Last column I mentioned that a key turning point in my life was when I decided to drop out of college after a semester and start traveling. The other day I was thinking about another turning point. That point was four years later when I decided to leave Finland and go back to college. This was perhaps the more significant turning point, as it led my life onto the positive course that it’s on now. Why am I telling you this? Some of my friends from my traveling days died this summer and it got me thinking—no, worrying—about other people that I know that could potentially be on a similar path. And it’s not just traveling kids, but a lot of punks and really, people in general. I can think of dozens of examples from across the board.
It’s kind of hard to talk about this kind of stuff, as people don’t really want to hear or think about it when they are in the midst of it and it’s hard to come off as non-judgmental and not snobby. We all have our own definition of success, which generally boils down to being able to meet your needs and find some happiness. I tend to agree with Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs that you can’t satisfy higher needs, like love and creativity, until you’ve met your basic needs like food, health and some kind of place to call home (the physiological and safety/security needs). And for those of you that have read my column over the years, you know that one of my big driving forces and frequent column topic is about living a fulfilling, creative and happy life. That is my angle for approaching this topic. So, I’m not saying that one has to go to college or work at an office to be successful. This is just something to think about. Take it or leave it.
When you are young, say up to your late twenties, it’s pretty easy to be content panhandling, traveling, working shit jobs for beer and burrito money, dumpster diving for dinner and getting fucked up all the time. Lots of people think they could be happy living that lifestyle indefinitely. I think that is a pretty big gamble. I’ve found that a good chunk of people in that situation hit a point in their thirties where they get sick of being ass-broke, working for some dickhead moron, and drinking beer and smoking pot all day every day. Only, if and when they decide to do something, they walk into the world at a disadvantage since the rest of the people their age have been building work history and marketable skills that put them in greater demand. The job market is pretty competitive these days, even for relatively low-skill jobs, which hurts people that haven’t done anything to make them stand apart. Some people have this attitude that things will always work out or like the world owes them something. Part of it was the way I was raised, but I believe that you have to work for things, usually damn hard. You have to push yourself.
Very few people know exactly what they want to do in life. It changes as you grow. Since I was a teenager, I’ve had times when I wanted to be a professor, a chef, an herbalist, interior decorator, travel the world working on organic farms, a magazine editor and other things. That is part of what makes me a little different from the people I’m loosely describing—I want things in life. What I want may change over time, but I’m driven by an underlying ambition to achieve things, which comes with its own challenges and drawbacks, but ultimately pulled me out of a life of alcoholism and despondency. I fully recognize that a lot of people are not like that. Though I have a hard time understanding it, there are so many people that don’t have that internal check point that signals them when they’ve sunk too low. They just keep going down until they reach a suicidal or self-destructive abyss. I have seen people close to me and not so close get so utterly fucking depressed when they perceive that they have no options. To them, the future is a bleak wasteland where they can barely support themselves, let alone a family, and often are plagued with a drug or alcohol problem. For many of these people, turning into a homebum is a serious and valid worry, as is being miserable for the rest of their lives. Like they’ll tell you, traveling in your twenties and being homeless in your late thirties or forties are totally different.
I think it is good to have options in life. Part of having options is having something you are good at and like to do. It can be just about anything, aside from being a really outstanding drunk. Actually, fuck it, maybe you’d make a good bartender. The world needs good bartenders. The world needs a lot of things, so what do you have to offer that will make you reasonably happy to offer it? I remember a letter a long time ago from a friend expressing disappointment with his life and wondering what he should do that would make him some money while allowing him to stay reasonably drunk. It sounds kind of funny, but I totally think he was on the right track, particularly at age 26 or 27. No one is saying you need to quit drinking and buy a button-down shirt and khaki pants. Please don’t go out and buy khaki pants. Just find something that works for you and leads you in a good direction. And in my book, the more self-sufficient you are, the better. If you are skilled and dedicated enough to meet most of your own needs without cash and society, then you’re in damn good shape. Unfortunately, you are the exception.
Depression sucks. Boredom sucks. I worry for my friends that seem to think that the freewheeling life, the craving and search for freedom, the rejection of society, as they’ve defined it, will give them a happy and fulfilling life for years and years to come. Freedom can change shapes on you; you can wake up and realize you’re wearing a different set of chains, usually of your own making. That is a terrible feeling. Xena put it nicely when she said, "You have the power to recreate yourself every second.” Every moment is full of opportunity if you are open to it and willing to do something. That said, the longer you wait, the harder it will be.