In May of 2008, I found myself in an odd, and some may say enviable, position. At the age of thirty-one, I had the luxury to retire from the only profession that I had ever known: the practice of law. I suddenly found myself heavily burdened with the freedom to do absolutely whatever I wanted.
Yes, I know, you can hardly hold back your tears of sympathy. Now, don’t get me wrong. I fully realized how blessed I was to find myself in this fortuitous position. But, while it’s true that at times I could hardly contain my excitement at the prospect of never again having to argue another case to an indifferent jury, or assuage the fiery wrath of angry clients, I also found my new circumstances disturbingly intimidating. Blessed with a husband who supported my decision to quit the practice of law, and suddenly in possession of an abundance of free hours in a day, I no longer had any excuse not to be living my ideal life. Instead of immediately charging forward and embracing the fact that a stale legal job no longer held me back from pursuing my passions and making my life as meaningful as possible, I froze in fear. I found myself deeply intimidated by this seemingly boundless gift of freedom and opportunity.
Apparently, my reaction to this new set of circumstances is not that atypical for people of my generation. In an article in the Financial Times, Thomas Barlow explores the culture of discontent that arises not from the frustration caused by lack of opportunity, but from an excess of possibilities. He describes the unique problem of one young American Rhodes Scholar:
“She already had two degrees from top US universities, had worked as a lawyer and as a social worker in the US, and somewhere along the way had acquired a black belt in kung fu. Now, however, her course at Oxford was coming to an end and she was thoroughly angst-ridden about what to do next. Her problem was no ordinary one. She couldn't decide whether she should make a lot of money as a corporate lawyer/management consultant, devote herself to charity work helping battered wives in disadvantaged communities, or go to Hollywood to work as a stunt double in kung fu films. What most struck my friend was not the disparity of this woman's choices, but the earnestness and bad grace with which she ruminated on them. It was almost as though she begrudged her own talents, opportunities and freedom - as though the world had treated her unkindly by forcing her to make such a hard choice.”
Reading this article, I can see why Barlow seems to only harbor disdain for this Rhodes Scholar and others like her who “suffer” from the blight of having too many opportunities. And while a part of me feels that this discontent seems ungrateful and awfully self-indulgent, I can also understand the mindset of this young American woman. While my achievements in no way compare to this Rhodes Scholar/kung fu master/social worker, I can still relate to her angst at having too many doors open and the pressure involved in making touch choices.
Although it’s hard to admit, I think that most of us find some comfort in having limited choices or not having a choice at all. Instead of feeling like they have boundless opportunity, most people feel that life makes the choices for them based on financial and other practical constraints. While it may sound counter intuitive, not having the freedom to make choices can often lift a heavy burden off your shoulders. If you are shackled to an unfulfilled job, marriage, or life circumstance because of practical responsibilities, then you don’t have to confront tough questions such as asking yourself: "is this the best life I could be living?" You don’t have the luxury to soul-search about your purpose in life. There is some comfort in not being able to quit an unsatisfying job because you have mouths to feed, bills to pay and expectations to fulfill.
So, in May 2008, I suddenly found myself with no expectations to fulfill and no practical constraints holding me back. Stripped of all excuses, I no longer could justify not living the most fulfilling life possible. I can tell you in all honesty, that the last eight months have been a journey of both frustrations and achievements. Early on, I found it challenging to feel significant without a job (especially a practical, esteemed-in-the-eyes-of-society job, ie: attorney!) to define me, but gradually, I am enjoying the freedom of knowing that my worth lies in the person that I am and not the professional title I bear.
So now, instead of feeling intimidated when confronted with all the free hours in my days, I am beginning to see the bounty of opportunities before me. Most importantly, I am learning how to be kind to myself; not judging myself too harshly for not doing more, being more. Oh, and in spite of whatever self-indulgent angst-ridden affliction I may occasionally suffer from, not a day goes by when I am not grateful for the freedom of choosing my own destiny.
“The notion that one can do anything is clearly liberating. But life without constraints has also proved a recipe for endless searching, endless questioning of aspirations. It has made this generation obsessed with self-development and determined, for as long as possible, to minimize personal commitments in order to maximize the options open to them. One might see this as a sign of extended adolescence. Eventually, they will be forced to realize that living is as much about closing possibilities as it is about creating them.”
--Thomas Barlow, Financial Times
8 years ago