2020 and the Quest for Meaning

Photo taken in Times Square in March 2020

Ever since I graduated from college, I have seen self-fulfillment as the primary road to happiness, holding out for that lifestyle that most aligns with my quest for meaning. But the problem with self-fulfillment is that it often requires you to start over again and again, which can compromise your comfort and stability, leaving you behind your peers in the great game of life. By the time you’ve settled on a career path, romantic partner, and city that make your heart pound with sincere passion, you might find yourself 34 years old, $110,000 deep in student loan debt, unable to buy property, and opening your first savings account.

But I have always believed that once you’ve identified those aspects of your lifestyle that make your soul glow, it’s only a matter of time before comfort and stability follow.

Such was my position at the dawn of 2020. Armed with a near-perfect understanding of the lifestyle I wanted, I felt my moment of comeuppance had arrived. If the 2010s were all about figuring it out, then the 2020s would be all about doing it while finally building some wealth, renting a nice apartment, and swapping out a broom and dustpan for my first ever Dyson.

With this in mind, I set a few goals for the inaugural year of my self-actualized life. I scribbled them onto a coffee-stained piece of office paper and scotch-taped them to the wall on my side of the bed.

  1. Get a new job in government/community affairs
  2. Get some kind of writing published
  3. Practice Spanish every weekday
  4. Practice brain games every weekday
  5. Call my sister on a weekly basis
  6. Open a savings account and keep it at $2,000 on a consistent basis
  7. Find a new hobby — acting?
  8. Move to New York City

By the middle of January, two of my most important goals had been achieved in one swoop: I got a new job in New York City. With this two-for-one achievement came my unbridled ambition to take on the rest of my list.

Within three weeks I had moved to New York City, where I immediately joined a Spanish language table and began wading my way through Spanish novels. With the help of Mint.com and a higher salary, I opened my first savings account since age 16; it reached $2,000 within a few weeks. Along the way, I cruised through goal number five, swapping weekly calls with my sister for weekly in-person meetings, pretty easy considering that she lived in New York too.

It was as if I had completely skipped that period in mid-February where you look in the mirror and think: okay, so I’m obviously not going to pull all of this off this year.

But I’d be proven wrong within just a few weeks.

By early March, I found myself falling into that same monotonous routine that seems so indispensable to a 9–5 lifestyle. You wake up with just enough time to throw on clothes you don’t want to wear, but that meet some kind of superficial standard of professionalism. You make coffee, something healthy enough to absolve you of guilt for what you’ll be eating that weekend, spend way too much time karate-chopping that snap tupperware lid, and get out the door with just enough time to arrive at your desk by 9:05. You’re there for eight hours, and though that seems like an entire eternity to cross off every goal you’ve ever set for yourself since you were in diapers, the truth is that there’s something about the inertia of sitting there, surrounded by others doing the same thing, that makes it harder to do anything but. A certain purgatorial mindlessness devours the eternal seconds that occupy the space between the few tasks on your agenda that day. It makes you lethargic, so you drink more coffee, it makes you feel trapped so you walk around the block. If you were at home, you probably would have knocked your to-do items out within two hours, freeing you up for other non-work-related errands and tasks. But the requirement of being in that same chair for the majority of the day leaves you less productive and less energetic.

Later you may meet up with a friend for a drink, or you may make something fun for dinner, and if you’re lucky, you may even chip away at those goals you set for yourself. But the truth is that when you go to sleep that night, you know that in the grand scheme of things, you didn’t spend enough time on the interests and tasks that mattered, that make your life matter. And then the alarm goes off again. So much for self-fulfillment.

I wasn’t making much progress on the other goals on my list, but I was still happier than I’d ever been in my adult life. The handful of goals I had accomplished were reinvigorating; I enjoyed my new job and being one of the many ants crawling around the bustling nest that is New York City. There was no need to be so hard on myself. I resolved to accept and enjoy this lifestyle, this city, and this job, and to do my best to keep working on my list on the margins.

