I feel like even though I have all the markers of a good life, there’s something missing - either in this city or in myself or in my relationship and I’m panicking because I feel like I’m too old now and everyone around me has figured it out. What if this is if? How do you work with these feelings? How do I figure out what I’m missing?
I used to take a barre class in Lower Manhattan. I had a discounted trial for a month and went to as many as I could, intending to get a six-pack before the end of February. It was a really, really hard class, and I can’t say I enjoyed being in it, but there was something compelling about the intensity and shared language and customs; it was easy to felt like I belonged there after only a week.
However, there was one glaring way that I definitely didn’t belong, as many branded socks as I might have amassed: Every woman in the class—and I mean EVERY woman—had a gigantic diamond rock on her left ring finger. “Oh yes,” my friend jokingly affirmed, “Being engaged is a requirement for a barre membership."
I noticed it during the first warmup, and thought about it a lot through the rest of my trial. Did I accidentally get myself into some kind of Bridal Bootcamp, and do those even still exist (please say no)? As I released any need to solve the question about why everyone who entered the studio appeared to be engaged, I began wondering about the lives of my fellow calf-raisers.
How does it feel, I wondered, to be chosen? How does it feel that somebody selected YOU, above everyone they’ve ever been with or could be with, to be attached to, forever? What did you do to make this happen? Was barre class somehow involved? How did you keep someone’s attention long enough, how did you work through communication snafus, what did you do to be so ceaselessly charming that someone committed his whole life to you? Do you feel amazing every day knowing that someone loves you so much? Do you feel sorry for me? Do you feel like you won?
And then, class was over.
I suppose I was jealous, sort of. After another failed two-week relationship, I came to class wondering what they did that I didn’t do—but out of genuine curiosity, not resentment. I desired what they had, and only in hindsight did I realize how much my desire for their imagined lives had to do with my interest in the class in general. I was surrounded by people who had figured it out, and spending an hour thinking about what that must be like was much better than thinking about how much my thighs hurt. It was something to to focus on, to imagine, to long for.
I inadvertently turned my feelings of inferiority into bewilderment, then curiosity, then longing.
Longing is an incredible force. I swear it kept me motivated through those classes, and it’s also kept me motivated through my greatest life challenges:
When I wanted to be a writer, I was working two jobs that nearly overlapped and still found energy to write in the early mornings and late nights. My longing was so strong that I kept sending out my writing even after dozens of rejections; the wanting always overpowered the fear.
I’ve been asked how I remain un-jaded and optimistic after dating in big cities for many years—having been treated very well and very badly, never knowing which way it’s going to go but relentlessly offering up my heart and hope with both hands. It’s this simple: I long for partnership. It’s something I want. Desire has never failed me, because it comes from the depths of my soul—my truest essence. And when my soul wants something, she’s not going to give up.
When I was recovering from nerve damage and desperate to heal, I made extravagant lists of everything I wanted to accomplish in a day: walk one step, type one word on my keyboard, lift an apple. I might as well have thrown in “go to the moon” because these were such monumental tasks at the time, but the longing kept me going after so many failed attempts. I didn’t recover well only because I wanted it—plenty of people hope to heal from illnesses and still continue to struggle—but the intense desire kept me motivated to try. I knew the minute I stopped wanting it, the moment I gave up, then I would sink into despair—like a shark who stops swimming.
If you want something you don't have, you have an incredible wealth of inspiration and motivation available to you. Could you, perhaps, transform your dissatisfaction into longing?
Have you ever heard of an “I Want” song? It’s a common type of song in musical theatre or Disney movies, usually featured in the first fifteen minutes, to show you what the main character’s motivation is. The character tells you why their current life is unsatisfying, and what they are longing for. Think: “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast, “My Shot” from Hamilton, and “The Wizard and I” from Wicked.
In the “I Want” song, the protagonist—who may be a lowly waitress or lonely bookworm or shunned witch or scrappy misfit—suddenly develops superhuman passion to show us what’s inside of them. We see all their potential, and we know that if they harness that desire, they will do something great. We start rooting for them. We all know how it feels to be dissatisfied and pushed aside; what other life might we dream for ourselves instead? What would our dream world look like? We want to belt it out right along with them.
