Smells like existential panic

My friends took me to a candle-making workshop last weekend. It was, overall, a very serene morning activity, and I only spiralled into a pit of self-doubt once. It began with us huddling around a long table with nine other people, while a charismatic man named Nico told a story about how candlemaking became his raison d’etre. He then asked each of us to introduce ourselves and state what our favourite scent was. My friend was asked to go first, and without hesitation, said that she liked fresh smells, such as cut grass. 

I was next, and I was unprepared. Throughout my life I’ve always felt overwhelmed by any kind of choice, so whenever I’m asked a question like this, I panic. Rather than delay the exercise by weighing up my emotions towards amber and sandalwood in front of an unwilling audience, I decided to come clean and just say that I wasn’t sure what my favourite scent was, but that I hoped I’d find out while I was there. This seemed like a fine response. The exercise moved swiftly on as each person took turns sharing their favourite scent. Words like ‘cotton’, ‘oak’, and ‘vanilla’ were exchanged, and before I knew it, we had come full circle and Nico had moved on.

Just like that, absolutely everybody else could say what their favourite smell was. I was horrified to the point that I almost asked if I could go again and blurt out something like fried onions, just to fit in. I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but this precise conundrum has cropped up time and time again with absolutely every topic, and, quite honestly, I’m starting to worry it’s part of a bigger issue. Who’s my favourite musical artist? What’s my go-to film? Dream holiday destination? I can’t answer any of these questions. A seemingly deep-rooted fear of commitment which I’m sure psychologists could root back to my childhood in some way or another has meant that I’ve never been able to align myself with one particular identity. I envy those who are so self-certain that they can say, with absolute conviction, what their death-row meal would be, or could give me their desert island disc at the drop of a hat. It makes me feel like a floundering, half-formed person who doesn’t have a clue who she is. And if I don’t know who I am, then how am I supposed to know what my purpose is in this world? My raison d’etre? My essential oil to the candle of life?

However, it’s also possible to frame this in a way that is positive. The reality is that I enjoy a lot of things. You could say I don’t want to limit myself. I embrace change. I choose not to ‘put myself in a box’. I’m open-minded. Take your pick – they’re all the sort of things people say to make themselves sound good. Surely, being passionate about certain things can mean having many favourites within that thing. Yes, okay, maybe there is a point in life where we experience something – like a piece of art, or a book, or a song – and suddenly we feel an acute sense of clarity and belonging. A moment in which we recognise ourselves within something separate, in a way that drowns out anything else. Or maybe that just keeps on happening. Hundreds and hundreds of times.

At the end of the workshop, I got no closer to discerning my favourite scent, but I did get a chance to appreciate them all a lot more. The four of us each made a different candle with a unique base – one fresh, one floral, one woody, and one spicy. I’m not sure which note to end on, so I’ll end on all four.


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