existence, trying to prove that I am good enough to deserve so much when others have so little. I’ve come to realize that I’m probably not any better or worse than anyone else. Then, I must ask myself, why me? Is this all chance? Probably.
The only thing that breaks this circular train of thought is what Lena, too, realized at the ripe age of 27: work. I wrote an essay about this when reading Voltaire’s Candide as a junior in college. The title of the essay was, “Work Will Set You Free.” This miserable reference is less of a compliment to the phrase over the entrance to Auschwitz and more the truest statement I have read. In my life, I was never free from myself until I could work. I could never go all-in in the world until it was needed of me.
I spent most of my childhood creating projects for myself, doing crafts like they were going out of style (which, incidentally, they were–shockingly enough, bejeweled denim jeans never made it past the early 2000’s), starting poetry clubs, and reading books far above my reading level in order to cultivate a pretentious attitude at the youngest age possible. Enter me in high school, pretension allowing me to believe that I was, indeed, the smartest person anyone had met. I was proved wrong as I didn’t have the internal drive to match that of some of my peers. (One in particular stands out; she went on to Harvard and remains the most intelligent person I know to this day.) I initially coped with this strike to my ego by focusing on becoming popular. Later, I developed an eating disorder and drank heavily. Looking back, I don’t know how anyone could have helped me. I was mired in the distorted reality I had created in my own brain during the down time when I was watching Laguna Beach and plotting how best to make my outfits look like Lauren Conrad’s.
It wasn’t until my high school boyfriend didn’t want to date me anymore on account of me being a horrible person that I really tried to clean up my act. I became an overnight track star, stopped eating what I didn’t need, and chose a wholesome college where I could be good and work hard.
This, for the most part, was the very best decision I have ever made in my entire life. I hashed out body image issues while eating gallons of soft serve ice cream and pounds of cookies and tater tot hot dish with my new friends on the swim team. I worked hard, and I Was good. I dated boyfriends long-distance (read: remained celibate like a good Catholic girl while maintaining the illusion of a burgeoning sex life) and focused on my grades. There were times when I didn’t have enough to do, and the crazy thoughts would come back. There were also times when I had way too much to do, and the thoughts would come back anyways. On the whole, though, I started to make peace with it all. I emerged from college humble, Minnesota nice, and ready to work hard to prove myself to the world.
A strange thing happened to me after I graduated college. I will always look back fondly on these two years as the first two years I became an adult. I worked in an inner-city school as a teacher for two years, lured in by the chance to change lives, boost my resume, and finally justify my existence on the planet. It somewhat worked. I’m not sure if any students’ lives were changed, but I most certainly changed my own. I literally had so much work to do that I couldn’t tend to all my feelings, and when the two years were over, I took a step back and realized that I no longer had a favorite band or any semblance of curated fashion sense. What I also realized is that I was no longer a slave to my feelings or my ego. I knew that there was work to be done and that I wasn’t the only chess piece on the board. I think I might have become an adult.
I took off and went to Hawaii for an extended vacation to celebrate how I had changed the world, and all this good work nearly came undone through my habitation in what can only be described as a yoga cult. As I stretched, I released a lifetime’s supply of toxins and energies, strengthened my barrier to other people’s negative auras, and processed every emotion I hadn’t over the past two years. While meditating, a message from beyond? my subconscious? told me to fuck dental school, fuck working hard, that none of it mattered and that what was really important was making scones.
I took this to heart, and immediately baked scones upon my return to the mainland. I also threw all my Catholic mores to the wind and had sex with a totally delicious complete stranger. Convinced we were falling in love and that this was the beginning of my new enlightened life, I contemplated moving to Hawaii to be with my new honey. I had a lease in my email inbox, ready to move to my new life, but I meditated on it and something about one of my past students made me go back to DC. Hawaiian honey sent me a few Facebook messages, but then they stopped.
I cried about him for months and, even now, occasionally stalk him on Facebook. I carefully scrutinize every new girl it appears he’s fucked and wonder how I compare to them in his mind. (She is younger than me. Prettier than me. She parties harder. Less judgmental. I bet he calls her to catch up.)
Mostly, though, I’ve been dealing with the residual philosophy left in me by the experience that I now recognize as nihilism. At the “yoga camp”, as I’ll affectionately call it, I was confronted by the idea of karma. That where we begin in this life is a result of where we were in the next. My yoga teacher indirectly implied that maybe everything is as it should be. Pressed further, this philosophy states that maybe the poor are so because they earned it, and that we should just do whatever makes us happy because we’re all on our own journey anyways.
To my always-impressionable worldview, this was devastating. It’s okay to not help others? It’s our job just to be happy? I don’t need to justify my existence or feel guilt for what I have? The oversimplified answer here was yes, because we are all alone in this and the only thing that is really important is our personal journey towards merging with the divine.
For me, a long-time sufferer of Affluenza, this philosophy was fatally problematic. When you reside in a body that is anxiety prone and live in a city that requires busting your ass just to pay rent, the philosophy that “all is well and good as long as I feel well and good” doesn’t carry much weight. After a few months of working easy jobs and half-assing my schoolwork, I began to feel like there was something missing. I began telling people that “I should probably get a real job.” (By which people who considered my jobs real became offended.) The questions that always plagued me came back, the annoying “What should I do with my life? Why am I here?”
Now, as an ‘adult’, albeit young, I have finally wrapped my head around the idea that the only way out is through. And in order to get through this existential quagmire, like Lena, I am betting my bottom dollar that work will set me free and signing up for dental school. So, fuck my “Fuck dental school” thoughts. I might come out on the other side riddled with debt, but at least I won’t have wasted four years of my life wringing my hands in anticipation of what’s to come. I’ll be too busy actually living it, doing what I can to make my mark on the world.
After you’ve done everything in your power to take care of you and cater to your every emotion and whim, there you are. After you’ve tried to better yourself and merge with the divine, there you are. After your life is over, there you are.
At the end of my life, after the house is gone, the friends are gone, the money’s gone, the body’s gone, I want to be able believe about myself that I did the very best I could. That despite not always seeing the purpose in my striving, I did my best to make the world a better place. I destroyed nihilism and affluenza by realizing it wasn’t all about me. That I loved others as I loved myself. That I said, “Fuck Karma” and made the beautiful happen in impossible places, in impossible ways. That I gave more than I took. Then, maybe, after the money’s gone, I will be free.