See also: Most pop songs. Where would music be without wanting something we can’t have? Can I hypothesize that 90% of songs wouldn’t exist? What fun is a song about getting everything you want, unless it speaks of the struggle to get there?
What I’m saying is: Longing is part of the human condition, and it’s something to work with—not against. Could you see your journey as a protagonist with an "I Want" song, and start rooting for yourself? Could you see longing as The Thing missing from your life?
You can kick-start your own longing. By getting a change of scenery (which can happen through going somewhere new or even just listening to a new podcast or committing to a barre trial), we can actually spark desire in us: to learn more, to do something else, to try on a different life.
There are times (many!) when we have to soothe our nervous system; we take in a lot of information all day long and our systems are on high alert. That’s when it’s time for a bath, a chat, a walk. But there are times when we have to challenge our nervous system in order to get inspired by and interested in the world around us. We don’t hunt or gather anymore, and we’re not octopuses content to solve the puzzles we create for ourselves all day, so we have to get a little creative: We need to move around, to discern a cause, to make a new friend, to watch a movie we’d never normally watch, hear a perspective we avoid.
I’m not saying this is necessarily a comfortable feeling. Longing can turn into jealousy and comparison—neither of which are very much fun. But they also can light a fire in our wet minds—minds oversaturated with hours of scrolling and hearing the same old stories.
My trial barre month would be completely unmemorable to me if I hadn’t been longing the entire hour every class. I was like Ariel imagining the world of humans, except I was wanting to be where the engaged people are—ask them some questions and get some answers. What’s a fire and why does it—what’s the word—burn? When’s it my turn? I’m not throwing away my shot. There must be more than this provincial life. Once I meet the proverbial wizard, my whole life will change. Etc.
This longing was motivating. Imagining what my life could be was a thought exercise that kept me entertained for twenty barre classes, and many more hours during lazy afternoons when I built a little world inside my head: visualizing romance, love, which appetizers I’d serve at my wedding reception. Longing kept me curious about life and other’s lives, which was something I didn’t realize I’d been missing for a while before taking that discount trial month at the barre studio.
Instead of focusing on WHAT’S missing, may I suggest: Explore the emotion of missing SOMETHING. This feeling has motivated countless artists, musicians, writers, revolutionaries, community organizers, and disenchanted baristas (like me) who knew life/the world could be better, but weren’t exactly sure how to get there.
Cheryl Strayed wrote, “To get un-stuck, you reach.” Such a simple concept has come to mind many times in my life. When you feel stuck, reach in some direction. It may not be the correct one, but you’ll get unstuck once you start reaching.
Another word for reaching: Longing.
Instead of seeing longing as a byproduct of an unfulfilled life, think of it as a motivator to be more curious about life. Can you be more curious about your city, yourself, your relationship? You may not ever know exactly what you claim to be missing, and that’s fine, because to be human is to be missing something at all times. We actually make it very hard for ourselves to be satisfied because we instinctively don’t like it! As soon as we're content, we scan for evidence that it's not enough, and create a new challenge. That's an inevitable feeling.
So let’s go with this feeling. Instead of thinking that you're a person with a part missing, maybe think of yourself as a whole person who is simply reaching out or up—toward the stars, toward a different life, toward a new type of relationship (which might very well exist in the one you already have).
Think of yourself as the protagonist of your own musical: What’s your “I Want” song? Work on THAT right now, rather than the ending where you get the thing…because the story ends there. This right now is the juicy part—the part you can write poems about, relate to pop songs about.
I didn’t actually want to be engaged like my fellow barre studio devotees. But, through constant curiosity and wonder about their lives, I realize how much it would mean for me to be chosen. Then, I realized this feeling could manifest in so many different ways: through friendship, through work, through—yes—self-esteem and making my life for intentional so as to “choose” myself.
The longing didn’t tell me exactly what I wanted, but it gave me curiosity about what I wanted. It inspired me to identify as someone in progress, as someone who was reaching outward--rather than a broken half-person who was falling behind. Anyone who keeps reaching out can never fall behind. It means you're still in the race, you're going forward.
Reach, long, and want your way through life, and you'll be tickled by what shows up in the process.