Gratitude in the age of Social Media

Learning to live a full and authentic life post academia is hard, and when you measure it against social media, near impossible.

For the first time in my life, I am in a world without the routine and rigidity of academia. And I’m terrified.

I believed after college was when my life would truly begin. That’s when I’d get a well paid job in a big city. That’s when I’d transition from barely functioning human into fully fledged adult. That’s when I’d become the kind of person who enjoys exercise, eating vegetables, and doing volunteer work. That’s when I’d be involved in my local arts scene in a big way.

This past summer and subsequent fall has been a season of rejection e-mails and letters, and deaths of relationships, both literal and metaphorical. Deaths of versions of myself I dreamt existed.

I want my life to be big, I wrote in my journal in August, Instagrammable. Not this small, mundane life I feel empty in.

While I was obsessed with this dream of magnitude, I was an asshole. I scoffed at those who worked in small ways, behind closed doors. I was ungrateful to the people around me. And I was so miserable with myself I could hardly pick up a pen.

I had put too much pressure on myself, as we all often do. I was holding myself to this idea of magnitude I learned from social media. A system I quickly internalized as a value order. The most liked and celebrated events were life transitions, such as graduations, births, and weddings. The people also enjoyed bikini photos and sultry selfies. Poetry, flowers, and death were to be avoided.

But an algorithm is not a measure of authenticity. And I was angry at others for not paying me attention I believe I earned, by doing big and good things. But how can I be angry at someone else when I’m not paying attention to my own life? When I’m not paying attention to things that cannot be measured in likes, or views, or comments? The actual felt, lived-in experience of inhabiting this body in this here, and this now.

So I remembered my senior quote from high school, spoken by Phil Dunphy off of Modern Family.

Good things will happen to you when you lower your expectations.

And I relaxed. And as I did, and gave myself grace, I was able to give others the same thing. And then I saw how good I truly had it.

What if I only wrote to verify my very existence, right now? What if my writing was a way to bear witness to the things that were happening around me? And what if that was enough?

So, I came out of my self-imposed, self-obsessed isolation. I went to more local comedy shows. Spent more time in my local arts communities. Applied for an unpaid internship, because I remembered the last one I had that meant something to me.

And little by little, things I had longed for began to appear in my life, in small ways. I don’t work as often as I used to, but it’s enough to pay my bills. I intern with a place I respect and relish the opportunity to work from, because the work matters to me and my community. I get to do comedy shows with people whom I respect and admire and that is a special thing.

There’s a part of me that wants to scoff and be high and mighty about how life should be. But that part has been humbled to her knees in a million ways. Because the truth is, we are here one day and gone the next. None of this is promised. We are not owed anything from the universe for existing, or investing.

We are just here, one second to the next. And then sometimes we’re gone, simple as that. If anything, the sheer fact of the utter instability and fleeting nature of the now is enough. For us to slow down, and savor every single moment we have here.

The red-faced embarrassment from things awkwardly said. The glee of a shared joke. Mind numbing shock and the unbearable lightness of grief. Long hugs with people we love. The feeling of the wind on my face.

In September, I tried a daily gratitude ritual. Every day, I’d wake up and stretch. I’d go on a thirty minute walk around my neighborhood, breathing in the cool fall air. I’d come home and chop up onions, garlic and mushrooms, sauteé them in a pan as music filled the air, and then I’d wrap my veggies into an omelette with arugula and a little parsley. And after breakfast, I’d write in my journal, every day. It was the happiest I’d ever been.

The small things, the details, become large when I take them in for all that they are. When I enable them to fill up my heart with joy and so much sadness. This is what it means to be alive– no matter what capitalism, or ambition, or the internet may lie to you and say.  You don’t need anything more. This is enough.

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