Being unemployed — or worse, an unemployed nomad — is a crash course in the meaning of life. The most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do in life is figure out what to do with my life. When you’re unemployed, you’re facing this same dilemma on a basic, daily, unavoidable level: what do I really want to do with my life – TODAY?
First world problem / white privilege / find some real issues? A crisis of purpose isn’t something to simplistically shrug off.
What’s the purpose of your day? Of your week? Of your life? Constructing life plans such as university-marriage-work-kids-retirement is an understandable attempt to break down our lives into manageable pieces. We school for work, we work for retirement, and then reach retirement only to realise we’re running out of time.
Retirement is when we can’t avoid it any longer, staring in the face of the original question we were trying to avoid in the first place when we finished school: what do I really want to do with my life? (And how long does my savings need to last?) Some of us get a taste of this ahead of time, as nomads or the unemployed.
-It’s so great to have you in town to go on bike rides with. I can’t remember the last time I had the time to do something like this.
-Well, I have all the time in the world.
-If I had all the time in the world, there are so many things I’d like to work on for my portfolio. So many creative projects I wish I had the time to flesh out.
-I know. I have so much material to write about – like when that Spanish boy climbed into bed with Tase while we were asleep in Latvia. But I feel like I’ve been too busy to write. But really, what do I do with my time?
-When we have the time, we don’t know what to do with it.
-And when we don’t have the time, we’re inspired to dream of what we’d do with it. I think I’d rather have the inspiration, and feel I don’t have time to fully realise my creativity than lose my inspiration. I’d rather be inspired than have a lot of time.
I’m used to being very very busy, and get annoyed when people claim they don’t know what to do with their free time. If I had free time I’d: learn Spanish; cook more; take an art class, probably pottery or glass blowing; sign up for a dance class; practice more piano; garden; cycle downtown every day, organise all my old photos; do my taxes; the list goes on…
Lists are good. They help us break up our days into manageable pieces and give us a sense of control and accomplishment. In my last semester of school when I was 21 years old, I had such a heavy course load yet I could barely force myself to concentrate on my studies because I was too busy planning what I wanted to do with my life once I was “free”. I made a list of things I wanted to do in my lifetime — a list of over 8o adventures — and I still have the list, somewhere. Maybe that’s one to add to my list: amalgamate all my existing lists.
Fast forward a few months and I was facing graduation. I’ve often said that the most paralysed I’ve ever felt in my life was when I graduated from university. I had a degree, I sold all my possessions so I had money, and I had the whole world available to me to start my adventure. Yet I was paralysed as to where I should start. I knew how to push boundaries, but without any boundaries to push, I was lost. I felt the same about being creative – in high school when we had creative writing classes, sometimes my teacher would put a blank sheet in front of us, give us a pencil, and say: “write!” I never knew where to start. Other times she would say “write about this ball of paper, in the style of James Joyce”, and I could be the most creative person ever.
When you are unemployed it’s a lot like being a nomad. You know where you’ve been, but you don’t know where you’re going, or when. You have to somehow stay motivated, but pace yourself.
When I’m “between contracts” (ie. unemployed), I go place to place visiting friends and relatives until I find work again. I do normal everyday things, sometimes in some pretty extraordinary places. But anything that you do full time can become boring.
-You’re moving to the UAE? That’s so exciting.
-Honestly, I have the most boring life ever.
-Don’t you dare say that. We all live vicariously through you.
-No, I’m the one who literally lives through you. What have I been doing the last 4 months? Basically, I don’t have a life of my own, and so I fly to other parts of the world and live the lives of my friends for a week at a time. I need to get my own bloody life.
-But your life’s so interesting.
-Really. Honestly. It’s so boring. You have a life, and in your life you look forward to things like travel. So travel for you is exciting. It’s you at your best, and it’s something you can always look forward to, something to aspire to. I travel all the time, everyday I’m doing what most people aspire to do. And it becomes a chore. So everyday I’m faced with the philosophical dilemma of having to re-establish what inspires me, what I look forward to. Because I don’t have a trip on the horizon, my life is a trip. While everyone has this easy answer of what they would do with their vacation time, I’m actually having to live that day, every day, and try to find new ways of making it fresh.
-But that’s so depressing.
-Exactly. It’s much easier to be distracted from thinking about your own purposelessness when you have a trip to look forward to. Or renovations on your house. Those activities which deviate from the norm of what we do. So I have to listen to everyone tell me how exciting my life is when really I just wish I had home renovations to distract myself from thinking about life. I really can’t complain – I have a super awesome life, with super awesome people in it, and I wouldn’t change it for a second – but it’s not as easy as everyone thinks.
The hardest thing in my life is saying goodbye to a community of friends. The second hardest thing in my life is grappling with constant philosophical dilemmas around meaning, purpose, inspiration, and life in general. I once got in an argument with a friend of mine in Africa about it:
-You white people have everything, and yet you’re always complaining.
-No, you people in Africa always have purpose, and yet you’re always complaining about not having enough stuff! Japanese people have one of the highest standards of living in the world, and they live longer than people in any other country. Yet they have the highest suicide rate in the world. Africans aren’t killing themselves!
So I continue to do exactly as I please, everyday waking up, choosing to just go with the flow, or attempting to tackle one of my lists: my list of things to do; my list of activities I love doing; my list of foods I want to learn to cook; my list of microbrewed beers I want to taste; my list of places I can cycle to from my house; my playlists of songs I like to rollerblade to; songs I want to download; things I want to write; great literature I want to read; films I want to see; friends I want to visit; organisations I want to research; etc. As with life in general, once time starts to become scarce, I’ll realise I don’t have enough of it to accomplish all that I need to do before my departure [or in my immediate case, my departure for the UAE]. This exercise of the last few months of being un-employed and relatively un-distracted may prove to be a prism through which to examine the larger task of constructing one’s life. If I can master this on a daily level now, maybe I’ll avoid a mid-life crisis in the future?