If you’ve ever gone away to summer camp for more than a week, you learn at least one of three substantial life lessons:
1. Your clothes will smell no matter how many times you wash them—not like you get the chance to wash them all that often.
2. Making friends is natural—almost automatic—in an environment where no one knows anyone on day 1.
3. You come home sounding like this discolored mural of mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that you’ve managed to pick up throughout the duration of the camp program. And suddenly you’re saying things like “killer” and “dayy-umm” and a whole palette of other things you’ve inherited from the friends you made that summer.
“We are the sum of all people we have ever met.” —Dirk Wittenborn
I want to believe that those instances are ridges along a mountain range that you sweep up in your arms, that we make every moment a part of our fabric because that’s how we become smarter, more thoughtful, more considerate, greater people. Yet at the same time, I fear the sound of my own consciousness slamming the door in my face, following the sum of all people I have ever met out the nearest fire escape. I’ve always been afraid of the reverberations that bounce between the walls of an empty shell.
Sometimes, when I’m cooking rice on the stove top and tapping my foot against the linoleum floor impatiently, I can’t smell the jasmine rice because all I can smell are the mistakes I’ve made, up in flames, burning like gasoline. Those are the moments when I feel as though I have the least amount of control over what makes up my body and thoughts, when I feel as though I am indebted to the causes that are not my own, when I feel as though I have disappointed people in waves—first at low tide, then at such a high tide that I can only feel engulfed by what I cannot achieve.
When I’m confused and disoriented, people often prompt me by asking: “Well, what do you want?”
And the hardest part of that isn’t coming up with a strong, representative answer—it’s trying to grapple with the possibility that there doesn’t seem to be an answer at all. That perhaps my mind is too busy fretting over what other people are thinking of me when in reality, I should know that other people are not giving the issue—or me—a second thought. After all, everyone is the star of their own life movie.
I don’t know what it is I want, but I do know that I can’t bear the thought of people disliking me, resenting me, disappointed by me—and that is the definition of belonging to everyone except myself.
When you belong to everyone except yourself, you keep a running list of IOUs tucked in the smallest pocket of your frayed wallet, constantly worried that you are forgetting someone from yesterday, last week, or five years ago. You scrawl haphazard notes about which bills you haven’t paid yet, about which ones are already accruing interest, up until the point where you feel like it might just be easier to file for bankruptcy altogether.
When you belong to everyone except yourself, you will convince yourself that everyone is keeping track of how you have failed them, and you will wonder what you have not yet tried to keep a promise that you feel contractually obligated to fulfill. You will remember all the reasons people may have doubted you in the past and wonder how much they’ve grown in the past few years.
When you belong to everyone except yourself, you will tell people you don’t believe in regret because there is something to learn from every decision made, but in reality, you will sew regret into your skin like a patchwork quilt until it makes up more of you than your own cells do.