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July 25, 2023

The maybe pile

Swipe right for a good life, the end of loneliness, and a sudden effortlessness in everything you do. And a puppy—probably.

Swipe left for unrelenting misery, a repeating cycle of mistakes, and no reason to hope. Constant traffic jams. Wet socks. Faulty wifi.

The stakes lately are sky-high. There is a perfect life, job, partner, school, business idea, therapy style, and exercise routine for all of us. Our daily work has become to gather as much information as we can and then go forward—tremulously—hoping that we’ve made the right decision.

The pressure to choose well is at least partly brought on by the endless amounts of information we have in front of us. Whether we are learning to paint or navigating a pandemic, information has become our latest obsession. If only we could read enough, listen to enough podcasts, follow the right creators, we have a sense of assurance that we are moving through life well-informed and unimpeachable.

This binary way of making decisions in my life feels like something I’ve always operated in. It wasn’t until a conversation with my friend that I realized that my yes-no mentality could have been shaped by, of all things, an app. And not even an app that I use.

As he and I drove up the Malahat to sit by the river, he told me about how Grindr first started, how the founder was just looking for a way to hook up with guys, so he created an app that was so dead simple that it didn’t even require an email login at first. All you had to do was open the app, turn on your location, and start browsing your options from a grid.

Grindr set the stage for Tinder, which hit upon something even more simple: right for yes, left for no.

The swipe template became the standard for virtually every dating app, meaning that a massive cross-section of people all began to online date in a standardized way. We began to adopt this simple strategy for an endlessly complicated purpose: to find someone to have sex with. To find someone to fall in love with. To find someone who looks like a good parent, or sounds like a good conversationalist. It wasn’t a foolproof system, but it proved itself generally effective.

But a binary yes-no when it comes to decision-making rarely captures the whole of something, especially something big. As a queer woman who sometimes calls herself a lesbian but also uses the word gay and occasionally wonders if pansexual fits, I can understand the appeal of making a decision once and for all.

There’s a comforting clarity in knowing what something is and what it isn’t, while ambiguity offers us nothing solid. When we can tell people, and tell ourselves, definitive things about our lives, there’s a sense of control there. We have built our lives, one decision at a time, and we are well-contextualized.

In a therapized world, the practice of leaving doors open to things that don’t feel like a yes or no, but rather one of the million degrees in between, isn’t commendable. Our capitalist world wants us productive, all loose ends neatly tied up.

Take the long weekend but pack your lunch for work on Sunday night. We tell people to move on, to make up their minds, to cut off the things that “aren’t serving them” so they can be as productive as possible—commodified in their experiences and emotions.

We judge people who can’t parcel out their wants, emotions, and conclusions into neat and understandable boxes. In our lives, we are meant to be neat and orderly. Cupboards organized and that box full of stuff from your ex thrown in the dumpster. Neuroses pulled out during counselling and stowed away by the time you get to the grocery store.

We label people as friend, lover, neighbour. We act according to these ideas because it’s easier than touching the connection directly. We don’t have to think too hard about what someone means to us when we have language and clearly outlined ways of interacting. A bad first date means the person gets blocked and thrown definitively into the no pile, cancelling out the possibility that in six months you may have a wonderful second date.

I’m someone who hasn’t felt powerful in her life until recently. The feeling of control in the yes-no was something I could count on. Yes, go back to school for marketing. Yes, leave Winnipeg. No, that apartment isn’t right. But there’s a point where a tool can become the problem. Something about only having a hammer?

I’m no longer a powerless kid and cutting things out of my life is no longer the only option I have. It’s been taking more strength to stay with things, to put them into the maybe pile and let them be there without looking over too often. Yes, it feels good to have the last word, but you know what’s been feeling even better? Knowing that it might not be the last word—that tomorrow is another opportunity for things to unfold in surprising ways.

The maybe pile is where I want to live as much as I can. I’m realizing that I don’t really know anything, and that making final declarations seems stupid on a good day and dangerous on a bad one. There’s freedom here in the maybe pile, which isn’t so much a pile as the flow of green water in a river.

And yes, there are things that belong on either end of the spectrum without a doubt. People who aren’t interested in loving you and jobs that make you cry every week can go in the no pile. People who accept you on your worst, most stubborn days—straight into the yeses.

But so much else is worth leaving it alone and not needing to know what it might mean. Thankfully I have people to remind me of that, who tell me you don’t know what might happen when I tell them about all the things not going the way I want them to.

“Things take time,” my friend said as we drove. “They happen over a longer timeline than we want sometimes. We’re too zoomed in.”

And just like that, not everything is life or death. Suddenly, the idea of being happy isn’t hinging on one perfectly timed decision. It becomes, as it might have been at one point, about figuring it out without expectations, about making a mess and later cleaning it up with a sense of curiosity.

It becomes easier to have compassion for a heart and mind that’s never as static as we would hope, both in ourselves and in other people. And maybe we don’t need all that research after all—at least not the kind you can search up on YouTube—to live life well. Maybe we just need to sit in the river for a while.

This essay was originally published on Monster Girl.

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