Hello and welcome to our advice column, Ask MR, where we answer your burning questions, hoping we’ll become the ointment to your life rash. Ask us a question by sending one of us a DM, emailing [email protected] with the subject line “ASK MR A QUESTION,” or simply leaving one in the comments.
“I’m 23, recently graduated from a creative field and I’m moving to Chicago without a job or much money. I’m taking such a leap, but at the same time I feel like I’m just floating and unable to find my footing. Growing up to me means leaving behind the established structure of school or your parents rules and attempting to build your own. How do you build your own? How do you balance between ambition and security?”
My first reaction to your question—which expresses what must be one of the most fundamental conflicts of the human experience—is that I think you might already know the answer. It’s right there in your words: You’re taking a leap, and now you can’t find your footing. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? That you can’t be airborne and grounded at the same time? It’s an apt metaphor, because ambition and security share a similar mutual exclusivity. To leap or not to leap? It’s not the question, but it’s always its own kind of answer. One or the other, never both.
I think it’s right for you to feel untethered right now. You’re leaving something you know for something you don’t. You’re suspended in uncertainty, one of the squirmiest, most unpleasant emotions. I’ve made similar leaps myself, ones that have changed my life for the better, and I’ll still go to great lengths to avoid the feeling. In particularly dark moments, I’ll even hope for someone or something to decide my fate for me just to save me from it. Which is to say: Learning to maintain your wits right now is good practice for life. You can try to level your unease with a truism like “everything will be okay” (impossible to prove), but I think you know this is what you’ve chosen: to lose your footing and float a little. Sometimes it’s the only way to move forward.
I understand your desire to establish a sense of structure though. It’s by laying the foundation of your new world and putting up the proverbial shelves that you’ll find your way back to the ground. I think this will come naturally: You’ll sign a lease, find work, meet a new friend. You’ll develop affection for a particular street corner, memorize the peculiarities of your commute, buy soap. You’ll try, fuck up, do better next time. Imbued with the learnings of your previous life, these are the new rhythms and habits by which you’ll live, and they’ll give you the sense of certainty and security that looks so attractive to you right now. Of course, these are also the tenets which, when overemphasized, can make you feel stuck. This is the tension inherent to safety versus freedom.
Safety is knowable and certain, it makes us feel secure and protected. But it can also be suffocating, making us yearn for the expansiveness of freedom, openness, and adventure. Freedom says anything is possible when safety says only some things are. Freedom implies a kind of lawlessness while safety favors order. Too much of the former incites fear and insecurity, too much of the latter can inspire an existential kind of dread. These two notions are connected like joy and pain, each emphasizing the other in ways important and cruel. To me, a life well-lived entails a constant negotiation between both.
There have been times in my life where too much of one sent me running toward the other, like when I was 25 and felt so urgently stagnant that, in the span of a week, I started five creative projects and deigned to change all the habits I believed were nurturing my complacency. In instigating a flurry of change, I felt inspired, energetic, and a little afraid. And for a while, this harkended a unique era of fulfillment, but within six months, I was burned out. I’d become so tapped into the life I wanted, I’d come to resent the life I had. I forced a period of calm reclusion, a return to stability, which then stretched into months until, of course, I felt itchy again.
I rode that roller coaster for a long time, never quite sure which one was “correct.” Hustle or relax? Want more or be grateful? But the answer wasn’t in committing to one or the other, it was in learning to let these parts of me cooperate rather than fight to the death. Maybe not day-to-day, but at least week-to-week, or month-to-month. This balance looks different for everyone, but for me it means being careful to balance routine with risk, deadlines with creative freedom, long days with time off. It’s decorating my comfort zone while also stepping outside of it enough to remember why I have it in the first place.
As you set out on this new life in Chicago, I suggest you embrace the inimitable perks of freedom you’ve unlocked by leaving your established structure: the sense of movement in your body, the breath-taking number of possibilities on your horizon, the unknowability of your next move. They may give you vertigo, but what good things don’t come at a cost? And when you eventually spin a safety net for yourself, that security will feel all the more satisfying for what came before it.
And remember this emotional binary isn’t reserved for life’s most significant peaks and stalls. We pursue and avoid the trappings of freedom and safety every day. We seek solace in maintaining habits, pursue adventure in breaking them. We’re drawn to what we’ve always done in one breath, yearn for something different the next. We cling to what we know then resent it, lust for something new then grow sick of it. Your question as to how to balance security with ambition might be the enduring quandary of life itself.
So what I can offer you—and who knows if it’s enough—is the consolation that what you’re grappling with today isn’t so different from what you’ll likely grapple with forever: the delicate dance between tending to what you know and courting what you don’t. This leap will teach you about yourself, about what you want, what makes you feel good and wrong and attentive and fearful. It will show you what makes you feel safe and what makes you feel free, and if you’re anything like me, these will become some of your most useful emotions tools.
Best of luck in finding your footing (and then staying light on your feet).
Ask MR Identity by Madeline Montoya.