When we quit careers, leave relationships or start working on ourselves, we may neglect to consider the systemic consequences of that in our lives. Plenty of those times it is most likely because we have become or want to become a different person, so we don’t relate to what used to engage us anymore. People who liked the old us may not be able to relate to the new us.
I felt a lot of that when I left tech. Most of my friends were either from tech or in work that dealt with social change. I guess it does speak to the narrowness of my old self that I did not have a life outside of work, so I didn’t really have many friends outside of work too. I was not good at keeping in touch with people in general, so I don’t have many friends from my younger pre-work days.
It was interesting for me to observe how friendships disintegrated because I can no longer relate to my work. A large part of it was due to my own effort to distance myself, but I still observed how there used to be countless requests to meet up for coffee (sometimes to “pick my brain”) that dwindled once people realised I was no longer interested in work. I don’t mean this in a nasty way, just a matter-of-fact way that many relationships are based on some invisible form of leverage that disappears when we no longer hold some capital.
For someone like me who is sensitive to rejection because I have a lifelong fear of abandonment, it was a very lonely and difficult time. I subconsciously tried to stay relevant by volunteering for projects etc, but I soon realised I was simply repeating the unhealthy patterns I was trying to emerge from.
There was a part of me that wanted to be free of this. It took a long time, but out of the process I discovered relationships that endured the changes, including those that took place within me. I also learnt that I could lose my attachment to needing social acceptance. Not completely, but considerably lessened.
It wasn’t just about work though. I went from being a 100% accommodating person to being borderline callous because I was probably trying to over-compensate for living like a doormat most of my life. I’ve since found some middle ground (I hope) – the transition period was necessary as I was trying to learn where were my boundaries.
I am a much happier person now. I am still not a happy person, but a lot less unhappy. So much less unhappy I pity my old selves that I still frequently encounter while re-reading my journals. But I wouldn’t know this level of much less unhappiness was possible if I didn’t let go and leap into an unknown void.
As human beings, we need a variety of psychological structures to prop our selves up. We’re conditioned to use socially-approved values to measure and prop ourselves: grades, achievements, visible assets, connections with high social capital, etc. We don’t talk about this in detail and nuance, but this is why many people cannot endure experiencing some form of career failure. It is not just losing a paycheck or financial security, but it is losing the stuff that has been propping up our selves. There are a lot of things people can endure but not the perception of being useless: we live in a world where the value of a human life is equated to one’s economic usefulness, many of us only receive affection and/or respect when we make career accomplishments. We’re taught to believe that love and respect only arrives when we are “useful”.
Sadly, this is the reality for many. We do live in a world with very conditional feelings and acceptance. We don’t celebrate a human being for their personal development or creativity (especially creativity that is not “useful”), but for their explicit or implicit resume. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across some poor kid who has suicidal feelings because they didn’t do well in school. I mean seriously. Can you imagine jumping off some building because some test that measures how well you remember things had deemed that you are a failure? There is so much more to living – this coming from a chronically suicidal person – it is one thing to experience a wide spectrum of life only to find it uninteresting, and another to believe you have to kill yourself because your poor 12 or 16 year old selves failed tests that are wildly inaccurate for measuring human intelligence (if those tests were any good we would not be living in this dystopian world we are living in right now) and worth.
It is a disappointing reality, and I don’t know about other people, but I decided that I would be miserable as long as I adhered to these social expectations because I was unwilling to feel lonely.
In truth I felt lonely when I was surrounded by people and acclaim anyway. My psyche seems to know that the connections and acceptance I so desperately sought was only based on the false self that was conditioned and cultivated based on societal norms. What is the point of all those adulations when they solely hinge upon the conventional success of my career? I wanted to be loved, but I would never truly feel loved when the love is based on these material conditions. I didn’t know who I was, and there seemed to be nothing of actual substance in me. I was simply an empty person.
On the surface, my life seems to be empty and useless now compared to the high octane “successful” life I used to lead. There is nothing of note that I have done in recent years.
But I got to know my self better, and I guess it depends on whom if this is a worthy journey to take. Because I now know myself better, I am also better at making choices for myself, avoiding the heaping of misery I used to do to myself. I gained more understanding into my wounds and also those who have wounded me. I live closer to what it actually is instead of being in delusional narratives that plague society. Apart from my chronic migraines (that I am slowly learning to manage) I am healthier than ever in terms of physical fitness. I used to barely be able to walk a kilometre and now I can probably run five without breaking a sweat. I wake up without an alarm every day and go to sleep before 10pm. I was close to being prediabetic but now my blood sugar levels are probably better than somebody in their 20s. I learnt to nourish myself with actual food I cook for myself.
Are these things useful? Probably not to other people. But they are contributing a foundation I never had before – a sense of a sustainable substance that is filling me up which arises from an internal source instead of being fuelled by external validation. Do I still have issues of loneliness and self-worth? Yes. But I feel a lot less shaky as a person. I used to feel like I was breaking apart and drowning all the time. Do I still feel upset and overwhelmed with this irrational world? Yes. But at the very least I am a lot less upset with myself, and I upset myself and other people a lot less.
People fear nothingness. However in zen, we are taught to value emptiness as a source of potential and creativity. Think of it as an empty garden or an empty canvas. We have to let go to be empty, and it is in that emptiness where we can start cultivating again.
Maybe it is not an attractive proposition to everybody: to know who we are when we are empty. Maybe people are okay with living within the conditions of society. But there will always be people like me who seeks a different way of existing. That to me the point of living is not how well we follow the rules that society dictates, but to figure out what does living even mean, who am I as a person when there is nothing for me to grasp?
I realised not everybody is into such existential questions, but to me without answering these questions I would find living superficial and thin.
What is there when there is nothing? I have personally found nothingness to be enriching and freeing amongst the inevitable loneliness and insecurity. Sometimes I feel like I’m on free fall with no bottom in sight. Other times I sense there is something to be excavated. It is not a journey that may bring happiness, but it is one that will keep bringing forth discoveries within.