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Wednesday, June 07, 2023

Under the fig tree: Not knowing what you want in life is normal

I’m going to sound like a very stereotypical college-age young woman (college-age English major specifically) and talk about the scene in  Sylvia Plath's “The Bell Jar” where Esther is lying beneath a fig tree. Here, she imagines that each fig represents an imagined future — she sees a famous editor, a poet, a housewife — and she cannot make up her mind as to which fig to pluck, since choosing one means losing the rest, and then they all begin to shrivel up, and it is simply too late.

I feel like that now.

I want to get a master of fine arts in creative writing. I want to write for video games. I want to get my Ph.D. in English literature. I want to teach high school English. I want to travel the world. I want to make a ton of money in some software engineering job. I want to get married one day and have kids. I never want to get married and want to live alone in some studio apartment and have a string of epic romances which will be chronicled in some novel with a protagonist who is basically me but with a slightly different name.

I’m sitting underneath that fig tree now, and it is very easy to feel like my indecision is costing me — I should’ve taken more literature classes, gotten a more specialized internship, taken more writing classes, taken less writing classes, taken a more useful foreign language, done a million things I didn’t do. For that, all of these figs may start falling before I even have the chance to shimmy up the branch.

There are people out there, usually ones who are loud and proud on social media, who have known they wanted to be a pediatric cardiologist since the age of nine; a specialist in a specific type of lichen only found in Alaska since their first botany class; or a programmer in a snazzy Silicon Valley startup since they got their first personal laptop. I envy these people. There’s not a single thing I’ve ever looked at and decided fully that was what I wanted. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was nine, and then I wanted to be an architect all through middle school. When I was applying for college, I was so sure I would go into zoology, and now here I am with a mismatch of majors and no definite idea of what my next move is.

Indecision is more common than we think. It may appear otherwise by the confident parents and family friends slapping us on the back and telling us they knew what they wanted right after high school. It may appear otherwise from friends on social media posting about how they are one step closer to their goal of becoming opera singers, botanists or archaeologists. There are a lot of us who just don’t know. There are a lot of us who, to quote Sylvia Plath, “want to be everything.” As a result, sometimes we feel like we’re nothing.

But to everyone in this situation, unable to decide what they want, sitting under that fig tree and watching — you’re not alone. You’ve never been alone. Our parents, no matter how sure of themselves they are now, were probably in this spot once upon a time. We don’t like talking about this because, as a society, we focus on assurance and confidence.

There’s no magic solution to this. I wish there was, but there isn't because it’s normal. We should talk about it more — about how it’s OK not to know, how it’s OK to try something and realize it isn’t going to work and pick yourself up and try again. The important thing is that we do try, and we do pick ourselves up.

Petrana Radulovic is an English and computer science (super) senior. Her column appears on Fridays.

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