“What do you most fear...and why?”
It was an innocent enough question, posed by a hipster professor to a living room full of university students lounging on beat-up couches. I was twenty then, and it was the first time I’d thought so directly about my biggest fear, though it was always there lurking on the periphery, especially now. The question circulated the room, gathering responses you might expect from the personalities present—the answers ranging from rational to irrational, from humorous to heartbreaking.
It was funny, but I realized my greatest fear in life was not being eaten by a bear (which, yes, was the first thing to come to mind), but losing my autonomy and winding up with a life I couldn’t escape. It seemed inevitable.
The things I wanted in life had always been different than most of my peers. I was a serious-minded, artistic, contemplative, competitive kid, who had never been interested in money, or fame, or possessions. I’d gotten a passport a few months ago, and had just returned from Africa. I was only beginning to tap into the deepest parts of my being and uncover what made me happy. I’d found myself there—driving through the Serengeti during the great migration, watching the enormous African sun set across the plains, feeling the dark of night immerse me as constellations I’d never seen spun above my head. I danced and sang with the nationals, and walked the streets amidst the swell of language and life all around me, mingling with vibrant colors and brilliant ear-to-ear smiles...
That was it for me. That was when I knew I wanted to see more and spend my life experiencing the broader world.
My greatest fear lay on the other side of that coin. Girls in my year at the university were under extreme pressures to get married before graduation and from there had their trajectories determined by their husbands. My nightmares were prophetic, feeding off those expectations. I’d fall asleep and wake in a suburban neighborhood, and the scene would unfold—not a murder or break-in, but a slow pan of houses on the drive to my 9-5...all the same color of beige, all the same shape. I’d watch them pass and think about my week and a half of vacation days for the year and how I’d spend them, and only register what day of the week it was when I punched in with the Gladys at the front desk. It all melded together after all, just like the houses and cubicles that surrounded me...one day into the next, into the next, each cast in a fluorescent glow, stretching out before me until I woke, numbed with despair from the monotony...
I looked up. The room was wide-eyed, with not a few raised eyebrows. The hipster professor coughed awkwardly into the silence, and I realized with a start that I’d said way too much. “So yeah,” I summarized quickly, with a dismissive laugh and a shrug. “I’m afraid of suburban life.”
The room smiled in confusion, and laughed uneasily as they shifted their gaze to the person on my left, not wanting to dwell too much on what their own lives might look like after graduation, or who this odd girl might be who shivered at the thought of living on a street where all the houses looked the same.
Can’t say I blamed them.
Still, I wish I had resisted the pressures around me, and made my life what I wanted. I wish the nightmare had remained an unrealized phantom. The truth was that even before graduation I was already letting toxic intimate relationships, and societal expectations infringe on my autonomy and carry me far downstream from my true self and the life I wanted to live. I was married. Twice. Losing autonomy was even worse than I feared it might be and the men I was with could never support who I was or who I wanted to be. As the years passed, it became easier and less painful just to pretend I never wanted what I knew I always wanted, and fake that I was okay with how my life was turning out, all the while pushing down a churning disappointment and realization that if this was going to be how I lived my life, then I’d have nothing but regrets when it was over.
Maybe you know how that feels.
But even amidst the sweeping current, there were moments of clarity. Moments I looked up and realized there were stars overhead...Moments I surfaced long enough to wonder if my life could ever be different. In those times, my daydreams revolved around reclaiming my autonomy and keeping it. I couldn’t imagine anything beyond that.
All that has changed now.
Yesterday, marked one month since I left my marriage. It was a month of extreme highs and extreme lows—some days effervescently happy and relieved, other days crippled by anxiety and guilt, and some days bouncing between the two states at whiplash speeds. But throughout, people have loved me and taken me in, kept me on my feet, and set me walking again, telling me as many times as I needed to hear it, “You deserve to be happy. You deserve to be happy.”
So, I kept moving. I took stock of everything I’d lost, and inventory of everything I had left. I’m different now, I can’t deny that, and hold scars I never wanted...but now I see my life, my being, and my freedom as infinitely precious and the expectations others have for me as utterly irrelevant.
It’s taken a long, long time, but that girl who was twenty when she first began to realize who she was, is nine years stronger and wiser, ready to choose adventures with uncertain outcomes over stability and security, and let life unfold in ways that she could’ve never predicted to take her places she could only imagine. She is finally following what makes her happy.
Call it courage. Call it recklessness. Call it whatever you like...
But she just got a one-way ticket to Peru.