Since the day I stepped out of a classroom for the last time, shoved old notebooks into a plastic Target bag and donated my no. 2 pencils to a roommate who still had a year of tests to take, I have been asked the same question.
What do you want now?”
The question refers to any number of things—where do you want to live, what job are you trying to get, is that boy coming with you through this next phase of life or are you leaving him behind? My family (mostly my mom) and my friends (if they aren’t trying to answer the same questions themselves) are curious about what will make me happy. What it is I want from the next (God willing) seventy-ish years of my time on this planet. And I’ve spent eight months trying to answer them.
I want to live in London, I want to live in L.A., or maybe I want to move down south, I hear North Carolina is peaceful. I want to write novels, I want to start a non-profit, I want to work in a cozy office in a boring job where my mind might not be challenged but hopefully these stress stomachaches go away. I want to be single for a while, I want that boy, right there, across from us ordering a dark beer in a tall glass. I want to make a difference. I want to feel important. I want, I want, I want.
I read a book about a girl named Hannah who spent a lot of time thinking about all the things she wanted to do in the world; all the poverty, and homelessness, and brokenness she wanted to do her part in fixing, but also the posh New York lifestyle she wanted to live and the people she wanted to impress from her hometown because she got out. She was going to be the one doing things. And then she moved to New York and worked for no money at the U.N. and lived among the poorest of people in the Bronx and it wasn’t what she wanted anymore. It was so far from what she wanted that it spurred her into a sinking pit of depression.
The thing that makes my story different from Hannah’s is I can’t nail down that life that looks perfect in my dreams, and instead of depression I tend toward suffering from anxiety. So much so that when I spent every day framed in the mindset of, “I want,” I lost fifteen pounds and didn’t sleep more than a couple of hours a night. My hair fell out in clumps and my mom called to check in on me daily. But I couldn’t stop it—I wanted big, and I wanted loud, and I wanted ambitious, but all I had was small, and vague, and directionless.
Hannah’s story didn’t stop at depression. It started there. She was so deep in the throes of loneliness that she could recognize it in the eyes of a stranger riding the subway with her downtown, and she started writing her a love letter. And she saw it again and again, and she wrote more and more letters until they weren’t letters for anyone in particular, but letters to be found anywhere in New York City where a soul needing someone to tell them that they weren’t alone in that big and impersonal city. Hannah blogged about leaving those letters and she offered the entirety of the Internet a love letter if they took the time to ask for one. Hannah wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters to strangers. She ended up doing something big, the kind of big that she dreamed about when she packed up her suitcases and tied her shoelaces to board a train bound for NYC. But she couldn’t get there by asking herself what she wanted. She had to ask what people needed.
Nobody asked me when I graduated from college what the world might need from me. Where I saw a need that I had the strength to support. Honestly, I don’t know what answer I could give them. I’m a girl who loves to write, but shuts down from conflict. I can memorize any list you give me in a matter of minutes, but I spend too much time daydreaming. I love the people in my life hard, but the enormity of projects so big you can’t quite see what the ending result will be sends me into a spiral of fear. I put off doing laundry to the last pair of underwear. I don’t cook anything more complicated than a microwaved hot dog. I have a closet full of professional clothing with tags still attached. I am bad at adulting. I am good at complaining.
I am so small, and I am so flawed, and I sometimes feel like the world couldn’t need a thing from me.
But I’m wrong. Because I’ve lay in bed with my best friend while she cried in gasps and told me she needed me there. And I’ve had my mom hug me too tight when we hadn’t seen each other for a few months. And I’ve read e-mails from complete strangers telling me that an article I wrote helped give them peace. God put me here because I am needed, whether on a big scale or on the very small scale I’m needed right now.
I can’t pretend I don’t still dream about the things I want as if I know exactly what in life will bring me happiness. But I’m learning that life has a way of knocking purpose into place, and that purpose usually consults our wants very irregularly. What I want is to think about myself only in terms of the smallness that I am in a world so far-reaching. What I want is to remember that that world so needs of all its small people.