How Brushing My Teeth Led to an Existential Crisis

In Essays, Travel by Sally2 Comments

brushing-teeth-existential-crisis

Recently I came across a post from the legendary travel blog, Twenty-Something Travel, referencing the perpetual topic on every “Live a Life of Travel” blog everywhere: the “real world” sucks and traveling is the best way to experience life. Clearly I’m a member of that tribe, but I think it’s important to approach this discussion in real and unbiased way.

Before I start, let me say that I love being an American, and I love my family. I don’t love the rote, and the prospect of life pretty much being the same after graduating college:

Get a job. Get a place to live. Go to work. Get a better job. Get a better place to live. Go to work. Start a family at some point. And buy plenty of stuff along the way.

Even before entering the workforce, I knew I didn’t want to set myself up for a stable career that enabled that lifestyle. I got a taste of travel at the age of 16. In college I was an International Affairs major, then an Anthropology and Linguistics major… meaning, I like foreign things. Food, languages, people, and places. College graduation just gave my circumstances a bit more urgency.

After college, I got a job anyway. It wasn’t anything related to my major, but it was a sweet deal and probably the best I could do to escape corporate America while still being solidly above minimum wage. Thanks, guys!

Unfortunately, everything did start to feel the same. Like in Fight Club, where insomnia made everything “feel like a copy of a copy, of a copy.”

A Copy of a Copy, of a Copy

The feelings of oppressive monotony were the worst at home, surprisingly. Loading up the dish washer another time, I would get a halting, dejavu feeling- only I knew exactly when I’d last done the dishes. Almost everyday for the past 2 years.

Getting ready for bed, brushing and flossing, taking care of my skin, was the worst.

Because this ritual was always at the end of each day, it was a like a checkpoint between one day and the next, and a clear view of the monotony of my life. As I unwound from one day at the office, the gym, my couch, I prepared for the next, which I knew, if it was anything like the previous streak of days of my life, would be almost exactly the same.

The only thing that felt solid was the last time I’d stood there- doing the same thing. The unceremonious end to one weekday was just a prepping ritual for the next.

The unceremonious end to one weekday was just a prepping ritual for the next.
All of this begged the question: were my feelings justified or was I being dramatic, or worse- spoiled? I was only 25, yet already adult life seemed like a never-ending exercise in repeating the same tasks. Boredom settled in immediately, but guilt had also crept along. I felt guilty for not appreciating what I had, the comfortable and sustainable life I had made for myself, and that my family had invariably helped me to make.

Still, I passively calculated how many days there might be in my life. How many days like these? I imagined myself, twenty years older, having the same kind of days. Loading up another dish washer, getting ready to wake up and go to work at another job.


Time flies when you’re an adult. And no, that doesn’t make being an adult fun. Days turn into weeks. Weeks turn into months. I reached a stage where I was no longer surprised that an entire season had passed, and looked on with apathy at the next point in time in which an entire year would have passed by again.

Even with a goal to travel set firmly in place and activities to occupy my mind, I watched, emotionally detached, as days ticked by. It became a sick pleasure of mine to goad my other coworkers whenever they made similar complaints.

Even with a goal to travel set firmly in place and activities to occupy my mind, I watched, emotionally detached, as days ticked by.

“The days are just going by so quickly. I can’t believe it’s already Tuesday.”

“Tomorrow it will be the weekend. And then tomorrow will be Monday. And then Monday again. And then it will be summer…” I smirked from my desk, not bothering to look up. Their pained looks of realization, not just at how monotonous it was for everybody, but at how gleefully pessimistic I was about the whole thing, drove me on.

And I know what people will say. I understand the criticisms here. Yes. Life is incredibly repetitive, but you find joy and fulfillment in the moments outside of those things. Some with a sense of humor might say, gross, don’t you brush and floss when you travel?

“I hate Mondays.”

It is remarkable to me how quickly I settled into normal life after college. I went to my job every day, and gradually, but oh so quickly, became complacent and middle aged.

Hating Mondays. It wasn’t until I started my working, adult life that I really grasped the true meaning of the hatred. Two days off of work to do as you please- presumably, avoiding anything work-related as much as possible- makes the first day back to work a shock.

