Illustrations by Zen Pencils
~ Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
‘The fig tree’ is a beloved analogy of mine from one of my all-time fave books:The Bell Jar. Whenever I re-read The Bell Jar I still feel thoroughly comforted by my connection to another person’s thoughts, and less alone in almost every one of my personal dilemmas, mishaps, and downright life crises. Though the book, of course, covers some incredibly heavy themes, amongst and spurring them are poignantly portrayed moments typical of a certain stage of life: ‘coming of age’.
‘The fig tree’ might, for me, be the most relatable page. This is a crisis I return to almost monthly and I don’t think Plath could’ve summed it up better. First, she really captures that sense of being totally overwhelmed by the various romanticised narratives she may have been sold or can conjure up herself; not only are they so numerous, but they all roll and flow together in this exciting, attractive, moving mirage (which I think ‘Zen Pencils’ has illustrated beautifully). The problem she expresses, though, is that unbearable anxiety about ageing, and the sense that time is running out: what pressurises her to make a decision is the belief that the figs will go black and fall down, so she needs to hurry up and pick one (I think this is a feeling many young people relate to, I frequently hear people only-half-joking about how ‘old’ they feel at 22, and the additional, and very real, body-clock is already, somehow, a source of great angst). There’s also obviously a social point, here, that women can’t really have it all – a family and husband and happy home are one fig, and choosing that means losing all of her career options. Of course, what causes the most stress is that she just can’t decide: she doesn’t know what she wants, yet, and is terrified that she’ll make the wrong decision, because they all seem so appealing and she doesn’t want to waste an option and live with regret.
I empathise with this page intensely. I’ve returned from ‘careers advising’ appointments, before, and lay on my bed for four hours, just staring at the ceiling with a screaming headache and racing thoughts, feeling utterly paralysed by confusion, indecision, and fear. I’ve agonised over what to do with my life like an unsolvable maths problem, sitting at my desk and scribbling plans and options madly, trying to literally quantify which route will result in the greatest happiness, based on what statistical risk, and lain-out the next ten years to ensure I fit it all in. I’d usually be advised that ‘it’s okay to not know what you want at 21’ but found it unhelpful, when it seemed, to me, as it did to my soulmate Sylvia, that anything I am interested in doing would require me to start acting now, and I couldn’t decide how to act because I couldn’t work out what the end goal would be. Surely, I’d think, if I want to be a writer I should be taking an English or Creative Writing degree or surely, once realising an interest in television, I should gain experience right now. I’d look up different internships and realise they all required certain experience and completely panic when I couldn’t decide what to focus on and shoot for, or I’d research Masters degrees and feel that same fear of loss as Plath when I realised choosing one would meaning missing out on all the others (they don’t come cheap!).
— Bjenny Montero (@bjennymontero) September 22, 2019
My aspirations aren’t identical to Plath’s, but I have similar interests, and feel the additional strain and confusion that comes with some of them: I constantly find myself generating ideas for projects, businesses, or creations of some sort, but then wonder if I need to pair those with a stable income – should I write my ‘Absurdist self-help’ books (trust me, great market for that) on the side of secondary school teaching? Should I craft that vegan dating app (was gonna call it ‘Aubergine’ but someone has beat me to it), whilst working in backpacker hostels and bars? Or should I enrol back into an art school whilst au pairing in France, and refine some language skills, simultaneously? It’s tough to choose between all the glossy options, but it’s even tougher when they vary in stability, ease, and risk. None of my plans feel very ‘realistic’ compared to the stable and sustainable trajectories so many of my friends have opted for.
An element of this must also reside in being constantly bombarded by other peoples’ dreams, and being told what you want so frequently you start to wonder if you really want it. I’ve been asked so many times now, upon announcing my degree, if I’m planning on a Law conversion, and I’m surrounded by those endorsing Investment Banking and Consultancy internships, at university. Whilst three years ago I’d have happily answered, ‘I’d rather be set alight, thank you’, the influence is more powerful than it first seemed, and those options, occasionally, become tempting. If it isn’t direct conversation, too, its in the fantasies advertised to us, every day; films, books, TV, and social media sell us life stories and paint the ideal picture for how we can ‘live the dream’, have adventures, or, ultimately, be happy. There seem to be a hella lot of lawyers who supposedly work 60 hour weeks yet are always unstressed, energised, and available for lengthy cocktail catch-ups (Sex and the City, I’m looking at you).
