I recently marked the fifth anniversary of my arrival in Toronto. Naturally, this means I’ve been doing a fair bit of reflecting on this time in my life. If I’m honest, the whole experience has been a mixed bag. When I commented on the anniversary on Facebook, I referred to the past five years as “strange, confounding, frustrating, heartbreaking, hopeful, healing, and integrating.” And a few days later, that still sounds as good a descriptor as I can find for it.
What I’ve noticed, and what I’d like to think through here, is that how I feel about this experience changes quite dramatically depending on the question I’m asked or ask myself.
For example, probably the worst question is ‘Would you do it again knowing then what you know now?’ This is a really unhelpful question. First of all, it’s counterfactual — I couldn’t have known then what I know now so it’s irrelevant — and secondly, it’s past oriented, focusing on where I was at and who I was then rather than on who I am now. The fact is, the answer would probably be ‘no’. If I had seen what the next five years would look like, I’d almost certainly have been too afraid to take that huge step of faith to leave a stable job and whole life behind and to start all over in a huge city across the country.
Asking ‘Has it been a success?’ is similarly fraught. This question focuses my attention on outcomes. And, if I judge my move on my hoped for outcomes, I can’t say it’s been ‘successful’. None of the reasons or goals I had in mind five years ago have come to pass. But it really isn’t fair to judge decisions based on outcomes, since outcomes are largely out of our control. A positive outcome requires synergy and grace. We put in our part but God / the universe / other people / opportunity / chance need to put in their part too. As much as I may wish the outcomes were different — and they still might be; opportunity can strike at any time! — I can only control who and how I am in relation to my circumstances and my life.
A related question, ‘Was it worth it?’, is slightly better. My initial instinct when I hear this question is to answer it like the previous one, but it doesn’t stay there. This is because, irrespective of whether the desired outcomes have come to pass, they aren’t the whole story when it comes to the question of value. They were how I justified the move to myself and others, but they were never my motivation. What I mean is that while it’s true that I moved with hopes of such things as finding more engaging work, having a deeper dating pool, and engaging more deeply with my creativity and love of the arts, I really moved a) because it was hard to build the life I wanted in a city where the streets were haunted by bad memories of a traumatic season in my life, and b) because I needed to prove to myself that I could take risks and count on myself to deal with the consequences. And with these motivations in mind, then I can honestly say that, yes, the move was worth it. No matter what else I may say or think about myself, I can honestly say that I am a person who has taken risks to build the life I want and feel called to live. And that feels really wonderful. On the flip side, I’d have probably lost a lot of respect for myself had I decided to stay in Victoria; that decision probably would have reinforced other narratives about being weak, fearful, and timid. It’s sort of the old truth come to life: If you take a chance, you may or may not get what you want; but if you don’t, you never will.
The question that provokes the most positive response is ‘What have you learned?’ Here, I immediately think about all the lessons I’ve either learned or learned to apply: about my strength and resiliency, about dealing with anxious or depressive feelings and thoughts, about harnessing my personality and strengths to build up my weaker areas and take greater agency over my life. This question makes me feel proud of myself and what I’ve accomplished, it makes me feel closer to my ‘best self’ and to the man I feel called to become and created to be.
But while this question elicits the most favorable feelings, it also feels a bit disingenuous, a bit too Pollyanna.
And so, it seems the most useful and beneficial question — the question that seems to do the most justice to my full experience — is simply ‘How do you feel about it?’ And this gets me back to what I said in my Facebook post. The past five years have been “strange, confounding, frustrating, heartbreaking, hopeful, healing, and integrating.” It’s the best answer I can come up with because it’s the most real, the most true. It includes and integrates the most of my experiences, while leaving the least amount behind, even if some of those things it includes and integrates are things I’d preferred not to have experienced.
So what is my point in writing all this?
It is simply to say that the questions we ask ourselves and others are important. And maybe if we are unhappy with the answers we’re giving about our life, maybe the problem isn’t with the answer or with our life, but with the question we’re answering.