The End of Confusion is An Illusion

I used to dream of the day I'd have it "all figured out." Nowadays I hear my students constantly speak of this magical land. "I can't wait to have it all figured out," they say. Or "When I have it all figured out, I'll..." Or "My friends have it all figured out." Island in Lhaviyani Atoll

All Figured Out is a beautiful oasis where you can recline on handwoven hammocks while warm, salty breezes tickle your hair; attractive masseuses knead your legs and feet; and decadent, sweet drinks ooze through every crevice of your mouth.

Life is good in All Figured Out. It's where we all aim to one day land. It's what we're all working for. It's the photo negative of our current complicated and confused lives, its very presence making us discontent with the here and now.

Thing is, it doesn't exist.

Oh wait, should I not be telling you this?

OK, then I WON'T tell you that at this very moment, squarely in my mid-thirties, I'm stressing over:

a) Which town to move to when we eventually get the guts to sell our house:  the dream town near the ocean that has intense schools and that we can't afford, or the practical inland town with solid schools that we can't really afford, either.

b) Whether to try to have another child. And how to afford said child's care and food and sundry needs, if he or she were to arrive.

c) How much time and energy to direct toward my teaching versus my paid freelance writing versus my unpaid writing (read: this blog). And how shifting said energy would affect heretofore specified Questions a and b.

Sound like I live in All Figured Out?

Yet if my twentysomething self had encountered me in the classroom - wow, that's a weird picture, to imagine me teaching me...I think I would've disliked myself from both directions! - I would've thought differently. "My prof has her career, she has her family, she has her home. She has it All Figured Out," I would've said wistfully to my friends. In fact, I did say that very thing about my Psych 101 prof. Many times. Until I got to know her when I was a senior. And I stopped saying it.

Sure, compared to having EVERYTHING up in the air the way it is in your twenties, my life is pretty settled. But it's not All Figured Out. And, with any luck, it never will be.

Yeats said, "Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing."

Ah, yes, growth. How else to account for the fact that people sell their homes about 12 years after buying them, have seven careers in a lifetime, and end 40-50% of their marriages? We're not a static species. As much as we dream of All Figured Out, we don't actually want to get there.

Case in point:  how often do you do nothing? You want to do it a lot, right? You tell your friends all the time that you can't wait to "do nothing," don't you?

But what does "do nothing" consist of for you? Probably watching Netflix or YouTube or Hulu, hanging out on social media, chilling to some music. I sincerely doubt that "doing nothing" means literally "doing nothing." As in, sitting in a darkened room with only your thoughts to keep your company.

When a psych researcher paid people to do just that back in the 1950s (paid them double what they normally earned, no less!), most of the participants dropped out within a day. They couldn't take the boredom. Those who stayed became disoriented,


restless, and even complained of nausea (Bexton et al., 1954).

This is because we have stimulus motives, a basic need for novel stimulation. And we're not alone; other animals show signs of having stimulus motives, too.

In other words, when life gets too routine, we shake things up. It's a need, like eating or sleeping or having sex (you're not giggling, are you?!).

So have I now sufficiently freaked you out?

You are never going to make it to All Figured Out. You may vacation there once in a while. There may be a run of hours or day or weeks when you hang out on those handwoven hammocks. But mark my words, you'll want out. Badly.

Which you can either take as scary as hell - what they heck am I working toward then?!?!?! - or as a relief. Because if no one lives in All Figured Out, you can stop striving to be there and you can just simply be. As in, where you are right now. In the Land of Confusion.

If nothing else, you've got company there. Plenty of it.

This just might be All Figured Out (Photo credit: Edgar Barany)