“To say that there are a multitude of factors that go into the creation of one life would be an understatement,” my biology textbook reads. “In fact, dear reader, there is a close to 100% chance that you never would have been born at all.1 Let us begin by examining the factors –”
I groan and shut my textbook. I decide that I’m done studying for the night, despite the small part of me protesting that there’s still readings I haven’t done, and assignments I haven’t started, and people I promised to call but haven’t… I’ll do it all tomorrow, I guess. And then tomorrow night, I’ll do this all over again. Rinse and repeat.
So many factors went into my being alive, and what am I doing with my life?
At this thought, the shadow at the corner of my vision grows, dimming the warm orange glow my desk lamp casts through my dorm room. I feel the shadow tugging insistently at me, its tendrils of black wrapped unyieldingly around my mind.
The shadow isn’t new. Neither are these thoughts. Both have been growing, lately, like twin splotches of paint dropped onto a blank canvas.
The truth is, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with everything. The pressure of measuring up to my own expectations. Of finding a path of study that will lead to a fulfilling career. Of finding myself, first, before I can even do all that. Of remembering not to look away from all the injustice in the world. Of remembering I can do something about it. Of remembering to study, finish assignments, eat, exercise, relax, and keep in contact with others, through it all. Of having the joy of all those things diminished, somewhat, by their reduction into checkboxes on the to-do list of the ideal life. Of realizing the necessity of the to-do list for keeping everything from falling apart.
Time is precious, and I can’t afford to waste it. Life is precious, and this is the only shot I’ve got. I have to do everything right.
At the bottom of it all, there’s a fear – that I will never make anything of my life that will be worthy of all that has been given to me.
The flood of recollections, reflections, regrets bursts through the dam of my mind, pooling into the shadow at the corner of my vision as it blocks out the warm orange glow from my lamp and grows and grows and grows –
And as it changes form, I realize. It’s not an it anymore. It’s a she.
The shadow – she’s me. A dark mirror reflection of myself. I see it in the outline of her hair, her awkward limbs, the way she carries herself, ever so slightly curled inwards.
Is that what I truly am, deep down? Nothing more than an accumulation of uncertainties, fears, worries?
I feel my breath accelerating, becoming shallower, rising in my chest.
I force myself out of my desk, making my way on unsteady legs to the bed tucked into the corner of my dorm room. Rest my back against the wall, amidst the pile of unmade sheets. Feel the solid weight of the mattress beneath me. Take comfort in the night sky I see outside my window. Let my eyes rest on the collection of photos on my drawer, snapshots of happy memories with my friends and family.
I let myself be grounded by the things around me. The wall. The sheets. The mattress. The night. The photos.
These things are here. They are real.
I am here. I am real.
That shadow may look like me, I tell myself, but she isn’t me.
I’ve fought shadows like this in the past, as I know many others have. I suppose I’ve just been slipping, lately, allowing her to grow as she did. But I remind myself not to beat myself up too much over it. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that personal growth isn’t linear, as it is in books and movies and TV shows. And that the prisons we build ourselves in our minds are often the hardest to break out of.
Centred in myself again, grounded in the reality around me, I remind myself that I don’t have to earn my right to exist in this world. That it is enough to just be.
Lately, I realize, I’d been overwhelmed in trying to fit my life into some steady linear progression towards the top, mercilessly punishing myself with thoughts of failure whenever that line flattened, or dipped, or turned backwards on itself. What I had forgotten was that these moments do not constitute failure. They have meaning, too, just as every experience does.
I remind myself that I’m allowed to mess up. That it’s okay to mess up. That nobody in the history of the world ever didn’t mess up, even those – maybe even especially those – who are always telling us to make something of our lives. For while existence is a rare gift, there is no single right way to make use of it.
The fact that I am here, in this room, is in itself something worth celebrating.
I take another deep breath.
There’s still the readings I haven’t done, and the assignments I haven’t started, and the people I promised to call but haven’t…
But, holding steadfast to the notion that I am not a failure for having struggled with these things, I forgive myself. I know that I am not alone, in this yearning to become more than what I am right now.
And that’s okay.
As I release the breath from my lungs, I feel the black tendrils wrapped around my mind loosen, just a little. And I feel more myself again.
The shadow in the corner of my vision is still there. Of course. Shadows aren’t that easy to get rid of, after all. But she – it – is less solid than before, and I allow myself to find hope in the warm orange glow of light that, at last, has managed to peer through the thinning veil of darkness.
1Spector, D. (2012, June 11). The Odds Of You Being Alive Are Incredibly Small. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/infographic-the-odds-of-being-alive-2012-6