Recently, I was struck by how nobody really knows what’s going on.
I was thinking about someone I had interviewed for a magazine article. In an interview situation, the presumption is that the interviewee is either a person of public interest (e.g., a celebrity) or an expert of sorts—that’s why it’s worth writing down his/her words, and worth it for others to read them. The interviewer and interviewee thus play their appropriate roles. Reflecting on this interview later, while preparing my article, I was struck by a feeling that something was off about it. It dawned on me that I had taken the roles a bit too seriously and whenever the person I was interviewing waffled on something, I was uncomfortable. There was a look in his eyes when I asked him some questions that bothered me. After the interview was over, he asked me a few questions similar to those I had asked him. I knew it made sense and was an appropriate form of conversation, but the role reversal threw me off.
The look on my interviewer's face that had momentarily bothered me had a name: uncertainty.
He is, of course, human, and it can be scary to trust your words in the hands of someone else. But he also wasn’t really an expert on the questions I was asking him, which were essentially about his choice of lifestyle.
Nobody is an expert on the subject of how to live.
It’s easy to forget this from time to time. I’m constantly reading and listening to podcasts, and I find myself drawn to content with a philosophical bend, whether it’s Patti Smith talking about her new memoir on NPR or an essay about why bookstores matter on Salon.com. Those two were a valuable use of my time. The worst is when I get sucked into reading articles with titles like “How do I balance happiness and financial responsibility?” or “How to know what you should be doing with your life.” All of these content creators made this stuff up out of their heads, just like I did when I sang a stupid impromptu song to Phil when he got home from work the other day.
We all live our lives mostly in our heads, after all.
Barack Obama makes up what he believes are ethical decisions on behalf of a nation, Rilke made up the letters he wrote to a young poet he didn’t know, and Joni Mitchell decided to mess with the tuning of her guitar and write some songs that she made up.
Nobody has all of the answers. But some are brave enough to venture putting something that they’ve made up out there into the world. And a few of these people are deemed worthy of listening to, either by the collective or by others with influence or power. This doesn’t mean that the rest of us should take what they've made up and turn it into a personal doctrine. That's just lazy. Their philosophies may be worth prescribing to. They may not.
Taking that further, even those closest to you don’t have the answers that you need—not your parents or your friends or your significant other or your boss or your siblings. They can venture something, but it’s up to each of us to define our own philosophies, whether it’s a mashup of things that we’ve read or heard or seen or something that only comes from within us.
I struggle with this. I like to talk through my problems and my life philosophy and consider all options. Maybe it’s why I like listening to this song, as a personal reminder. But, as cool as Jim James is, My Morning Jacket doesn’t have all of the answers either.
We can’t lean on anyone too hard. As my mom said to me once, it’s most important that you can live with yourself. It’s both scary and freeing to recognize that life is mostly about just doing your thing. Because we’re all moving through this world accompanied by our own thoughts, trying to figure it out each and every day.
I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in August 2015.