Gradually, I became totally resigned not just to the quick passage of time, but the sullen acceptance of inevitability that came from my completely routine, rote existence.

Without control of your life, without firm direction, time simply soldiers on, and everything that happens feels cruelly inevitable.
Without control of your life, without firm direction, time simply soldiers on, and everything that happens feels cruelly inevitable. The opposite of fate- because at heart, you’re dissatisfied with the way things are.

One of the interns at my office set her email signature to the quote “One day your life will flash before your eyes. Make sure it’s worth watching.” I’m sure she was mostly unaware to how we felt as full-timers, but still, it’s a quote with a lot of urgency. I had always struggled with depression, but this intense pessimism and hatred of the mundane was something else entirely, and I knew I owed myself better than this.

Staving off the Blues

I kept my backpacking hobby close. It was freeing, inexpensive, and something I genuinely enjoyed doing for many reasons. Checking my inbox Monday morning after a weekend spent backing through the woods felt like a sack of bricks had been dropped onto my chest.

Still, if it weren’t for backpacking, I’m not sure how I would have spent a lot of weekends- going out and spending money, most likely- and I certainly wouldn’t have had reasons to start this blog.

Later on I took up kickboxing, as a unique and free perk from my job. Free kickboxing classes turned into paid kickboxing classes at a gym closer to me, and extra effort into keeping my cardio in ship-shape so I could go longer and harder during weekend backpacking trips. Months of kickboxing turned into months of CrossFit, which is now my current obsession.

It’s not a cure all, but setting tough fitness goals for yourself is a motivation with a lot of perks, and it becomes a time-consuming part of your life. If you need to consume time, that is…

What it All Comes Down to

There are many people at my job who enjoy their work. They don’t mind doing what they do all day long, and I have to say, are much more well-adjusted than me in that they’re able to stand outside of it, realize their job is a means to an end, and focus on enjoying the time in between.

One of my professors in college, during my last semester when my existential neediness was at its peak, was reluctant to answer the “What should I do?” questions I had been asking. She beat around the bush like a United States Senator, but did offer me this slow-sinking nugget, “What you’ll like to do is more about a task than it is about the content.”

Well, I obviously wasn’t enjoying the tasks of my everyday life. But there are people that do, and live happy lives as members of the American middle class. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t many others that don’t. They may not realize it, and perhaps don’t know that there is any other way. It’s not as if we’re shown different ways of life in America, and I would say that it’s one of our biggest faults as a nation.

you can’t deny that the ebb and flow of our society and economy pushes individuals into a hamster wheel.
Things are changing, but on the whole, mainstream American life is a rat race. Whether you enjoy your life in it or not is one thing, but you can’t deny that the ebb and flow of our society and economy pushes individuals into a hamster wheel. It’s completely understandable to hate it if you do, and to try your hardest to get out. But bashing it is like being the vitriolic atheist at the party- you may be logically correct, but you make people uncomfortable, and lose a lot of potential friends.

No one likes that guy who thinks he’s a more evolved life form than everyone else. And more importantly, no one listens after a while.

Whether you travel the world, travel some, or never leave your home town, it’s important to be satisfied with where you are in life. I think the concept of being happy has been so popularized and commoditized that it’s become both over-intellectualized, trite and meaningless. So instead, strive to be satisfied with your life and your choices.

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Comments

  1. Steph

    Hey! First of all thanks for calling my blog “legendary.” Kind of made my day!
    Second of all, i think you bring up some interesting points. It’s funny, I wrote that post you mentioned over 4 years ago, and while my circumstances have changed pretty drastically since then, the main sentiment is still true. Everybody’s version of happiness looks different, which is something that even travel bloggers forget sometimes. I felt that resistance a little bit just this year when I transitioned back from being a nomadic expat to having a fixed home back in the US. I think it’s really important for everyone to find their own version of happiness, whatever that entails, and not to judge others for their lifestyle choices.

    1. Author
      Sally

      Steph! Thanks so much for stopping by and reading my post. And yes- Twenty-Something Travel is definitely legendary! It’s been a huge help and inspiration to me for traveling full time and starting my own travel blog. Keep it up 🙂

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