At this stage of my life, as a confused twenty-something surrounded by confused twenty-somethings, I start asking myself some big questions. What am I going to be when I grow up? Where am I going to go to graduate school? How am I ever going to be entirely self-sufficient? Should I wear my one-piece or bikini to the beach today?
The problem with these questions (other than the obvious responsibility of having to make huge life choices and/or contemplate my tan lines) is that I feel like I’m trapped between two very different mentalities that offer very different perspectives on the notion of “real life”. Thanks to Facebook, Gmail, Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, Twitter and any other variation of life assuring social networking, I get a technology full blast of “real life” every time I open my computer screen. I spend hours trying to validate my life choices against those of the friends I left behind in America nearly six years ago, feeling guilty that I have yet to find a stable job, attain a Masters degree, be proposed to, or identify my one true purpose in society. The fact that I am passing my days flaneuring through Tel Aviv, planning my next trek to Nepal and making just enough money to sustain my necessary fix of coffee, wine and cigarettes a month didn’t used to irk me. Only when I began comparing myself to other people who, at my age, are doing more socially acceptable, “Significant” things with their lives, did I start to get the itch.
So what constitutes this “real life” cliché that seems to dictate so many of our life choices? Why am I intimidated by my friends’ updates of landing their first substantial jobs or photos of their ring finger with a flashy new accessory to indicate that they’ve finally settled down? Out here, in the land of endless sun and beaches and good beer and mediocre wages, it seems as if “real life” is measured by how much you enjoy the subtleties of the everyday instead of fretting about the tomorrow. Here in Israel, where time moves a little slower and my most significant choice of the day is whether I’d like a small or medium cup of coffee, life is the stuff that, for right now at least, happens outside of work, school, and obligations.
The issue here is that our starting points are drastically different. While the average seventeen-year-old American is pushed straight into the world of academics – and subsequently spends their first year alternating between freedom-induced overindulgence and degeneracy – the average Israeli dons a uniform and enlists in the army. By the time that same American graduates from college with a crumpled degree and a swimming pool of debt, their Israeli counterpart had served three years in the service, embarked on the obligatory post-discharge world tour and managed to settle into a comfortable bartending job whilst trying to scruple some form of normalcy. For some reason, let’s call it fear, the average American feels compelled to make the distinction between childhood and adulthood – God forbid they become mere drifters of the space between. Here, that sort of thing just doesn’t seem to bother us. At least not now, not when that stage of our lives was essentially taken out of our control the moment a gun was thrust into our hands.
This pressure to do something, to rapidly make something of oneself in the professional world is by no means independent to the United States. After a recent visit to Hong Kong, in which I spent my days coming to bombastic conclusions about my future (I’ll go to Law School! I’ll write a novel! I’ll get a PhD before my twenty fifth birthday!) and my nights drinking them all away, I realized how addictive this whole pressure cooker is. Of course we all want to get ahead of the next Joe; naturally we want to be able to update our friends with the most impressive anecdotes and have the most glamorous prospects for our futures. Sitting amongst up-and-coming economists and business buffs and pre-millionaires, I felt embarrassed to admit I was still in school, studying for an English degree nonetheless, with no tangible plan for the upcoming year. But when I arrived back in Tel Aviv and started spouting out my potential future to the quasi-enthusiastic audience of my friends, I was met with a few rolls of the eye and an insinuating glass of whisky pushed towards my direction.
What makes life here so different than in New York or Hong Kong? I am not suggesting that we are stuck in some heat-induced lethargy that retracts us from the obvious trajectory of society’s plan. Nor are we less ambitious or less inclined towards financial success. There is, however, a general feeling of complacency that allows us twenty-somethings, even thirty-somethings, to be satisfied and content with the simplicity of day-to-day life rather than allow fear of stagnancy and unproductivity to dictate our existence. Allowing myself to entertain the psychoanalytical perspective of the issue, I could say that the reason we are so intent on today is because we do not live in a country where tomorrow is guaranteed. There exists a subconscious awareness that life may be fleeting, and not in the way that the average American fears drunk drivers or freak accidents. Here, the precariousness of the political situation makes it an inseparable aspect of the decision-making process for the future. While people oversees are racing blindly through life, with only the light of the future to shine their way, people in Israel are strolling, smelling the roses, allowing that same light to merely present a general direction rather than blind out the surrounding view.
A recent conversation with a friend of mine in America studying Law reinforced this fear, as she lamented: “I didn’t get a single internship this year. I’m going to be stuck at home all summer doing yoga, reading books, drinking wine and having long conversations amidst the fragrant flowers of my backyard….I’m doomed!”. Why, in this unpredictable age of our lives, must we be in so much of a hurry to get wherever we are going to end up anyway? Why do I feel guilty for making time to read and travel rather than beg various ungrateful companies to allow me to work my ass off for free, just for the sake of a cushioned resume? And for what? A corner cubicle and 9 -5 job that will ultimately detract from the freedom that I love about my life in the first place?
I jest, but I am part of this same asinine process. I, too, whoop with glee at being giving the opportunity to write for free. I, too, admit to being a victim of padding the ‘special skills’ section of my resume with “Can read and write Japanese” because I can sometimes recognize an arbitrary character on the packet of my Miso soup paste. But that’s precisely my problem: I’m trapped between my Israeli-ness and my American-ness, each a tiny voice in my ear telling me I’m both ahead and behind.