A question we all face-- for our whole lives, but most intensely in our 20s (so I hear)-- is, How do we navigate the ambiguities of life and deploy ourselves into the world?
I’ve certainly wrestled a lot with this (and continue to), especially working in a field that doesn’t have prescribed path toward financial or professional security. So two Januaries (Januarys?) ago-- a few weeks before I went to Asia and in the midst of an emotional funk-- I wrote myself an essay (naturally) trying to sort out how I felt about this.
When I wrote it, I didn’t think I’d ever let anyone see it, but I feel today is a good time to share it with you.
If you haven’t read Reflections, Insights, and Adjustments for the Future of Jaja in explaining the updates to Jaja in, I recommend reading that first. Find it here.
Los Angeles — January 18, 2018
It’s about 7am on Thursday, and once again I fell asleep with the lights on. A sock is lost somewhere in the bedsheets and I’m facing down one of those days that I’ve only experienced here-- though I suspect they are experienced by many all over-- where I have nothing in particular to do, and yet I know that I will be busy and fantastically exhausted by the end of the day. But that’s a concern for later. Right now I have to scroll through Instagram. My feed is exceptional; a reflection of the Black people who make it possible: A vortex of tomfoolery, positive stories, news, and various other dispatches from the cultural diaspora. It’s my daily digest of Black life in America, on this day in American history. And like any good vortex, I’ve been consumed and it’s now a few minutes to 9am. I’m late. For what? I’m not sure I have an answer; but I assure you, I am late and I need to get moving.
You see, I am a freelancer-- a proud member of the gig economy-- and right now I’m between jobs. So I have a lot of open time. When you don’t have to do anything, your routines become very important. I get out of bed and hit preset 5 on my speaker to turn on the radio. Morning Edition on NPR is wrapping up and the newsreader will run through the headlines at the top of the hour. Live from the NPR studios in Washington, I’m Lakshmi Singh. President Trump is not backing away from claims that he repeatedly called Haiti and African nations quote “shithole” countries in a closed-door meeting with congressional leaders yesterday.* I can already hear my friends getting angry all over again. My mom thinks he’s demented (“He’s like your grandmother, just says whatever’s on the brain at that moment.”) Maybe he is. I don’t particularly care. I’m sick of people being shocked by him. This is who he’s shown himself to be since the beginning. And plus, what’s the use of being shocked? It certainly isn’t going to help me get this coffee brewed.
As the kettle heats on the stove, I go outside and pick up the print edition of the New York Times, which has been dutifully tossed over the railing of my front balcony. I flip it open and much to my relief, the main article above the fold is not about Trump, but rather about the 17 people who were killed by mudslides in Santa Barbara and Montecito, California. The area was devastated. Not even Oprah was spared. Billions of dollars in damage. I read the rest of the paper while my coffee brews: Facebook is revamping its News Feed, Trump uses a vulgar word, States may impose work requirements on welfare recipients, Walmart raises wages and closes stores (Let them eat cake?), and on and on.
I hear Lakshmi return for another round of headlines, which means it’s now about 10 am. I can no longer reasonably spend another minute on Instagram. I check my email once more to see if there’s anything of note. There isn’t. And the fact that there isn’t means that there is officially nothing else to which I can devote my attention without compromising the integrity of my conscience. And so I am now, officially and unequivocally, squared up with the moment of the day that I have dreaded since I woke up. The moment at which I must reckon with the reality in front of me and ask myself, What do I now?
You’re probably thinking, “How about look for a job?” Don’t worry, I’ll do that. But I’m not asking myself, what literal actions can I take that will allow me to occupy the time between now and when I go to sleep. No. I’m really asking myself What can I do with this day to change my reality to align with my desire? I don’t want to just not be unemployed, because when that job ends, I’ll be right here again.
But then there’s the follow-up question: In which direction to change my reality? Phrased differently, What do I want? I want something that’s true to me and that expresses to the world what I feel inside. But it seems like every time I get close to figuring out what I feel inside it slips away. I’m realizing, through repetition of error, that in fact the process might not actually be an intellectual one, but rather an emotional one.
It’s hard to describe what happens. There are times when I feel like I know who I am and who I want to be. And then, without warning, something happens that unsettles this other internal self that was previously dormant and unknown to me, but that now cannot be denied no matter how much I try to ignore or avoid it. And the longer it goes unaddressed, the bigger an issue it becomes. Because as we know, ignoring something doesn’t make it go away— it usually just makes it worse. I know something like this has happened when everything suddenly feels uncertain. I find myself saying things like, How did this happen?! What’s going on here!? It’s like waking up in Oz. I’m sure you’ve been there too. I live in the shadow of this: That whatever I do now is at constant threat of disruption— I wrote destruction— by the other me inside. And I don’t even know him!
To reckon with this, I have made a conscious decision: That no matter how uncomfortable this is for me, or however horrific-- and it is horrific-- the experience is, I refuse to fear it— for life is meant to be lived and not merely existed.
Life is just a series of choices compounded over time. The actions we take simultaneously reflect the person we are, and the one we strive to be. In that vein, I hypothesize that the answer to the question What do I want? might actually be driven by who I am. The consequence of which would be to deliberately will myself into the world by a definition of my own choosing, and not the other way around. It is radical. It is hard. It is necessary. And it is worthwhile, because it is what’s required to live a life of integrity.
However, it seems uncommon.
But why? Maybe most people have never thought to do it-- or thought it necessary to do! Maybe they grew up in such a way, or in a such an environment, in which their manner of life was predetermined. The rituals, belief systems, moral frameworks, attitudes, opinions and whatever else were passed along unquestioned (and were thus reinforced) through traditions to each generation, tweaked and retrofitted to fit the particulars of the time. They were taught how to play their role, and now they are trapped in them. But in which aisle of the supermarket of identity was I supposed to find the one I was to inherit ? I am so many little bits of many. Am I supposed to pick between my Jamaican mother and my Pakistani father? What about the American part that is neither of them, but all of me? How can I possibly be singular, when I myself am plural? If I am meant to play a role, where was I to look in order to see what I was meant to be? Especially when the world is so good at telling me what I am not.
Maybe all of this shape-shifting has created some bizarre in-between creature; a flexible being that exists on the hyphens of our society, floating aimlessly about and among the people. This feels true, and yet unright-- I do not feel adrift. I feel anchored. Because around me, I see my mother, her sisters, and their mother. They help me to find peace. No answers, just solace-- that in this life, with their stories within me, it is simply not possible for me to be alone.
As I write this, I do not know the answer to the question What do I want? But I have faith that by following what feels true to who I am, in time, I will live into the answers. And so, for this Thursday, I forge dutifully onward with the practice of figuring it out while also letting it happen.
And when it happens-- however far off into the future it might be-- it will feel like home.
That is, until it doesn’t anymore.
Los Angeles, CA, USA