No sooner had I established this tenuous stability than I found it radically upturned. By the end of March, I was working from home. The primary duties of my role at my new job were no longer necessary due to a complete halt on capital projects. As the last person to join the team less than a month before the quarantine, with a set of now-worthless duties, I felt certain I’d be the first to go. Meanwhile, my romantic partner remained stuck in Washington, DC. The plan was originally for me to move first and her to catch up with me in June when she’d have tied up loose ends at her old job and found a new one.

The restrictions, fear, and mass exodus that took place in March rendered a New York that looked much more like Will Smith’s city in I Am Legend than the bustling nest I’d moved to the month prior. It seemed all but certain that this house of cards I had so painstakingly constructed was scheduled for demolition. New York was the epicenter of the epicenter of a mass pandemic whose scale and intensity we knew nothing about. There were dead bodies less than a few miles away stacked up in a truck in some parking lot in Brooklyn. Some said you should wear a mask, while others said not to. And then there was getting it. We didn’t know if it meant you’d need a ventilator, get your leg amputated, or just have the sniffles. Going to the grocery store was a reconnaissance mission and going to the park seemed absolutely out of the question. Meanwhile, the classic Irish bars of Queens and mid-Manhattan remained shuttered, their doors littered with St. Patrick’s day decorations and specials, an anticipated event that, by April, we all knew never happened.

I moved back into a room I had occupied eight years earlier, during my first stint in the city. It was a cheap room and it had opened up both temporarily and completely by chance. It was an ideal half-measure for a period of such overwhelming uncertainty. Separated from my wife and afraid to visit her due to concerns that the city would shut down completely, that my new boss would think I was uncommitted, or that I’d catch the virus from a rental car, I became consumed by anxiety. I tried my best to stay positive and to appreciate that I was still employed, that I had friends I could zoom with, that I could watch movies, and make fun cocktails and dinner recipes. But a more existential fear seemed to trounce the fleeting satisfaction precipitant from these activities. My wife was alone, dealing with her own uncertainties, and I missed her. Was it safe to visit her? Would I be fired? What if I lost my job and she never found a new one? How could the entirety of the world be experiencing this at the same time? How could it be so deadly yet so enigmatic at the same time? Sometimes I felt like I was on a massive archaeological excavation project, digging away in the sand with eight billion others, furiously burrowing into the earth from sunrise to sunset, all the while thinking we may be on to something, only to close each day realizing we had made no progress. It seemed certain we’d never uncover what lay beneath our feet, a monstrous entity, barely stirring under an impenetrable shroud of deadly unpredictability.

The anxiety was insurmountable and exacerbated by anger at myself for not being appreciative of my safety and that of my family, as thousands around me in the city died.

By the end of April, it seemed clear that it would be a long time before we had any answers. We still didn’t know what lay beneath us, but maybe it was time to put the shovels down and look up, with the full understanding that we diggers simply didn’t have the power to uncover anything. Why fight the new reality, why stress myself by digging through news articles and medical reports on when things would “go back to normal,” when I could just adjust to a new normal? Because it wouldn’t be as fun as the old normal? I was privileged enough to be healthy and working from home. If anything, I was better positioned than I ever could have imagined to take on the rest of my 2020 goals.

I can not emphasize enough the way that working remotely allowed me to reach unprecedented levels of self-fulfillment in my life. The zombie spell that had set in during January was broken. Previously untapped energy broke from the dam of routine and breached the guard rails of anxiety as I spent my spring and summer days at home juggling job-related tasks, exercise, house chores, and the unbridled pursuit of my 2020 list.

The eight hours that once seemed like a wasted eternity were now successfully exploited in the name of progress, and the inertia of movement made it hard to stop. I picked Spanish language training and brain games back up, looked for and moved into a new apartment (with a dishwasher!), and found new hobbies. “The Corona Logs,” was an audio journal/podcast where I recorded activities like walking through a historically vacant Time Square, which looked more like that stock photo of the Dust Bowl from your middle school social studies textbook than the world-class metropolitan jungle it’s known for. A dear friend and I pushed each other to rediscover our interests in writing, resurrecting an old satirical website we had created some years earlier and pumping out fresh articles, all while encouraging each other to pick up the pen on more serious fronts like politics for me and self-betterment for him. I read more books than ever, joined a local mutual aid organization as a dispatcher, and wrote editorial-style pieces on politics, society, and culture on a Medium page that had been collecting dust since 2016. I joined an acting network and got paid to do side-gigs in commercials and short films where I played roles like “biker,” “caterer,” or “zombie,” and even provisionally joined a zoom theater troupe.

