Getting Comfortable in the Classroom of Life
Credit where credit is due: the heart of this piece is my dear friend Adam Maynard's, as are many of the words. Thank you, Adam, for being who you are and letting us explore these ideas here!
There's a scene in one of the early <em>Girls</em> episodes where Lena Dunham's Hannah is at the gynecologist, and her doctor says, "You could not pay me to be 24 again." To which Hannah replies, "Well, they're not paying me at all."
For whatever else you can say about Hannah and her opinions, she's right that it's not always easy to be our age.
Maybe it's the arrogance of youth, but it feels particularly poignant in those early years of adulthood. For the first time, we're collectively starting to come to terms with our realities - who we are and the bedrock upon which we've built our lives. (For the record, I'm not sure that's what Dunham was going for. Scratch that - I'm 99.9% sure that's not what she was going for in this scene. But still...)
This feeling of questioning, of self-doubt and self-discovery, of empowerment, isn't singular to the early twenties, but these feelings are particular to times of transition. Those first years of adulthood are a pretty big transition.
The best we can hope for is that we are approaching ourselves and our relationships with generosity, positive regard and authenticity. This process of accepting and letting go is required for establishing what really matters to us, and building a life that will support those values and goals.
This is hard, valuable work. It requires deconstructing and reconstructing belief systems. It requires integrity and self-interrogation. It requires gratitude and humility. <strong>But if you have the simple desire to do the work, you already have everything you need.</strong>
In extended conversations with my dear friend and book club partner Adam Maynard about this process of learning and becoming, a metaphor surfaced: life as a perpetual classroom.
The idea of life as a classroom is originally Adam's, as are many of these words. And while we were a little loose with our pronouns, we're both behind these ideas and are eager to share what we've discovered with you.
Throughout the course of this conversation, which has happened over weeks, the following ideas arose:
We will be in class for as long as we need to be in class.
Only as we find ourselves in the same classroom over and over again may we finally realize that, despite our self-awareness and our diligence and our good-faith efforts and our desire to have learned what we are meant to learn, we are not yet ready to graduate to the next grade.
Sometimes we think "Well now I must "get it," right?" I've been working on this for a while now, there can't possibly be more, can there?
Spoiler alert: there's more. There's always more.
But we've been in this period for so long, can't the bell just ring? Did I miss it? No, we didn't miss the bell. It will only ring when we are fully prepared for what's next - and we're still in this particular classroom because we haven't fully understood the lesson yet. You only know the answer when you when you fully understand the question, and not a moment sooner.
We're meant to be in school forever. Maybe not this particular classroom, but a classroom.
I don't think we're ever going to (or are really even meant to) graduate. We're just meant to learn as much as we can as diligently as we can and keep repeating that process in new variations over and over again.
Some might consider that prospect to be a demoralizing or defeating one, but I like to think of it as oddly and complexly beautiful.
There's a simple peace in the knowledge that we are exactly where we are meant to be, and that we have the privilege of being a perpetual student of life and being human and able to explore our myriad and layered emotional responses to our lived experiences. Sign me up for that every. single. time. And give me extra homework, please.
As soon as we may think we've aced that final exam and can walk out that classroom door, we will find that door locked and the teacher will gently tap us on the shoulder and usher us back to our seat. Because as soon as we think we've "gotten it," that lesson will shift and there will be more to learn. Luckily, with every lesson we learn, we get closer to being able to learn the next one.
There is a particular quality of light that it displays the characteristics that you try to measure: when you try to measure its wave-like properties, it acts like a wave. When you try to measure its particle-like properties, it behaves like a particle. To reconcile these realities, physicists had to develop a theory of simultaneity: light acts like both a wave and a particle.
In some ways, we are like this, too. Because of the peculiar structure of consciousness, we will be able to see what we want to evaluate. I believe that it's only through the act of experiencing many different environments and emotional landscapes that we can build a sense of simultaneous reality of our selves, a holistic understanding. That's why it's so important to be awake and attuned to the lessons we're learning.
