When I was 15 years old, I discovered poetry. I read Sylvia Plath and Nikki Giovanni my sophomore year of high school, and decided I would commit my life to beautiful words. I’ve always been a somewhat practical person, so I wracked my brain for ways that I could do this while maintaining a certain level of material comfort. I settled on the idea that, when I got older, I’d be a professor at a college so I could write poems all the time. This seemed like a perfect compromise: I’d teach students writing and follow my own pursuits.
When I was 27, I stumbled into a three year stretch as an adjunct professor in New York City, and realized that dreams aren’t always what we expect. Though I loved almost every student I’ve ever had, teaching wasn’t for me. Every time I graded a paper I wished I was editing my own work. Every lesson plan I wrote felt like a betrayal of myself. I loved shepherding my class, but adjunct teaching is tedious work that requires lots of traveling and juggling to make your schedule sustainable. To be fair, I also spent some time watching Netflix, drinking wine, reading books, and taking naps. I totally could have reevaluated my priorities like many adjuncts are able to do; however, cutting out my leisure activities would still have left me underpaid with no health benefits or job security.
This was not the dream I dreamt for myself, but I didn’t see a clear alternative. I didn’t know how to dream a different dream.
It is natural, when tough circumstances present themselves, for us to feel intimidated by them. We may find ourselves stuck in our current dramas, and we often decide that we are smaller than our circumstances. We start to think we’re less powerful than we are. On good days, I fantasized about being a full-time writer. Every day I’d take the bus to work, and imagine a time when I wouldn’t have to make the long commute. During my lunch break, I’d sit out in the courtyard, lift my face to the sun, and pretend I wasn’t tanning in a concrete courtyard in East New York. I imagined different scenarios where I could work on the beach, but none of them seemed possible. On bad days, I fixated on the fact that my workspace had no windows, the commute was too long, my students fought with each other, and I felt responsible. I was clear in my desire, but I didn’t see a solution. I felt like the walls were closing in.
Whether we’re unhappy with our jobs or dissatisfied with our bodies; whether we’re caring for sick partners or trying to find our freedom; we run the risk of being so committed to our own plight that we don’t acknowledge how we’re fed by our present circumstances. How do our situations keep us comfortable? How do these circumstances reinforce our thoughts about the world? We are deeply nourished by what surrounds us. We are fed by our chaotic lives, tumultuous relationships, unfulfilling jobs, or paltry bank accounts. For better or worse, our choices sustain our lives. So what do we give up when we move forward? What assumptions do we challenge about ourselves?
Those questions didn’t emerge until I decided to move on from the adjunct job. I’d spent years fantasizing about my final days as a teacher, and what life would be like when I transitioned into working from home. I recited the words I’d type in my resignation email, but on my last day of work, as I walked away from my old job, I realized there was a part of me that truly wanted to stay. There was a huge part of me that defined myself by the work I did with students. Though I spent lots of time thinking about what I’d rather do, I was proud of my ability to help the classes I’d taught. To move forward, there were parts of myself I’d have to leave behind. I cried on the train after I taught my last class.
Suddenly my reasons for staying seemed clearer: It fed my idea of who I was. I had not been stuck; I’d been comfortable.
In order to move forward I had to become aware of the truth about my circumstances. I had to mourn the part of myself that was dying, and envision the person I’d become.
I suspect it will always be a challenge to apply mindful self-awareness to the sensation of feeling stuck. When one feels trapped in circumstance, it is difficult to be still and look at the invisible tethers that keep you stagnant. In these moments, where the circumstances feel larger than we are, we must take a moment and breathe into the void. The small space between our perception and our problems is where all solutions emerge.
There is an oft-cited quote from Albert Einstein that I absolutely love: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking we used to create them.” The space is a ladder to a higher level of thinking. That space is where your inner-Einstein resides. Whatever obstacles you’re facing, your solutions are there, in between your breaths: in the moment when the inhale meets the exhale. The way forward will find you, if you keep breathing. You’ll watch yourself rise above your circumstances. Keep breathing, and you’ll know the right next step to take.