I’m afraid I don’t know

Things I Didn't Say

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“Excuse me, miss?” 

I turned to see a man leaning out of his car window as he slowed next to me.

“Do you know how I can get to this place?” He pulled a worn piece of paper from his wallet with an address scribbled on it, the street name one I vaguely recognized. Before thinking, I blurted a series of directions toward where I thought he should go.

“Just go straight until you have to turn left, then turn right on the next street and another left.”

I immediately felt sorry that of all the people he could have stopped, he had asked the most directionally-challenged person. He thanked me and drove off to who knows where, leaving me with the regret that I’d probably led him to some dead-end corner of nowhere. In my attempt to be helpful to him, I’d actually made his life a little harder. The genuinely helpful thing I should’ve done was admit that I didn’t know. 

But I was embarrassed that I am so unfamiliar with the city I live in, afraid of making a fool of myself and partially thought I could be pointing him in the right direction. If this moment and my response to it were to be applied to my life, replying with “I’m afraid I don’t know” would have been a greater confession than I was willing to give. I would have been admitting that most of the time, I’m terrified that I might actually have no idea what’s going on. 

Giving strangers random routes is just one way in which this fear permeates almost every area of my life. There’s school, for one. Most UC Berkeley students are all too familiar with the term impostor syndrome, and I’m certainly not exempt from its grasp. Since day one of entering college, classes and their professors have done a very thorough job of humbling me. A huge part of that humbling comes from the fact that it always seems like everyone else knows what they’re doing. All my friends don’t look like they’re struggling as much as I am; they have that internship lined up for the summer and a LinkedIn profile that would make my mama proud. They’ve got it all figured out. Me, on the other hand … I’ve got two week’s worth of lectures to catch up on and a headshot that was taken three years ago. 

When it comes down to it, there’s a growing sense of existential dread that roots the branches of impostor syndrome’s reach; a burgeoning realization that I’m supposed to know the general direction my life is heading toward but having zero clue; looking around at everyone else moving and pushing forward while I stubbornly plant my feet, desperately trying to retain my youth; before cover letters and discrete mathematics, when I wasn’t tortured by the complexities of relationships and had trust in people’s ongoing kindness. 

Yet, I feel just as unprepared for life as I did back when my biggest problem was choosing between eggos or pancakes for breakfast; as uninformed about my future as I was when my greatest dream was to scan grocery items for a living. I’m not a kid anymore, but I feel just as disoriented and afraid as I did when I was — like I’m still running through Costco aisles looking for my mom.

But most wouldn’t know that’s how I feel when I keep the voice that screams “I’m lost!” inside. I accompany my answer to the question, “How are classes going?” with a smile. I shrug and laugh when people comment that they admire the fact that I make time to do things I enjoy, when what they’re really seeing is my anxious avoidance of actual work. I have ready points of guidance for my friends’ problems based on personal experiences I barely understand for myself. If I’m being honest, beneath the mask of self-assurance, I’m afraid I don’t know.

But I can’t let myself sit in the confusion. The reason I compare my life to an ongoing story is because of a deep desire to understand it all and find truth in the mayhem. I think that’s the reason behind my sentiment that I should “romanticize my life.” Looking at everything through a metaphoric lens allows me to capture it all within a narrower frame — one that’s easier to digest and given specific intention. There’s a reason for each scene which contributes to a timeline that has an end. Popular media is incredibly attractive for that reason: There’s a resolution and clear answer to the questions that will satisfy the audience. It’s a stark contrast — and therefore an effective escape — from life’s loose ends. I wish it worked the way it does in the movies: Within an hour and a half that a problem arises, I’d have the solution. Except it doesn’t, and unlike a romance, the reason for life’s conflicts remains a mystery.

Still, even when the episodes are long, the transitions choppy, the storyline nonsensical … Even when the love interest ghosts, when the dialogue dies and the plot doesn’t thicken, there’s that brief second when you turn to glance at the person next to you, who looks back at you with confusion in their eyes. And without having to say anything, you both return your gazes to the screen knowing at least you’re not the only one who’s lost.

We watch and we wait — because it’s not yet the end.

Elise Kim writes the Wednesday column exploring the power in things unsaid. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.