How I Finally Learned to Be Content
(It felt like ripping my heart out)
Before I fled my world and its comforts for New York and all its dreamy promise, I was living in San Francisco and writing furiously in my journal about why I should be happy. I liked my job. I liked my city. I liked my life. It could have been enough; it should have been. But for a romantic like me, not loving it all kind of felt like hating it.
Considering my then-position on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — let’s call it 80%, safely shy of self-actualization — I thought myself profoundly spoiled for wanting more. I hated myself for being what every Gen X pop-cultural pundit said I was: a millennial who believed herself entitled to the world. I’d wobble back and forth across a seesaw of emotion — on one end, the desire to stay, on the other, the lust to leave. When I leaned stay, I was desperate to find the perfect equation of thoughts that would equal happiness. (Meditation? Gratitude? Small joys?) When I leaned leave, I was ferocious, starving, begging for a different life. (Hoping! Wishing! Dreaming!) The first made me feel complacent, the second made me feel delusional, both left me less than content and full of shame.
Contentment. It was a notion I’d become so obsessed with that I stopped understanding what it meant. Like when you think too much about the word “table.” For a while I flirted with the idea that contentment equaled comfort. After all, trying was tiring and less appealing than dancing around my kitchen in my socks, reciting my laundry list of gratitudes. I found deep and temporary comfort in pulling my walls in and making my world small. “This is happiness!” I’d shriek in the echo chamber of my navel while I shelved my dreams and pulled out a batch of cookies.
Soon enough, though, the air in my tiny little room would run thin. The cookies would go stale and my dreams would tumble off their shelf and sit on my throat like dumbbells. Maybe comfort isn’t contentment, I’d think. And then I’d get to work. I’d wake up early to write, stay up late to design, teach myself new skills, ask for help and offer it, jot down ideas and let my imagination burst through those walls and float at the edge of my field of vision like a guiding star. But to want more is to be unhappy with the status quo and, after a while, I would feel a different version of suffocated: deflated.
So there I found myself, warm and well-fed, wandering the emotional desert of my own mind, crying at several non-threatening crossroads, the faintest score of tiny violins audible if I listened closely. I felt so utterly lost, but fine, but lost. Confused about what the hell I possibly wanted and unsure if I was allowed to want something nameless.
From the swirl of my ennui, I remember suggesting to a friend (she was in finance, wanted to be a yoga instructor, couldn’t decide if she should go for it) that a good litmus test for figuring out what you want is to imagine what leap a friend could take that would make you sick with envy and remorse that you hadn’t done it too. The real kind of envy, not the fleeting kind. It’s a seedy place to visit in your mind, but not a hard one to access if you’re a dreamer. I knew my answer, by the way. I just didn’t like it; it sounded really hard. So I ignored it.
And then, one day, my cute little hypothetical became real. It came in the form of a text message on January 31st, 2016, at 12:47 p.m.: “I’m quitting! I’m moving to New York! I’m doing it! AHHHH!!!”
I’ll never forget that moment. I was in a car with my then boyfriend, on our way to a cozy little brunch spot, feeling some flavor of content, when every inch of my body froze save for my stomach, which dropped right through the fucking floor. I sat, I stared, I oiled my joints and responded with 18 exclamation points and my sincere congratulations. And then I turned to my boyfriend and said I can’t do this anymore.
I didn’t mean our relationship — although eventually I did — I meant lying to myself about what I knew to be true. Which was that I actually did know what I wanted. That it wasn’t that confusing at all. It was just deeply and incredibly scary, which might feel like confusion if you close your eyes real tight and plug your ears real hard. The reality was that I did not want to work in HR, I did not want to live in San Francisco, and I was fresh out of energy to run from that truth.
Over the next few months my life turned upside down, as if a giant had taken me by the feet and violently shaken me until everything I knew was free, scattered or gone. My job. My car. My apartment. My relationship. My friends. My parents. My life. My world. The transition was as exceedingly difficult, terrible and crushing as I had imagined it would be.
But here I am, almost nine months after I received that text message that made my stomach drop, seven months after I dumped all that brought me comfort out onto the floor, and I can finally put my hands around that elusive feeling I sought for so long. Contentment was waiting for me on the other side of listening to the voice in my head that said what felt right would be hard — soul-shatteringly hard — and then doing the fuck out of it anyway.