A lot of things happened this year.
I bought my first car, I started writing freelance and I made a couple of new friends.
But I’m not the kind of person who looks back at old photos to immerse myself in nostalgia. I look back at changes, interested only in what I learned from them. If we don’t learn anything, how can we call any of it progress?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that planning for the future is damn near impossible and that ultimately it’s wholly unnecessary.
You can do a lot of things for your future self. You can start saving, continue learning, face your fears– everything you’ll read in a self-help book– but none of that will ever fully prepare you for the future. There’s always something.
That might sound ominous and it might make you think that tomorrow is something to be afraid of, but it really isn’t. I planned for a different future at the beginning of this year, one I expected to be a lot harsher, but things were great.
Because of my freelance work, for the first time in a long time, I felt like I could really build a career as a writer and I fell in love with that craft again. However, I also found that focusing completely on it wasn’t the way to go. At least, not right now, despite what others might have said. I decided I’d become a teacher instead, while I build my career as a writer.
The most important thing for me is to make enough to support a family. A family of my own has always been the thing I want most. Nothing else seems as meaningful to me, but I know I’m far from ready, which is something I wouldn’t have readily admitted to before. I’ve changed a lot.
I was able to reconnect with my oldest friend this year, when I visited Hong Kong for the first time in almost four years.
She had changed, but I was glad to see that the qualities I loved about her were still there and still strong. She’s still the same generous, good-hearted woman I had always known. I said as much to her when we sat down for lunch one afternoon. I told her how there was a time years ago, when I thought the city and that life of struggle would turn her into someone just as cynical and worn as me. But I was incredibly wrong and incredibly glad to be. Perhaps the truth was, I was just never strong enough to face the realities of my situation and seeing her maintain such a positive outlook inspired me to continue in my attempt to become more than what I am.
As much as I loved seeing how she’d grown, I was astonished to see the changes in myself more clearly.
My first night there was spent with her friend from the US and with her roommate. I would have dreaded meeting new people a couple of years ago but when I met them, I wasn’t afraid or in any way anxious. In fact, I was excited to meet them and try to get to know them.
To my surprise, I had much longer than just a night to do that. The day after, while almost everyone present was dealing with a massive hangover, we visited Macau. I’d never been there before, so that trip left quite the impression on me.
We had fun exploring and trying our hand at a game or two in one of the casinos.
Macau is the epitome of decadence. Almost every kilometre of those three islands are covered in the coruscating, hollow extravagance of a fantasy straight from the mind of a poorer child, toying with the idea of limitless wealth. The casinos were each a city of their own, with the souls of the cultural capitals of the world conflated into a few palatial hallways, filled with perfume so thick as if desperately trying to mask something ugly beneath it.
It’s a different city but not completely unlike Hong Kong, which is why it reminded me about why I didn’t stay for much longer. I spent just a weekend there because I knew that if I’d spent any more time there, I would have remembered why I hated it: the social injustices that go ignored on a daily basis, the focus on all things superficial, and the passive bitterness present in all cities–yet seem that much more intense in one as dense as Hong Kong.
I had just enough time to explore everywhere I used to go (and then some) so I could reminisce and look back to reconnect with something else I thought I’d lost. I didn’t need anything more from that place. The tranquility of the salty seaside and the adrenaline of a short-lived infatuation in Hong Kong’s thrilling nightlife was enough for me.
I was undeniable that this place was where I came from. A part of me felt rooted in it, but it wasn’t my home anymore.
I didn’t plan for that trip. It was largely a “spur of the moment” type of thing. But I was much happier because of it. I didn’t try to conform when I came back to Sweden, but I didn’t try to stand out either. I just felt as though I could allow myself to be as I am. Only good has come of that so far.
I suppose in short, everything that happened this year put things in perspective and because of that, I was able to see how much or how little progress I had made with certain aspects of my life.
It wasn’t all great, but I’d be amazed if anyone actually had a flawless year. This year had its low points of course, but I’m glad for it. I grew from them. I learned how to fight through the lows and truly appreciate the highs. More than that.
Whenever someone used to talk about those warm fuzzy feelings you’re supposed to get when you make someone else smile, I never quite understood it. I suppose that says something about me but, I’m not really interested in exploring that. Partly because that’s an answer I already have, and partly because that’s not who I am right now.
To show you what I mean, I’ll have to back up a bit to how exactly my way of thinking changed.
It’s not easy grounding yourself in the present. It means forgiving who you were and allaying all fear of who you might become. You have to embrace the fact that none of that really matters right at this very moment.
I came to that realisation at the end of 2016 and I felt myself heading into nihilism. The notion that nothing mattered made me feel free, but it came from a dark place so it poisoned my view instead of clearing it.
It’s true that nothing matters. Everything ends. That sounds grim and nihilistic, but it doesn’t have to be. When you know that nothing matters, life becomes a blank slate on which you’re free to build whatever you want. The only things that mean anything are the things you choose to give meaning to.
That’s what I learned from listening to Alan Watts.
Months ago, I found old recordings of his lectures– online, not in a dusty, forgotten library, which I know sounds way more exciting– and I couldn’t get enough of them. He spent his whole life studying religious and spiritual paths and it showed in his eloquence and his profound understanding of it all–the mark of a great philosopher.
His lectures allowed me to understand taoist philosophy in ways I never thought I could. Suddenly all the ideas and abstract concepts I once touched on when contemplating or just daydreaming so many years ago, had a place. Pieces of a puzzle I had never fully realised I was trying to piece together. I could go on and on about their philosophy and how everyone who pursues that sort of spiritual balance or happiness is bound to a sort of cyclical path.
No, I didn’t find enlightenment. I don’t need or want to. What I’m trying to say, by admittedly being verbose with dramatic metaphors, is that I found my own way to put all my inner conflicts and anxiety to rest. I just have to focus on the now–because now is all there is.
If you don’t know who Alan Watts is, I recommend you search him up and listen to or read whatever you can find.
So I stopped worrying about a fluid, inconstant future and started seeing everything I had around me. I started trusting the good things that happened and stopped resting in the stillness of self-pity and anguish.
That doesn’t mean some of the anguish doesn’t still linger or that I’m unreasonably carefree and happy all of the time. It’s just easier for me to find my way back now.
It also means that I don’t have to worry about things working out as planned, because I’m bound to fail at some point. So are we all. All I need to do, I realise, is do my best to achieve my goals and adapt to whatever comes, trusting that it’ll lead me to a better place.
Being free from the negative things, I found myself feeling joy whenever I could brighten someone’s day, even a little. It was new to me but I realised that that was only because I’d never allowed myself to feel it before. There was all that muck blocking the way.
I used to feel surrounded by the same cynical, occasionally grotesque souls and it made my world feel that much darker. The world still feels like a crazy, decaying place a lot of the time, so I cherish the people who are genuinely good. It’s a rare thing, but there are those who seem to puncture the fallacy that there is no such thing as true altruism. I cherish those people and I do what I can, when I can, to make them smile and to keep this crushing world from darkening their spirit. I aim to do that a lot more.
How’s that for a New Year’s resolution?