By Addison Durham
During a Christmas party this past holiday season, I dreadfully awaited the small talk that would surely find me, no matter how desperately I tried to avoid it. I’d answer the same questions I’d been asked countless times since being home in Clemson, South Carolina. While I was more than tired of hearing my own answers, it appeared no one was tired of asking the questions.
Shortly after the party began, one of my parents’ friends — we’ll call him “Ted” — approached me.
“Addison, how are you? What are you up to these days?” Ted asked.
I responded with the answer and convincing smile I’d used many times before: “I’m good! I’m taking a year off and working a couple of part-time jobs.”
“Yeah,” he said, “but what are you doing?”
I’m quite sure I gave him a look, cocked my head to the side, squinted my eyes, probably, and gazed upon this very successful, very smart man — someone who wears cufflinks with his spiffy, tailored suits, boasts a doctoral degree and works as a university dean — with a partially masked disdain that I hoped he saw through. Surely he didn’t mean this comment in the derogatory way in which it came across. Surely he really was interested in how I was and in what, more specifically, I was doing post-graduation. But his tone reflected the notion that my answer, the one I felt comfortable giving to him — an acquaintance — wasn’t good enough or impressive to him in the very least.
“While I was more than tired of hearing my own answers, it appeared no one was tired of asking the questions.”
I did fill him in on the specifics: I nanny part-time and I work as a production assistant for a custom stationer part-time. (I studied English in college, and although I’m still not sure how I want to use my degree, I don’t think spending a good chunk of my time with children under the age of five is really the route I want to go long-term.) I told him that college was great, that it wore me down and that I just wanted — and needed — a bit of a break.
I love the holiday season not only because of what it represents for my faith but also because I get to go home-home, to my childhood home. It’s a magical place where the fridge is a bursting cornucopia of food I didn’t have to pay for and where I get to appreciate firsthand that my mom is a better cook than I will ever be.
But the holidays also look like these conversations, with extended family and my parents’ friends, about who I am and how I am and what I’m doing post-graduation. When such conversations first occurred, I crafted my answers to questions in a way that made me sound happy but not settled, and convincingly so. I’d say things like, “My part-time jobs are great for right now, but I’m looking for something more long-term.” Which is true. But after this conversation with Ted, I realized that neither my future career nor my happiness was contingent upon his response to my answer. In fact, they had nothing at all to do with him.
I believe this: Our answers to questions about who we are and how we are and what we’re doing should never be contrived to make someone else feel good about or comfortable with our realities.
I think I finally realized this when Ted said, “Yeah, but what are you doing?” I wasn’t going to tell him that, by the end of my four years in college, I was 20 pounds lighter than when I started. I wasn’t going to tell him that my hair had thinned significantly, that I couldn’t sleep through the night or that all any doctor could pinpoint as the cause of my ailments was extreme stress. I didn’t tell him any of this, not because it might have made me look vulnerable or because I wanted to hide it. I didn’t tell him simply because I didn’t need to.
“Our answers to questions about who we are and how we are and what we’re doing should never be contrived to make someone else feel good about or comfortable with our realities.”
I don’t owe the world a defense merely because I don’t always meet its expectations. When people ask now, I can say, “College was rough. I needed a break, and I’m not sure what I want to do,” and leave it at that. No apologies, no excuses; just the truth.
Sometimes the world is a discouraging place where dreams go to die, but only because we let them. We know our individual selves better than any one other human being, and being your own advocate means capitalizing on this. We know, to some degree, what we want, what we like, what makes us tick. Even though I don’t know exactly what I want, I think I know the essence of it, and those are things I can identify. Those are things I can seek, whether in my work, personal or spiritual life. Lean into those who support and encourage you and support and encourage them back. Lean into your passions and your talents, into what and whom you believe. Being your own advocate means building strength and resilience from these sources of truth and using them to propel yourself forward.
It’s hard to work towards what you want when you don’t explicitly know what that is, and because seeking it takes time and effort. I’m not short on either, but at the end of the day, I’m short on energy. My days are packed firmly with the work I do for other people. But these are things I have to do, because I have to pay rent, and I have to eat. I’m not great at taking time for myself to seek what I want by exploring my creativity, but I’m exceptionally good at approaching my less than fulfilling to-do list and calling it “me time.” Being my own advocate means realizing that this probably needs to change, and that I get to decide how.
My mom often reminds me of poet and theologian Rumi’s quote, “What you seek is seeking you.” I typically respond with an eye roll and say, “I know,” because, true as it is, the sentiment doesn’t always seem applicable. If what I seek is seeking me, where the hell is it? Can’t it make its way to me a little more quickly? Can’t I find that job sooner, write that story faster?
Maybe. But maybe it’s within the seeking itself that we find and learn the most. Maybe it’s within the seeking that resilience is bred.
A recent college graduate, Addison Durham works and lives in Nashville, Tennessee. In addition to her part-time jobs, she writes a monthly column for The Good Trade and does wedding calligraphy.