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  • Ken Ilgunas


In exactly one month, I will graduate. Soon after, I will leave North Carolina.

I am eager and ready to move onto the next stage of my life—whatever that is—though I must confess that I feel a nagging and overwhelming sense of anxiety about what the future beholds.

A large part of this anxiety results from my precarious financial situation. I have $330 in the bank and—thank god—a $692 tax return coming. That gives me a little over $1,000, plus whatever I get for the van if and when I sell it.

I could care less about having money. Apart from health insurance, I can’t think of one thing I want. What I do care about, though, is my freedom. And an empty bank account will severely curb my freedom, as I’ll either have to depend on others for help or—gasp—get a job.

I am obsessed with freedom. I am a freedom extremist. I’m not trying to sound grandiloquent; I have issues. I can sense the slightest abridgment of my freedom like a princess feeling the impression of a pea under 40 featherbeds and mattresses. I feel it when I’m in romantic relationships. I feel it when I’m given a gift. I feel it when someone holds even the faintest influence over me. And when I feel it, it comes in the form of rage—a heart-thumping roiling rage in the pit of my chest that feels so overpowering I have to talk myself out of rashly fleeing and separating myself from that which controls me.

I’m not in any way bragging about any of this. Frankly, I think of it as a curse—a curse that, for one, inhibits me from maintaining relationships that might otherwise prove beneficial. But this is just the way it is.

Perhaps I feel this way because I’d once felt enslaved by my debt. And if I were to go back into debt or the workforce or reduce my freedom in any way, I would feel like a freed slave who must seek succor from an old master.

This is where my idealism clashes with reality. Without money, I will no longer be able to enjoy the degree of freedom to which I’ve become accustomed these past couple years.

What am I going to do? In all likelihood, I will not get the book deal. I’ve tried freelance writing before, and I’ve never gotten paid more than $150 for a week’s worth of work—so making a living with the pen is simply out of the question.

I could go back into rangering or try teaching—jobs that I find necessary and honorable. Yet I know that—despite the useful social service I’d be providing—I’d feel like, as biographer Alfred Lansing described Ernest Shackleton when he wasn’t in the Antarctic, “a Percheron draft horse harnessed to a child’s wagon cart.”

I feel a terrible need to do grand things—what those “grand things” are, I’m not sure. But I am beset, cursed, plagued by an unreasonable amount of ambition. I’ve been this way since my undergraduate years and I used to think that it would go away after a big trip or adventure; that a road trip or a mountain climb or hitchhike might somehow scratch my itch, calm my nerves, lull my wanderlust, granting me, finally, a peace of mind that would permit me to settle down and enjoy the simple life like any normal person. Yet, this has never been the case. I’m like a soldier who—upon completing his tour of duty—wants nothing more than to go back to the frontlines. In two months, I’ll be 28. When will it stop?

Where can one put these ambitions in this anomalous age—an age where there are no frontiers to settle, no honorable wars to fight, no continents to discover… Many—in my situation—resort to wild, extreme sports, like bungee jumping or sky diving or ice climbing. Yet those seem so sterilized to me—fleeting “rushes” that seem to function like an addict’s “hit.” What I wish for is some purpose or task or crusade to which I can dedicate my life—not just some cheap thrill.

What happens to someone when they have nowhere to put their ambition—does it just go away? Does it dwindle? Does it rot them from the inside out?


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