I turned thirty-eight on March 2nd. Birthdays do not upset me, overall, but I am now just that much closer to forty. Forty seems huge. And mature. Not sure where the years went.
Actually, that’s bullshit. It’s just something people say; I know exactly where the years went. In my early twenties I learned how to think long-term, not paycheck to paycheck. The learning curve on that one was pretty tough. The entire concept of a “future” was alien, much less planning one out, or even just beginning to aspire to one. You may have heard of “imposter syndrome,” wherein one is never fully convinced of one’s own skills. But there is also something I like to call “don’t dare to hope” syndrome. That’s where you know that in life Things Usually Don’t Work Out, and to protect yourself from disappointment you squash dreams of a better future. People assume it is laziness on your part, or a lack of drive, or—sacrilege—a lack of imagination. But they are incorrect. It is self-preservation. Do be a lofty dreamer means that you are Not Addressing Reality. And an acute understanding of harsh reality is the only advantage you have when you have nothing.
So in my twenties I learned to Dare to Hope for something besides working to pay the bills. It starts with a simple dream, a fantasy, wherein you imagine your ideal scenario without feeling like you are betraying your keen observation of human behaviour (your sharpest and most useful skill). You have seen those who walk through life living within a fantasy that has little relationship to their reality. You want nothing of that.
The trick, then, is to allow yourself to fantasize about what you want in life in a controlled way, without jeopardizing your armour. For those of you who have never faced this kind of challenge, who can dream endless possibilities without ever questioning whether or not it is possible because, by virtue of a fluke of being born into a pre-existing infrastructure of support (economically or emotionally), I envy you. Things Just Happen for you because Things Have Always Been That Way. You should thank the indifferent universe.
In my late twenties and into my early thirties, I learned to fantasize. Those scenarios (ever-shifting and sometimes fanciful) were small kernels of possibility beyond my immediate circumstances. Here is the most important thing about those fantasies: I indulged them without guilt or depression. That’s another thing others fail to understand: when your dreams never come true, when all you have ever experienced in life is that you have little to no means to achieve success (however defined), it becomes depressing to even dream. So you shut it down. I became determined to reframe fantasizing about my future as a tool to accomplish my goals.
It was slow, with many setbacks, as there was not a plan in place. It was part luck, part hard work, and part investment in psychotherapy—that wonderful Western practice of paying someone to listen to you, no strings attached. Friendships require reciprocity. Therapy requires only that you work on yourself.
By now, after fifteen years as an academic, methodically working through my degrees, one text, essay, class, and year at a time, I finally see a reward for my considerable investment of time, money, effort, and imagination.
Ever hear of the marshmallow test? It’s where they ask children to hold off on eating a marshmallow that is right in front of them with the promise of two marshmallows later on. Some gobble it up right away, some have the patience to wait it out. The test is designed to evaluate how children strategize the cost-benefit analysis: short-term pain for long-term gain. When I first heard of the test I thought with my childhood’s mind: but if I don’t eat it now someone else will come along and take it from me. A marshmallow now is way better than the mere promise of a marshmallow later, by some strange adult who I cannot trust to follow through on their promise. Prove to me that you, scientist, will follow through on your claim first, then I’ll pass your damned marshmallow test.
Poverty breeds such suspicion.
As I near forty, I feel pretty damn good about the future—a feeling that I can honestly say is wholly novel and damned wonderful. Despite dismal job prospects for PhDs and even dimmer avenues for religious studies scholars in bizarre and fringe areas of research, I am not worried. I am not worried because I have never lost my grip on Harsh Reality, and have learned to balance it with Fanciful Dreams. That balance is a tool like any other. Learn to use it.
If you want to get me a birthday present why not click the icon below to help fund my research?