That line from Whitman's poem, Song of Myself, springs to mind:
"Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)"
The more you ignore the lessons of life the more they will call out to you. Gently at first, but louder and louder the more you distract yourself or wish them away.
We need to learn to listen to those prompts, heeding the signals of discomfort, wherever they will take us.
To be totally honest, I'm not eager to deal with these things most of the time - it's difficult and draining and I may excavate something that I then can't un-know. But I keep on this path because every step I've taken has led me to something bolder and braver and more - to use a Brené Brown word - wholehearted.
Remember: this process always takes time - for some, there may be a period of denial, then acceptance, agency, and action. For others, a reckoning and then movement.
Relationships - both platonic and romantic - are essential to the classroom of life, because they ask us to consider the nature and courage of love.
In a relationship, we're often asking for acceptance. We're asking to be accepted for who we are and in the ways we do not accept ourselves, the ways we think we are invalid or found wanting.
We are asking for permission to be those ways because we, unknowingly or explicitly, do not allow ourselves to be that way, or wish we were not that way. We think if only we had a partner who would accept us for these qualities then everything would be okay because we would have proof of our value.
This is a form of conditional love, because it means that you're only loving your partner (and your friends) to the extent that they are willing and able to compensate for deeply held emotional beliefs, false-truths, percieved handicaps that we carry within us.
The tragedy of this is that you can only give as much love as you give yourself, and that you can similarly only receive as much love as you love yourself.
Why? I've wondered this for a while, because that phrase "love yourself" never resonated with me - I just took it for granted. But as I've aged, I've learned that when your own lack of self-acceptance comes into a relationship (romantic or platonic), it throws into question your ability to believe, trust and accept the other person's feelings towards you. Not only that, your insecurities can make it so that you are only seeing yourself through your own lens, rather than allowing yourself to be seen through theirs.
Without loving yourself, the sense of worth and generosity needed to be receptive to the world and those in it who appreciate you (or might want to) is simply not there.
Therefore, the work must start within, and we must come to a place of accepting ourselves for who we are today, in this moment, without another change or step or sign of progress. We must love and accept ourselves as enough. As deserving. As lovable, and worthy of that love.
Real relationships allow you to sit in your classroom, and take your own tests.
Partners and friends with co-dependent tendencies try and barge into your classroom while you're taking a test, or try to get you back in the classroom if they see you're wondering the halls. Or, if you exhibit these co-dependent tendencies, you may ask your partner to let you cheat off them during class.
But healthy, non-codependent friends and partners say "I trust you in your ability to work through X and Y things in your life. I love you and I support you, but I'm going to do so from out here in the hall, or from my own classroom where I'll be doing my own work.
"Don't barge in to my room and tell me how I need to be learning this lesson or slip the answers into my backpack! I respect and honor your process enough that I promise I won't do that to you either. But I would love to compare notes with you when we want to take a break. Or when the period is over.
"You can do this! I know you can! I love you, and even if you stumble and don't get as good a grade as you expected or there are questions that come up that you didn't study for ahead of time, I am so proud of you for showing up and trying your best and being a studious participant in your own life."
Our partners, as kind and compassionate and supporting as they may be, cannot do this work for us. That doesn't mean they won't play a role, because a good partner - and the most we can hope and pray for - will challenge us to do this work and to love ourselves first, to stand outside the doorway of our classroom waiting with a snack and a smile and say "I knew you could do it!"
They embrace us with no more expectations of us than we simply continue showing up for ourselves, and the relationship.
The classroom is a place to accept, and a place to let go.
Maybe there are people who feel no internal friction, no complication, no moments of self-doubt - but I don't know them. For the rest of us, those feelings and tensions are beautiful opportunities to understand ourselves and the way we relate to the world that much better.
When we feel them, we have the chance to consider our experiences in a new light, to self-analyze and interrogate, to challenge that within us that needs to be questioned, and to shed what no longer serves us. We can learn to accept who we are, and approach the people we love on their own terms. We can let go of those fears and insecurities and considerations that make us feel small and powerless.
Equally as important, we have the extremely special opportunity to honor that which is beautiful, generous and full of grace.
This post was originally published over on Be Your Own Muse.