So This is the Desert, Then, Part II
I went to the desert recently. The real one, not the metaphorical one. Finding myself alone in a city I’ve never before been, I spent the afternoon atop a mountain overlooking Phoenix, the horizon lined with peaks in all directions, pulling the city into a mountainous embrace.
That overcast Friday marked exactly one year since I graduated college.
It’s been a year. I think that’s the best way to summarize my first year after college, because the statement “it’s been a year” is wide enough in ambiguity yet concise enough in simplicity to accommodate both the good and bad. So, yeah, it’s been a year.
Confession: This year, I had become selfish. I mean, let’s be real, I’ve always been selfish (‘Me? Selfish? But I’m perfect!’ argues my ego), but this year I was especially so.
It was always about me. But not in an openly obvious way, as though I consciously made the effort to view myself as the center of the universe. It was just the average “me, me, me” attitude that we so often perpetuate, ya know? Just continually thinking about the things common to someone who has recently graduated: What is my dream job? Where do I want to live? How can I find happiness?
The first few months of my real “adult” life were spent focused on me, creating and nurturing the image in my mind that would bring me the fulfillment that I was looking for: a great job in a city that I love and a life spent traveling the world and writing about it. And I imagined that when I received these things, I would be like Moses in Prince of Egypt dancing through Pharoah’s palace singing “All I’ve ever waaaanted!” (Really, really need everyone to get this reference, please.)
And here’s the thing: I did receive these things. I received a job at a company I love in a city I love. I really did travel the world and I really did write about it.
But I wasn’t happy.
Say what?! you gasp in horror, You received everything you thought you wanted and yet still were unhappy? HOW CAN THIS BE?!
Yes. For some reason, I still wasn’t happy.
Cue the emotional breakdown.
So I went to the desert this summer. The metaphorical one, not the real one.
This summer brought upon me a series of little disappointments piled on top of one another to create a load of Big Questions that my weak faith and strong sense of self-reliant “I can get through this on my own” attitude weren’t prepared for.
I had put my worth into so many things - jobs, places to call home, you name it - that I thought could fulfill me, and when they didn’t, I was crushed by it and spiraled into an emotional despair that caught me off guard. That sounds dramatic in retrospect, but when you are buried beneath a darkness brought on in part by your own faulty expectations for how put together your life should be, for how put together you should be, that darkness truly can seem impenetrable.
I was shaken up. I was directionless. I was lost.
And so I found myself in a desert - the lonely expanse of brown nothingness.
Like I said, it’s been a year.
I also went to New Zealand in October. The real place, not Middle Earth.
When I was there, I toured the Marlborough wine region of the south island. As we bounced from chalet to chalet sipping wines on wines on wines, our guide gave us a rundown of the grape growing process. He explained that the vineyards are planted in rocky, shallow soil; growers want the plant to “stress” in order to produce the best grapes for wine. Sure, our guide explained, they could plant the vines in rich soil, but the plants would grow wild and untame, and the grapes produced would be unfit for winemaking. A week or so before harvesting, the grower stops watering the plants altogether; the lack of water means the plant has to sacrifice lesser parts of itself in order to continue to be fruitful.
That’s a lot like how this year was for me. This year saw the death of many of my previously-held views about life and people and God and happiness -- so the important stuff, really. And it hurt. Sacrifice always hurts.
But yet, just like the grapes, that sacrifice of the lesser parts of yourself leads to a better, more fruitful you. What a beautiful paradox that death can beget life, that in life’s desert, growth can - and so often does - occur. It’s painful as all get-out, and I will publicly admit that I sulked my way through the entire growth process I experienced this year.
In the end, though, I needed the shake-up; I needed my assumptions about life to be challenged. It was uncomfortable, and it involved a whole lot more tears than I’d like to admit (*insert here sarcastic quip to lessen the weight of admitting to crying a lot*). But regardless of how much it hurt, I needed it, otherwise I’d still be coasting through this year with the same selfish attitude that I’d rung in 2015 with, an attitude that chases after things that, in the end, will never provide the fulfillment that I long for.
I realize that all of these things - jobs and places and the like - that I had held on the Pedestal of Ultimate Happiness could never actually be that ultimate happiness. As my friend, Lane, once told me upon return from a three-week backpacking trip across Europe, “After a while, a place is just a place.” In another instance of Lane’s continual Fount of Wisdom, she told a v-anxious-about-a-job-decision-me, “A job is just a job.”
I believe that now. A place really is just a place. A job really is just a job. All of these things can add to our happiness but, no, they can never be the happiness.
Because it turns out, life isn’t about me. It never was about me. It’s not about the dream job or the dream city or the dream whatever -- none of that will ever, truly, fulfill us. We were always meant to be focused on each other, on the love and support we can provide for one another, on the connections and community we crave. Because goodness knows I wouldn’t have made it through this year without the people in my life sharing my joys and sorrows and providing me with encouragement no matter how many times they’d already provided it for me that week alone.
On my trip to the real desert, I drove from Phoenix to Tuscon that Friday evening. As the sun crept low, its rays set the evening ablaze, the brown of the desert mountains serving as a canvas to soak in the pinks, the clouds of oranges and reds like flames stretching wild across the darkening sky.
From this stunner of a sunset, I was shown in the most wonderful of ways that the desert can be beautiful, both the real one and the metaphorical one.
No matter how painful the desert’s desolation, I needed the growing pains of this year to put to death my selfishness, to make me realize that I was pursuing happiness down a road that would never actually take me there.
So yeah, it's been a year. Maybe even a great one.
[Read Part I of So This is the Desert, Then.]