Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.-Michelangelo
Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.-George Bernard Shaw
I used to think of life like Michelangelo. Chipping away at the rough edges in search of freedom. At various times I have been in love with the romantic idea of “finding myself.” I think most of us are conditioned to think this way. In the movies, the reluctant hero always has a true calling, and eventually, he answers. The two friends come to realize that they were meant to be together the whole time. The pirates find the treasure and the girl finds Mr. Right. The Native Americans had their vision quest. The Amish have Rumspringa. That’s how one’s life is supposed to go, right? Go out, have your fun, figure out what you want to do, then settle down and do it. Find yourself a girl, a career, a small town, a direction… and then by 30, set the cruise control, the sails, get on the right track (choose your preferred method of transportation for this metaphor) and off you go.
Trouble along the way? Don’t worry, there are plenty of fish in the sea – you’ll catch a good one soon enough! You can search for a new job! You can hunt for a new house! Discover a new hobby! Find your passion! Find yourself!
Until recently, I was on one of these quests too. I’ve described myself as feeling a little “lost.” I’ve called this year my rumspringa. I was pretty sure I was supposed to be looking for something… although I never quite knew what it was.
But what if there is nothing to find?
What if, instead of finding ourselves, we create ourselves? What if life is neither a destination or a journey, but a construction project? What if we don’t find happiness, success, or our true selves but rather, build them.
You give four children a pile of Legos. One builds a perfectly symmetrical house. The second builds a spaceship with questionable aerodynamics. The third builds the tallest tower they can with random colors everywhere. The fourth doesn’t build anything recognizable, but spends their time putting a few blocks together, taking them back apart, and merrily enjoying the clinking of the plastic and the texture of the smooth sides, bumpy tops, and sharp corners. To none of these children do you say, “Why didn’t you follow the directions?” or “Are you sure you don’t want yours to look more like your friend’s?” Of course not, they’re Legos! They’re kids! If you’re any sort of a decent parent or teacher you say, “Wow, what are you making? … Oh, how creative! It’s beautiful, I love it! Are you having fun?”
Life isn’t a movie. There’s no script. Life isn’t a puzzle. There’s no picture to follow. Life is a pile of Legos! You can make whatever the hell you want!
I’m building a castle. It’s going to be misshapen and multicolored and unconventional. It will have flaws and weaknesses and holes in the walls. It’s also going to be exciting and welcoming and unique. It’s going to be expansive and powerful and resilient. Everything I do – every decision, every interaction, every triumph, and every mistake – is another piece added to my castle. I’m not searching for treasure; I’m building a kingdom.
It’s only in the last couple of weeks that I have come across this new line of thinking. Admittedly, the metaphors and allegories might still need some workshopping. But even in the short time since putting on these new glasses and looking at my life through the lens of “creating” rather than “finding,” I already feel… lighter. Less pressure. Less worry. If there truly were no right or wrong answers, what would there be to worry about?
Some illustrative examples of the shift towards the building paradigm (patent pending):
In the past year, I have been the butt of many jokes about being the “old guy” teaching abroad. Many of those I have made myself. They say every joke has a hint of truth, but when I really think about it, I’ve never actually felt like I shouldn’t be here. Living abroad has been something I’ve always wanted to do and I’m extremely happy, grateful, and proud that I was able to make this dream a reality. In fact, I believe that being here now as opposed to, say, 8-10 years ago allows me to understand and appreciate this experience in more meaningful ways. It doesn’t matter who finishes their Lego structure first.
In the past year, some good friends have asked me if I am worried that I’m setting myself back by being here – because, you know, my window of… prime mating years(?) isn’t going to stay open much longer. In the same vein, everyone from good friends to strangers is quick to ask, “How long do you think you’ll stay in Taiwan?” My answer is always the same: I don’t know. One year at a time. More often I’m taking it one day at a time. One piece at a time.
In the past year, I have spent a lot of time alone. I have also spent a lot of time “putting myself out there.” To be sure, I do think life might be more fun with a partner in crime. I am accepting applications. But if I were to be desperately looking for my wife, every date that didn’t work out would be a failure – a waste of time. I see dates as an opportunity for a new adventure. I get to meet a new person in a new country. If I’m lucky, she’ll speak Chinese, take me to a new place and help me read the menu. Even if we never talk again, I will always have tried that new food and that brick will always be a part of my castle, strengthening the walls. As for the time alone, I would argue that there might be nothing more valuable than spending time with yourself. You learn a lot about both your needs and wants when you stop finding ways to distract and ignore yourself. In my Lego kingdom, the bricks and the empty spaces are equally valuable.
If this is making any sense at all, then I thank you for sticking with me. In conclusion, I encourage you to start seeing the things you do everyday as adventures, learning experiences, and opportunities for growth. One of my favorite mantras is a quote by Annie Dillard that reads, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Stop spending your days searching for something that you might never find, or worse, waiting for it to come!
Life is a pile of Legos. What will you build today?