The Trouble with Shoulds

kristen amato

A few years ago, I realized a long-time dream and moved to Europe. The place I went was Barcelona, chosen on a whim after a friend and I took a short trip one spring. I didn’t speak any Spanish or Catalan and knew only one person in the entire country of Spain. The city’s Medieval architecture, crooked streets built into the hills and good-looking men were what sealed my decision. Barcelona has that effect on people, I later learned.

Home from that trip with my decision made, I spent about nine months saving money, planning what I would do for work and getting up the guts to actually go. Once there, the first few months went by in the flurry of setting up a life and carving out a place for myself. After making headway, opening a bank account, finding friends, learning the shortcuts around the city, determining the best café and how to give my order confidently in Spanish, a strange feeling began to creep in.

It would awaken during the quiet parts of the day, just after I finished work, maybe, or on a Sunday that stretched before me with no plans. It wasn’t homesickness and it wasn’t regret. I felt empty and anxious, untethered.

For the first time in my adult life that I could remember, I was without a goal, and that made me very uncomfortable.

To say it made me uncomfortable is to say that it made me feel out of control. For many of us, life follows a clearly drawn path, elementary school bleeds into junior high which segues into high school, college. The comes our first job, our first apartment, and onward. We always have a job to do, an objective, a task. If it’s not the American way, it’s certainly the New York way, where I had been born, raised, and conditioned.

From the beginning, our lives are shaped by goals big and small; defined by ourselves or societal constructs or their mixture. Meeting those goals is what gets us up in the morning, or at the very least, keeps us from spending entire days gaping at the social media accounts of long lost friends and those who have dumped us.

Of course, I was without a goal because I had met a goal. That was a good thing, right? This should be a cause for celebration, a thing for which I should have been congratulating myself. I felt lost, despite the fact that I had just done something so true to my own desire that it could be described as the definition of finding oneself.

The problem lies in that one word, “should,” and many of us are mired in it. We take jobs we should want, but don’t. We stay in relationships with people we should love, but don’t. We should take a vacation but, then again, we should be at that meeting next week, so we don’t. The list goes on. There is always something we should be doing and always something we shouldn’t be doing – haunting us like an angel and a devil on either shoulder.

Life was pretty good but contained a few trials. My job teaching young children English was humbling, to say the least. It’s tough to earn respect when you can’t communicate. There was the aberration of not having much money, but all of my friends were broke too. On the plus side, I was meeting lots of people, having adventures, and only worked four days a week.

Without any major problems, I focused on the goal, or lack thereof. Eventually, I made myself so anxious that the only remedy was to bar myself from thinking about the future for six whole months. At the end of that six months, I returned to the States. I was ready for it, but perhaps in some way, it was a guess at the questions that had been plaguing me; What is my goal and Without a goal, who am I?

Back in New York, I accepted a job with a prestigious company. At 30 years old, it was the kind of job I “should” want, but I was pretty sure I didn’t. I took it anyway and a year of feeling out of place taught me never to make a career choice based on another’s definition of “should” again.

I went traveling to quiet the noise. On that trip, I decided I would work freelance until I devised a new long-term plan. Like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, I would say who, I would say when, and I would say how much. When you need the money, it doesn’t really go like that, but I enjoyed saying it anyway.

I volunteered with an organization that works with young adults from underprivileged homes, teaching them life skills and giving them tools to reach their goals. The other volunteers and I told them our stories – how we got started in our fields; the hardships and the humiliations that we all experienced. I talked about how I had worked for free just to be a part of something I loved, how I took every opportunity that seemed halfway decent and eventually, it paid off. It brought me back to a time when I had been driven, when I had really wanted something and worked for it.

From some of the kids, I sensed an aimlessness similar to my own and I shared the indecision I was wrestling with. I told them it was okay to be uncertain, it was normal to feel intimidated by other people’s successes and overwhelmed by what it might take to get there yourself.

I was reminded that when we help others, we often get as much back as we give, if not more.

For a couple of years, I put one foot in front of the other, not entirely sure where I was going, but going all the same. There were other lessons that came out of this period, such as knowing your worth, trusting yourself, trusting others. Through those lessons, other truths have taken shape and once again, I can see the path. It started like a shadow, a feeling in the gut, short bursts of inspiration followed by a month of Mondays where I felt things may never change. Eventually, a sketchy outline emerged, and if you squinted, it could almost be a to-do list.

This is the end of my story here, but merely the beginning of a new chapter. Some would say this story shouldn’t be written until it’s reached a proper end, until I’ve found success at a new venture, until I have something to show for it. Those who have learned the lesson the hard way, or the lucky ones who were born knowing, would see that “should” is sometimes the antidote to inspiration. When we are worrying about what we should do, we often miss what we can do.

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