The idea of linearity in life is one that I believe lands many of us in trouble. From early childhood we are socially conditioned to expect life to progress in a linear fashion, from school to university, to adulthood, to marriage, to children, to retirement.
The myth of linearity silos life into a straight and narrow linear progression that makes living an exercise in ticking off the expected milestones and judging ourselves according to how far along or far behind we are on this ‘path’. Our friends start getting married and we wonder what is wrong with us. Then they have babies and we know we are not normal.
I believe subscribing to this myth of linearity can be deadly. It kills off dreams, it obliterates visions, it damages self-esteem and it crushes risk taking. It shuts down adventure and possibility and free spiritedness. And it is incredibly challenging to break free from.
One of the most frequently asked questions to little kids is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” From as young as five, children are beginning to plot their way along the route to adulthood when they will ‘become’ and finally be ‘living life’. How often are these same kids asked “Which countries are you going to explore? How many times do you want to dance in the rain? Where are you going to follow your heart?”
The myth of linearity makes life into a project. There are a number of boxes to be ticked that you slowly begin to work through, with each passing year at school, each promotion at work, each child born, each dollar put towards the pension. You get the degree to get the job, the job to get the mortgage, the mortgage to get the house, the house to get the family, and the family to fill your retirement.
Recently at work I have been struck by the cyclical nature of conversations week after week.
“Hey Joe, how are you?”
“Good Bob, it’s Wednesday. Almost the weekend.”
“We’re getting there Joe, only two more days.”
Our lives follow this repetitive cycle week after week, month after month, year after year under the illusion that we are ‘living’ life. But aren’t we merely box ticking?
What happens if the alarm goes off and you don’t get up? So what if it’s 6am on a Tuesday? The trees don’t know it’s Tuesday. The birds don’t know it’s Tuesday. The wind doesn’t know it’s Tuesday. It’s just another day on planet earth with no rules, no structures, no plans, no ‘shoulds’, no ‘have-tos’. It is just the world turning on its axis and six billion human beings running around to cross items off the list of life. Work happens Monday to Friday and like Joe and Bob, we start counting down to Saturday by Wednesday (but more often by Monday).
We are independent spirits living on a planet of endless time and space. Out of this magical possibility, however, we have created structures and systems to reign in this freedom so that we are left with illusory trajectories that tell us if we are ‘succeeding’ at life. We are conditioned to compare and despair and to judge and evaluate. Why are we at A when we should be at C?
Challenging this prescribed map of life can be a lonely affair. Your peers have their first foot on the career ladder and know where they are landing their next step. Everyone around you has their holidays booked for the year, the five year plan with their boyfriend, the first names of their kids picked out. Why don’t you have have the car and the wife and the condo? Aren’t you falling behind in life if not simply failing?
I hope that you are seeing the complete farce and dishonesty in viewing life as a linear process. What if life was purely about doing the things we love? What if it was about only doing the things we enjoy? How much of our living time is actually spent doing the things we enjoy versus doing things we ‘have’ to do? Why are we expected to hit certain benchmarks at certain ages in order to prove that we are on track?
I commend the seventy-year-old returning to university to retrain as a teacher. I celebrate the explorer traveling the world at thirty ignoring the fear mongering voices telling her she needs to settle down and have children. We need more stories of people doing it differently, of people living truly awesome lives in tune to the beat of their own drum.
I dare you to take a risk today. To look at the world even with just a little more openness. To search for the essence of life behind the societal constructs that we unconsciously allow to determine how we end up living our lives. To challenge the status quo. To dream outside the box. To flirt with risk. To imagine a life beyond your wildest dreams.
Maybe there is so much more beyond that next promotion cycle. Maybe not having a family by 35 doesn’t mean it will never happen. Maybe putting your spirituality before everything else is not a crazy idea.
For today, let’s play with maybe. Maybe it will set us free.