Yesterday, I realized that I used to be smarter. You see, I found a letter I’d written to myself last October. It was tucked in a stack of papers on my desk, a pile of things that I want to keep handy, but don’t have a good place for. The letter felt like it had been written by a different person.
In October, less than three months into a new job, I’d had a realization. I had been feeling upset about my role, frustrated with my day-to-day tasks, and sometimes frustrated by structural issues in the organization. But I realized that much of these feelings were coming from things that I’d known about the job (especially the boring day-to-day tasks) before I had accepted it, but I had forgotten that and the reasons that I’d taken the job in the first place.
The job felt like a step down, but one I had thought worthwhile in order to move into a new industry and work towards something I feel passionately about. While the day-to-day tasks would be simple and uninspiring, there was a lot I would learn about the field I’d be working in. I wanted to move towards what felt inspiring and meaningful, and let go of ambitions about climbing a corporate ladder. A few months in, however, I realized that I’d forgotten to actually let go.
I decided to put my realization down in a letter so I’d have something to remind me if I needed it. In my letter, I wrote:
“You are having a hard time remembering why you took the job. You’ve gotten wrapped up in the organization, other people’s priorities and interests– but, most importantly, you’ve been trapped and tricked by your own ego. You are not there to be the best employee, or earn a promotion…. You are there to bring the parts of your life together– to help people find more fulfillment in their lives and work. You are there to connect with new people and open new possibilities.”
In October, I had the foresight to know that I’d forget this, and that I should write it down.
I was ok for a while. Then I got frustrated about work again, and I forgot. I didn’t just forget the reasons why I’d taken the job, I forgot that I’d written the letter too. I became annoyed again with the same things: frustrated that my role wasn’t more interesting or challenging, wondering about the potential for promotion. I was back in the same place.
Life can feel like a merry-go-round, endlessly circling and repeating the same patterns. Around and around I went in the pattern of feeling more content and remembering why I’d taken the job to feeling frustrated and wanting things to change. Since October, I forgot and then remembered why I’d taken this job at least two more times.
When I’m frustrated again by the same things, I feel like I’m back in the same place. This adds to my frustration: I get frustrated with myself for feeling the same things, frustrated by still sitting on the same plastic horse, just heading for another loop of the merry-go-round. Frustrated with my own inability to do anything differently.
In seeking libration from notions of success as being tied to title and accomplishment, I forgot this change is not a linear process. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield writes, “Consciousness grows in spirals. If you seek freedom, the most important thing I can tell you is that spiritual practice always develops in cycles.”
What feels like a circle, an endless merry-go-round, is actually a spiral. Though frustrated with the sameness every time the feelings come around, actually, I’d moved. It’s a new place– if only by the fact that I’ve been through it before. I now have that letter as proof. I’d even written about forgetting in my letter:
“You forgot. It’s ok. You got confused because the office has cubicles and comes with a paycheck. Your ego sat down at your desk and demanded more.”
Just seeing the spiral is growth for me. Recognizing that I am back to a similar place is the first step. Here I was again, a new cycle, trying to use what I had learned from the previous circle around. I re-read my letter. I agreed with my October self, and saw the way out of the frustrated place.
But reading that letter didn’t help for long. I woke up this morning disgruntled again.
Writer Portia Nelson describes this cycle in her poem “Autobiography in Five Short Chapters.” She describes falling in the same hole, on the same street, over and over. Learning only very slowly how get out, and then, how to avoid it.
I am in the hole again. But at least this time, I have that letter to remind me that I know the way to get out.
Image: “Merry Go Round, Nahant” by Maurice Prendergast (1900-1901)