Part of this, for me, is tied up in class and wealth anxieties. I suspect that I’ve spent a great portion of time and energy thrashing frantically for unobtainable standards because all I’ve always wanted to say is: ‘Get me off this train’. It’s not what I’m trying to achieve, rather, it’s what I’m trying to escape: my perceived fate. It’s a silly thing to believe, but I think the combo of a pressurising label like ‘Gifted and Talented’ from basically leaving the womb, and the mash of social environments I’ve lived in (East London – Essex – Grammar School – St Andrews) has given me a fear that I won’t fulfil my potential, and that, instead, I’m already on a fast-track to a destiny I want to avoid: never amounting to anything. Now that I’ve been in St Andrews and witnessed an aesthetic, affluent lifestyle, I’m petrified I’ve not really achieved assimilation and that, when we all graduate, everyone else will continue on their expected trajectory to Sotheby’s and Goldman Sachs and I’ll be sent home to Essex, back to my jobs in retail and answering the phones at taxi ranks, wondering if it was all just a dream.
Making choices as big as what to do with your life feel enormous, and, for me, offset a spiralling process where my questions get deeper and deeper, until I’m in a state of despair. I start by wondering: ‘What do I want to do with my life?’, which becomes: ‘Well, what do you think life is for? What do you think is life’s purpose?’, in the hope of using any answers as the basis of a clear decision. I just find myself laying down, again, however, with a pumping migraine and a Nihilistic fear that there is no meaning and I should just give up, sit in the crotch of the fig tree, and starve. Positive huh!
I will never forget one of the first sessions I led, at a summer camp in China, where I was teaching 7-8 year olds the words for our emotions, in English. ‘Afraid’ was the first word I learnt in Mandarin (lol) and I was asking the children to say, in English, what they were ‘afraid of’. Most children stood up and said things like ‘snakes’, ‘tigers’, ‘spiders’, or ‘ghosts’. One stood up, pointed directly at me, and said ‘you’. The real star, though, was a little boy, who didn’t even stand, just looked hauntedly at the floor and said ‘the future’.
I’d agree with that kid, and say it can sometimes be my biggest monster, too, but probably only because I get a bit carried away with trying to tame it. The future is terrifying because it’s big, it’s invisible, and you know absolutely nothing about it, so you have no idea how to prepare. I’ve decided, finally, to stop trying. I’ve realised, pretty contentedly, that the best way to act is to just accept your blindfold, your confusion, and your lostness, and jump, anyway. It might be the wrong direction: what’s the harm? Every time you get it wrong you’ve bitten into another fig you don’t like, gone ‘bleugh’, and chucked it aside, so you’re on the narrowing-down process and the options feel less overwhelming.
I’ve also changed my relationship with FOMO (for those of you who don’t use slang from 2009: fear of missing out). The grass is only always greener because you don’t know it in all its dimensions; other figs just look juicier from way down below, where you can’t really see them – if you actually had a taste, you’d probably realise pretty quickly that it’s no better than the fig you already had. All these fantasies we’re sold are, quite frequently, I find, not really what makes us happy: sometimes I get swept away, at St Andrews, with an idealised lifestyle in which future me lives in New York, in some swanky apartment like a cliche TV show, and I strut to my high-end Art Gallery job in sexy heels with perfectly curled hair. Is that obtainable? All but the hair, me thinks (if the future isn’t tamable, there’s not a hope in hell this substance is). Would it be as constantly wonderful as it seems at first glance? Doubtful. Would it actually make me happy? My instincts suspect not.
I think, to a great extent, which specific fig you choose doesn’t matter as much as it seems. If the crux of what you enjoy is e.g. idea-generation, concept-honing, or creativity, you’ll find that in various figs, and make it work. The mentality of picking a very set goal and then acting in the present so as to reach it is backwards. What I think we should really be doing is what we enjoy, find fulfilling, or are curious about, and let that lead us gradually to a destination. It’s obviously good to be ambitious, but time to relinquish at least some control, and trust that the path will gradually carve itself.
One thought I never expected to have is that, much to my utter shock, you will actually figure it out. It feels confusing right now, but the options really do narrow down. I often think I’m much more overwhelmed than I actually am, and if I drown out the confusing folk banging on about a bunch of career options I know, deep down, I’m not all that interested in, step away for a second, and return in a calmer state of mind, I realise I’ve been interested in the same group of closely-related possibilities for years, and, if anything, having a broader-scope and an open mind can be advantageous.
I also think we need to abolish this notion of running out of time: it’s never too late to start again, change career paths, or have a total reawakening and reinvent your life. You really don’t need to be 100% certain and the tactic of discovering and building as you go, then changing tracks if it’s not working out, is perfectly fine.