Let go of what you think life should be like
“And what if it doesn’t turn out like that?” she asked me. I froze. My stomach churned. I had no response. I was sitting in the passenger seat of a friend’s car and we were talking casually about the future. I had been reflecting on how I wanted to essentially recreate my childhood for my very-hypothetical children. One house, one school district, local sports, backyard birthday parties with the same kids for eighteen plus years. I never imagined my adulthood in a way that deviated much from my parents’ adult experience. Why wouldn’t it turn out like that if that’s what I wanted? “It seems rather limiting,” my good friend added, rubbing salt in the wound. I don’t remember what I said but I’m pretty sure I shrugged it off and changed the subject. I didn’t know it then, but she was right. I was completely fixated, in that way and many others, on what my life “should” be like. “Of course, it will turn out like that,” I thought to myself, “that’s the only way it could be.”
At my core, I am a planner. I love to-do lists, calendars, color-coding, and spreadsheets. Organization and a good plan make me happy and bring me calm. Throughout my life, my parents, teachers, friends, coworkers, and supervisors have nurtured, praised, and even revered this part of me, so when my friend challenged “the plan,” I felt defensive and even a little violated. I’m a planner! How dare you suggest my plan isn’t perfect?! Thereafter and throughout my adulthood, I have been shocked and displeased to discover that life doesn’t always go according to plan. I have found that in matters of living there is often not much we can do to plan or prepare for what is, let alone for what “should be.” At some point, we all fall into the trap of imagining reality one way and being let down or disappointed when it doesn’t unfold in the way we expected or dreamed. My ten-year-old self could never have imagined where I am now, the success I have found, the ministry I have discovered, and the person I have grown into. But no matter how awestruck she might be, she would also be highly disappointed to learn that her thirty-year-old future self is not yet married, a mother, or a famous writer with a writing cabin in the woods surrounded by tulips. She might be equally appalled to know that she would move to and work in New York City, her most-despised city on the planet, and a place she swore she would never visit again once her parents stopped making her. Ten-year-old Marissa would likely make a graveyard for all the “shoulds” left unrealized in her life. And there would be blueprints and lists and spreadsheets and research to support every tombstone, dimension, and funeral arrangement.
I am getting better at accepting things as they come, but I am far from perfect. There are plenty of moments when I allow myself to be allured by the “should be’s” and “should do’s.” At these times, my driving force becomes fear—fear of not living up to my potential, of letting people down, of not being myself, of not being the person others need me to be, of not being enough. I am hyper competitive and care tremendously about what others think (for better or for worse), so this fear is often effective at moving me forward and getting me somewhere closer to success. Most of the time, the “should’s” aren’t destructive unto themselves. It’s the pressure I put on myself that inevitably winds up catching me and tearing me down. On the other hand, by consciously trying to let go of what I (and others) think my life “should” be like, I find that I have the freedom to live more creatively and more authentically, to be driven by the spirit and energy of the moment rather than the fear and insecurities of not reaching some hypothetical, “ideal” future. Letting go allows me to sit with the joy and the pain of right now, to be more present and attuned to who I am and why I am. I continue to surprise myself.
As a regular practice, I have started asking myself questions about my motives and assumptions. Do you want a raise because you deserve it or because you think you should be making more money? Do you actually need to be engaged right now or do you feel like you should be because it’s what everyone else is doing? Are you truly happy or do you think you should be happy? I also sometimes substitute “parents” or “boyfriend” or “friends” for the “you” in the questions. Do you want to change careers because you feel like it’s the right thing or because your parents think you should be doing something else? Do you care that your boyfriend doesn’t have a job, or do you care that your friends think your boyfriend should have a job? Do you want to keep serving on that committee or are you doing it because somebody else thinks you should?
These questions are simultaneously simple and challenging, and I often find that I do not like my answers. However, rather than dwelling in a space of insecurity, a sense of weakness, or a mindset of self-loathing, I am trying to accept and honor the Truth as it comes, to be more aware of my assumptions and the beliefs that drive me. While this is an ongoing struggle, I know that this lesson is one of the most important for me in terms of my growth and future happiness. I have learned that as humans we must learn from our past, lay groundwork for the future, exist in the present, and do our best to grow into our best selves. When we move beyond the unhealthy obsession with what life “should” be like, we get to enjoy what life is. Perhaps this is where we find peace.