I’m an old person in a young person’s body. Change exhausts me. I like routine. The simple motions of a school day were always calming to me—the same classes, the same people, the same hours spent in a predictable pattern. I eat dinner at the same time every day and never stay up past 11. When I was in school I preferred scheduled, predictable activities like drama club and choir to on-the-fly, anything-can-happen parties.
When my plans change suddenly, it feels like gears grinding in my brain. Instead of rolling along with my routine, everything in my head seems to jam while I erase everything I had planned for the day—dinner, homework, television—and replace it with my new plans. It doesn’t matter if the new plan is better than the old—having to quickly rebuild my mental schedule almost physically hurts. My brother once made a last-minute decision to visit our parents (who live five hours away) and gave me an hour’s notice to decide if I wanted to go with him, and I burst into tears. (I eventually gave in, which led to a very nice weekend.) I like my family, but I need a couple of days to psych myself up for such a big change.
I know that no matter how hard I try, I can’t prevent things from changing. The school year ends, people move, friendships fade. But I get so attached to the familiar that even positive changes have been difficult for me to accept. Every new school year or college semester meant exciting new classes, but also the absence of my former classes and classmates, which felt unbearably sad. A relative getting married or having a child meant a happy new addition to our family, but also meant that every holiday gathering was now going to be different, so I’d have to mourn the end of an old era and adjust to something new. I even sniffled a little over getting my braces removed (in all fairness, we’d been together for five years).
I kept the same close friends, a core group of five people, all through middle school and into high school. We called each other’s parents Mom and Dad, spoke entirely in inside jokes, and were even writing a series of novels together. After our years of shared memories, I was sure we’d literally be best friends forever. But during sophomore year, one of the girls in our group suddenly backstabbed another without provocation. And just like that, our tight-knit group unraveled. I had no desire to keep the backstabber in my life, but I missed the cohesion and happiness of our former group, and I mourned the loss of the friend she used to be. Now there was tension and bad feelings even when she wasn’t around, and we all knew that the five of us would never willingly be in the same room together again.
My life had been incredibly stable up until this point, which could possibly help explain my neurosis about change. I’d never experienced real loss, trauma, or drama, and so I’d grown to see any change to the status quo as a threat. But now I had a taste of the truth, and it terrified me. If my longest, closet friendships could be broken, then nothing was safe. There was nothing I could count on.
My life went on relatively unchanged (by that I mean full of inner angst but outwardly stable) for the next few years, as the backstabbing friend switched schools and the rest of us kept up our now slightly uneasy friendships, but the coming end of high school meant I had a bigger change to contend with, and my one brush with drama wasn’t enough to teach me how to deal with it.
I really, really hated all the uncertainty involved in the college application process. Picking out schools was kind of fun, but the application process and all the waiting afterwards was not. I just wanted to know where I was going so I could start making a mental map of the rest of my life, and all this waiting was driving me nuts.
Fortunately, I had plenty of time to think of a solution. Every year in high school I’d have at least one period—newspaper or yearbook or what have you—that consisted of about five minutes of work followed by 40 minutes of staring at a computer screen. Minesweeper gets boring after a while, so I developed a habit of choosing some random topic to google near the beginning of the meeting, then spending the next 40 minutes obsessively researching that topic. You can learn a lot when you read up on something for 40 minutes every day. In order of interest, I became an expert on ghost photography, modern paganism, mental illness, and autoimmune disorders (I was apparently setting myself up to become a witch-doctor, which is sadly nothing at all like my current career).
During one of these periods (I think it was a web design workshop) in my senior year, I decided to look up Buddhism. One of the top Google results was a National Geographic article about Buddhist monks and happiness: It was posited that their daily practice of meditation actually trained their brains to feel more satisfied with life. I was really intrigued by the idea that people had found a way to basically think themselves into contentment. I wanted to know more about how Buddhism worked and if it might offer me any cures for the anxiety in my own life.
Turns out happiness involves a lot of reading. There are multiple branches of Buddhism, and each one comes with a lot of homework, in the form of voluminous scriptures. Some, like the popular Mahayana Buddhism, are very mystical, with a belief in godlike beings, various heavens and hells, and countless scriptures. The second-most-popular sect is called Therevada Buddhism. Their “bible,” the Tipitaka, fills an entire bookshelf. There’s a reason Buddhists believe in reincarnation. You just can’t absorb all this in 70 or so years.