In June, my partner finally made her way to New York. I had mustered up the courage in May to ask my boss to let me split time between our two cities, which I did up until June 1st, when we finally loaded all our belongings into a U-Haul and embarked on a journey from Washington DC to New York City; it was still the city of our dreams and we hoped it would be the city of the rest of our lives. We spent the summer exploring the five boroughs through safe outdoor activities, like going to the beach, playing paddle ball at the park, and eating and drinking our way through the crowd-less outdoor streeteries that have come to litter this strange new iteration of our beloved New York.

By the late fall, my anxiety had fully subsided. I felt stupid when I thought back to all that time I had spent excavating the unknown. I was safe, fulfilled, lucky, and having fun. Not to mention, I had accomplished all of my goals for the year, something I knew wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the pandemic. My involvement in the community and writing and reading on politics, history, and society had even led me to consider a new goal: running for political office in the future.

It felt strange to say it, but in spite of all the anxiety and personal challenges I had faced (did I mention I had hernia surgery during my first week on the job, accidentally crushed my laptop under a treadmill, and ended up getting the coronavirus in November?) 2020 turned out to be the greatest year of my adult life after all.

But as I picked up the pieces in December to reflect and look ahead to 2021, my sleep anxiety returned. Although I felt more fulfilled than ever, I found myself waking up in the middle of a panic attack on a nightly basis. A sense of doom and depression consumed me, and I felt strangely alone, often dragging myself to our balcony in the wee hours of the morning just to feel the presence of the outside world. I still don’t know what the cause of this anxiety is, especially after such a record-breaking year. But part of me thinks there is a subconscious dissonance between the achievements I am so proud of and the experiences I missed out on. There is an innate reckoning with the fact that I lost almost a whole year of time with my rapidly-aging parents, who are among the people I’m closest to in the world. There is a willingness to concede that yes, I actually did miss going to the movies this year. I actually did miss going home to visit my family and sleep next to my wife in my childhood room, surrounded by photos of my high school friends and a signed poster of Yellowcard from the 2003 Warped tour. I actually did miss haphazardly making an unappetizing salad for lunch and dashing out the door in my business casual look, spilling coffee all over myself as I jumped onto the train. And I acknowledge that turning our apartment into Greece for my wife’s 30th birthday celebration, while fun, was nowhere near as fun as our canceled trip to Greece would have been. And I yield my guilt that to even be sitting here, writing this is a privilege; that I am unworthy of this anxiety because I know so many more who lost their loved ones, who were supposed to die as a result of some other cause at a much later date.

I know that 2020 sucked.

Looking back on this year, I am reminded of all the times in my life I had wished for a world where my obedience to routine and penchant for fun did not encumber my quest for self-fulfillment. Even though this wish came true in 2020, I find myself in much poorer mental health now than I was back in February when I had fallen into the restrictive routine of a 9–5 lifestyle.

I am an achievement-obsessed person because I live in constant fear of leading a meaningless life in a potentially meaningless world. That is where my anxiety comes from. But what I learned in 2020 is that you don’t reach meaning through achievements alone. The activities I thought were hindering my pursuit of a meaningful life are in fact integral pieces to it.

No matter how goal-oriented you are, self-fulfillment can not be your sole path to happiness. The opportunity cost of going to see a movie is not always time spent working on your dreams; neither is stepping on to a crowded subway car and spending the morning under someone’s not-so-fragrant armpit as you struggle to read a book jostling between your hands, and the same goes for goofing off with your significant other at a cocktail bar on a weeknight. So long as you are not spending the majority of your time at the mercy of an unforgiving schedule or an insatiable appetite for social debauchery, none of these activities are at odds with a goal-oriented person’s self-fulfillment.

So it is with great intention that I make a new list for 2021, a list that I know I won’t achieve in its entirety because it must also account for the commitments, routines, and irresponsible fun that come with leading a meaningful life.

Reflections on government, culture, politics, and society.