19 Jun 2012, Posted by elizabeth in Blog, 6 Comments.
As some of you know, I used to co-author a blog with my friend, Anne. It was called Life in Pencil, and we wrote about life’s only constant – change – and our everyday attempts to live fluidly (or “in pencil,” if you will). Anne was at her own crossroads, but for me, the project was born on the heels of a trip I took around the world, spanning fifteen countries and five continents over the course of eight months. Although I went in search of adventure and a hope of finding my deeper life’s purpose, during the course of the trip I often found myself, rather unexpectedly, simply longing to be at home. The trip did not turned out as I had planned (or at least I didn’t return the same person I thought I would return as), and I wanted to write about my struggles to come to terms with the unpredicted path my life had taken. I really wasn’t sure what I should be aiming for, personally or professionally, and I was genuinely plagued by a constant mental tug-of-war, wondering if I should be striving for more or somehow grow more deeply into the life that I already had (but how?).
Last week I was skimming through some old posts that I had written for Life in Pencil, and I was struck by how clear my voice was. Sure, I was constantly stumbling in the dark, and expressing that stumbling imperfectly, but the struggle was made manifest on the page. My writing had a distinct perspective, something I’ve grappled with the past year. I often feel as if I’m speaking from a voice that is a facsimile of my own, that I am struggling to articulate myself and dig at the heart of my deepest preoccupations. (I suspect that this is due, in part, to the fact that I am struggling to find my voice not just as a writer but as a human being.)
As I was reviewing these old posts, one in particular, that I had zero recollection of ever writing, stood out:
I’ll never forget the year I graduated from college, when well-meaning people began peppering me with the inevitable question that strikes fear in the heart of every senior. “What are you going to do when you graduate?” The fact was, other than a vague notion that I might move to New York and try to be an actor – with no concrete plan as to how to achieve that goal — I was clueless. My life had always fallen along neat timelines, and while my peers would have undoubtedly described me as “goal-oriented,” the fact was that, other than an ability to put one foot in front of the other, I didn’t have any goals. I suddenly realized that the only item on life’s to-do list was “graduate from college,” which I was about to cross off. Now what?
Since that uncertain spring ten years ago, my life has taken me down roads I never could have imagined for myself. I owe part of the adventure to the fact that I’ve never clutched the traditional to-do list, with predetermined milestones to meet at specified times. In fact, I don’t know if I ever had a life’s to-do list so much as a life’s to-don’t list. I was never interested in setting goals to get married, have children, buy a house, and establish a successful career (while most of these things have inadvertently happened to me – isn’t that always the way? – they certainly didn’t fall along any self-imposed timelines or according to a plan). While I was comfortable expressing what I didn’t want for my life, I struggled to place any goals on that to-do list. Looking back, though, it’s clear that I was living my life according to a to-do list – in fact, it happens to be a version of the same one I clutch in my hands today. It looks something like this:
- Find spiritual enlightenment
- Solidify my identity
- Lead an interesting and exciting life full of mystery and adventure
- Pursue a career that is the deepest reflection of my soul
- Figure out my purpose on this earth
Many of our readers have expressed frustration at not knowing what to do or how to proceed when you’ve checked off the major items on your to-do list. But what do you do when you will never experience the satisfaction of crossing any of the items off your to-do list? It took me a lot of years to understand that I did have goals – they just happened to be lifelong projects that are so esoteric and abstract that I will never have a chance to complete any of them. If I could boil down this list into one goal, it would be, “Learn to be human.” Because each of these goals is some version of learning to be a fuller, more complete being, a task that won’t be completed until the day I die. Fantastic, huh?
I struggle with foolishly waiting to arrive at “that place;” the location where the puzzle pieces finally fall perfectly into position and I am fully transformed. I read somewhere once that you should only set goals that are achievable, attainable, and quantifiable; that large goals should be broken down into smaller “action items.” While this isn’t really my style, I concede that having such mammoth, nebulous items on my life to-do list isn’t really helping me towards my ultimate goal of learning to live contentedly in the now as a fuller human being. In other words, to live my life in pencil.
Reading these words felt a bit like having an out-of-body experience, as if I was greeting an alternate version of myself that had stepped into the light from the recesses of the shadows. I was so utterly absorbed in the recognition that I could have written these same words yesterday — or a lifetime ago — that I almost forgot I was reading a piece I had written two and a half years ago. I’m not as preoccupied with that life of adventure and mystery or finding the “perfect” career – I’ve let a lot of that go in the past few years – but the rest of it? At the seat of my soul lies a deep concern with learning to be a more complete human being, one who struggles daily to figure out just how to do that. And perhaps that struggle is my voice. Maybe, like my friend, Lindsey, often says, we simply keep circling around the same themes and obsessions over and over again, each time refining the question, like the journey to the center of the labyrinth.
Twinkling at the edges of this unremembered piece is the beginning of an understanding that has become more pressing and present in the intervening years. In the spaces in between my words I now recognize that I was starting to understand that finding so-called enlightenment and purpose aren’t prerequisites to living a fulfilled life. In fact, those things, if they are to happen at all, are likely to come through the journey itself. For a long time I clung to the belief that I needed to “get myself together,” “figure it all out,” and “work through my shit” before I could go out into the world and start living the life I pined for, although, until last week, I struggled to put that into words.
Last Thursday I opened my current issue of The Sun, which features excerpts from a series of interviews that the magazine conducted with psychologist James Hillman, a man who once said our duty is not to rise above life but to “grow down into it.” Over the past week I’ve read this interview three of four times, each pass feeling something click deeper into place. Hillman talks about finding “a more reverential way of living,” one that treats the everyday happenings and peculiarities of our life as “clues” to discovering our soul’s work and purpose. We need not wait around for “burning bush” epiphanies and moments of transcendence, or to smooth out every gnarled strand of our past to move into the future. Instead, the humble materials of our everyday, present life are the catalyst for transformation. “Where you are is as important as where you came from. What you do every day is as important to the soul, to the revelation of the soul, as what your parents did to you, or what you were like when you were five or ten.”
It hit me like a lightning bolt that I am overcome by an unsettling feeling of déjà vu when I read this old post because I recognize that my life has always followed the same pattern, one that frames becoming more human as a goal, something to achieve that is always just beyond my grasp. And the pattern itself – this preoccupation with the process of becoming a fuller human being – is perhaps the greatest clue of all as to my soul’s work. I’ve never fully allowed myself to live the idea that the journey can begin today, right in my own backyard, and I suppose until I do I’m destined to keep circling back on myself and meeting different versions of myself on my page.
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