A friend asked me the other day, how she can balance ambition and security. My first reaction was that this must be one of the most fundamental conflicts of human experience and that she might already know the answer. It was right there in her words: She is taking a leap, and now she cannot find her footing. I guess she cannot be airborne and grounded at the same time? It is an apt metaphor because ambition and security share a similar mutual exclusivity. To leap or not to leap? It is not the question, but it is always its own kind of answer. One of the other but never both.
I think it is right for anybody in a situation like that to feel untethered. If you leave something you know for something you don’t it is always strange and weird at first. Why? Because you are suspended in uncertainty, one of the squirmiest, most unpleasant emotions. I have made similar leaps myself that, in hindsight, have changed my life for the better, but I’ll still go to great lengths to avoid the feeling. In previous dark moments, I even hoped for someone or something to decide my fate for me just to save me from it. Which is to say: Learning to maintain your wits right now is good practice for life. You can, of course, try to level your unease with a truism like “everything will be okay” (impossible to prove), but I think you know this is what you have chosen: to lose your footing and float a little. But sometimes, it is the only way to move forward.
I understand this desire to establish a sense of structure though. For me, it is done by laying the foundation of a new world and putting up the proverbial shelves that I will find my way back to the ground. I think this comes naturally. For example, I signed a lease, found work, met new friends and explored a new city to exhaustion. I developed affection for a particular street corner and memorized the peculiarities of my commute. I tried, fucked up, did better the next time. Imbued with the learnings of my previous “life”, these are the new rhythms and habits by which I will live, and they will give me a sense of certainty and security that looks so attractive right now. Of course, these are also the tenets which, when overemphasized, can make me feel stuck. For me, this is the tension inherent to safety versus freedom.
Safety is knowable and certain. It makes me feel secure and protected even though deep inside I know that nothing is for certain. It can also be suffocating, making me yearn for the expansiveness of freedom, openness, and adventure. Freedom says anything is possible when safety says only some things are. Freedom implies a kind of lawlessness while safety favors order. Too much of the former incites fear and insecurity, too much of the latter can inspire an existential kind of dread. I think that these two notions are connected like joy and pain, each emphasizing the other in ways important and cruel. To me, a life well-lived entails a constant negotiation between both.
There have been times in my life where too much of one sent me running toward the other, like when I was 23, arrived in New York and felt so urgently stagnant that, in the span of a week, I started five creative projects and designed to change all the habits I believed were nurturing my complacency.
I also believed the Sex and the City lifestyle is real. In instigating a flurry of change, I felt inspired, energetic, and a little afraid but loved the adventure. For a while, this harkened a unique era of fulfillment, but within six months, I was burned out. I had become so tapped into the life I wanted, I had come to resent the life I had. I needed a period of calm reclusion, a return to stability, which then stretched into months until, of course, I felt itchy again.
So, I rode the roller coaster for a long time, never quite sure which one was “correct”. Hustle or relax? There was a time in my life when I studied and worked full-time. Do I want more or be grateful? But the answer was not in committing to one of the other, it was in learning to let these parts of me cooperate rather than fight to the death. This balance looks different for everyone of course, but for me, it means being careful to balance routine with risk, deadlines with creative freedom, long days with time off. It is decorating my comfort zone while also stepping outside of it enough to remember why I have it in the first place. This leap will teach me about myself, about what I want, what makes me feel good, wrong, attentive and fearful.
From experience, I suggest that whatever you do, embrace the inimitable perks of freedom you have unlocked by leaving an established structure: the sense of movement in your body, the breath-taking number of possibilities on the horizon, the unknowability of the next move. They may give you vertigo. It did to me, but what good things don’t come at a cost? And when I eventually spun a new safety net for myself (and my son), that security will feel all the more satisfying for what came before it.
This emotional binary is not reserved for life’s most significant peaks and stalls. We pursue and avoid the trappings of freedom and safety every day. We seek solace in maintaining a habit, and pursue adventure in breaking them. We cling to what we know then resent it, lust for something new then grow sick of it. So, isn’t it that we all just dance a delicate dance between tending to what we know and courting what we don’t? Always dance, but stand steady on your feet.