Plan to Be Surprised

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As I begin typing my first post for this blog, it strikes me how difficult it is to find the words I want to put down. Every keystroke feels as jumbled as my brain at the moment, a buzzing cacophony of uncertainty, excitement and nerves. This is unusual for me. I mean, I’m used to a lack of mental clarity. My writing, on the other hand, is perhaps the skill upon which I have most consistently prided myself, so my directionlessness at the moment is a new sensation. The perfectionist in me hates it; I usually write with a clear endpoint in mind, allowing me to work systematically rather than just flopping my fingers around on the keyboard and seeing what comes out. But I am coming to realize that this new feeling – this complete and inevitable lack of assuredness – is good for me.

I have always claimed to enjoy surprises, but I never acted accordingly. I’m the guy that walks into a library and reads the last page of every book before deciding which one I want to rent. When I was little, I would figure out where my Christmas gifts were hidden and inspect every last one of them before they got wrapped. On a more morally questionable note, when my parents got divorced, my mom worked tirelessly to try and hide the details of what happened from me, but I always sleuthed them out. Point being, for most of my life up until this point, I have tried to limit myself from being open to surprises. The few times I have been surprised have been enjoyable and even moving- a song my family performed for me before I left for college comes to mind – so why do I always spoil things for myself?

I can think of two possible reasons. The first is, plain and simple, I don’t like feeling ignorant. This quality serves me well in general, and is largely why I am as intelligent and accomplished for my age as I am. Consequently, however, it means I can often sense when people are hiding things from me, which puts me on my toes. It also sometimes renders me defensive when a peer tries to question my beliefs in an area in which I feel well-read or experienced, usually to a fault.

The second (and perhaps the more telling) reason is that I like to keep my expectations low. In my adolescence, I was a dreamer and a romantic. I saw life cinematically, perceiving even the most benign moment with awe. As time went on, however, life threw more and more curveballs at me. While I always kept moving forward, my optimism rapidly eroded. My humor, creativity and happiness were my first lines of defense, so when storms blew through, they were the parts of me that got battered the hardest.

As human nature dictates, I adapted. I realized my idealism could only carry me so far. At some point, I made peace with the truth of my reality. I don’t want this to sound grim. I am very content with the life I am privileged enough to live, one which is full of more blessings than I can fathom. Nonetheless, whether a room smells like flowers or farts, you will become desensitized to the scent if you spend enough time there. Throughout my young adulthood, I tried to constantly remind myself of these blessings, but they were my baseline, and the world dragged me down enough times to leave me perpetually wary. I decided I would rather shield myself from curveballs ahead of time, both the good and the bad ones, in order to protect myself from being hurt by setting unrealistically high expectations or failing to anticipate obstacles.

On top of this, increasingly I put pressure on myself to savor every moment of my youth. My elders kept telling me that college would be the best four years of my life, but I allowed myself to be so stressed throughout it that it never quite felt that way. As graduation drew nearer, this began to manifest in negative ways. I would lash out when people ignored my invitations to hang out. On a few occasions when I was with a large group of friends, I would secretly turn on my phone’s voice recorder to try and capture that fleeting moment of togetherness as though I were already anticipating its dissolution.

Naturally, these habits were unsustainable. Toward the end of my time in college, as I reached the so-called “quarter-life crisis”, I began to yearn for the happier and more hopeful person I used to be, the one with the bright eyes, bushy tail and unforgiving acne. I realized a lot of the above behaviors and thought processes were symptoms of a broader problem I was having with anxiety. Instead of letting low self-esteem forcing me into submission, I realized I needed to fight this actively. The flame of my former self was still within me; the only person starving it of oxygen was me. In order to recover my diminished joie-de-vivre, I had to allow myself to be surprised again.

I see my upcoming year abroad as the perfect opportunity to do just that. While my eight months at home have largely been comprised of loneliness, stagnation and frustrating liminality, they have also served as a time of self-reflection, an opportunity to shuffle off my collegiate coil of anxious self-loathing and a chance to prepare myself fully for the road ahead. I am about to embark on a journey of proportions inconceivable to me. I will be traveling farther from home than I have ever been, living in an indeterminate location with total strangers for almost a full year. The last time I faced this many unknown variables was in my AP Calculus BC final (which, to be clear, I bombed).

With that in mind, you may think I’d be totally freaking out right now… but I’m not. Sure, I’m scared. Yes, I have a million questions. That said, I think fear is a natural reaction for anyone approaching a fulcrum of tremendous change, and I know in my heart the answers will come soon enough. More importantly, though, I’m thoroughly, genuinely excited. For the first time in years, I can think about the uncertainty of my future with a smile.

When she was the age I currently am, my mom started writing a series of journals she dubbed “baby books”, documenting my upbringing and her journey as my mother. She would go on to write them for 18 years, chronicling every conquest and curveball of our lives through my high school graduation. They sit on a shelf in my closet and I read them from time to time. On a few occasions, I have tried to imagine what she must have felt like opening that first blank page of that first journal for that very first time. As I write this blog post, on the cusp of the first major adventure of my adult life with an infinite array of possibilities ahead of me, I think I’ve discovered it.

Just over two months and counting, and then… well, I don’t know.

But it’s sure to be one hell of a surprise.

I can hardly wait.

-Nate

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