“Some beautiful paths can’t be discovered without getting lost.” –Erol Ozan
I was talking with a friend last week—she’s about my age–and out of nowhere, she dropped this bomb on me: “I’ve come into a little bit of money, and I am thinking I might retire.” She said she would like to relax, travel, volunteer–all of that stuff that we all say we are going to do when we retire. You know: unstructured and unobligated living. The dream. Well, my dream anyway. To me, it sounds like everything I have always wanted: casual, fluid, free. The only problem: none of that sounds like her!
In other conversations, she has shared with me how difficult the first months of the pandemic were on her, as that was the time when she was not able to go into her work and have that structure, schedule, and task list that her tightly-wound personality requires. It was a mental health struggle to be without her job (not the income part). After reiterating that fundamental aspect of her personality to me numerous times in recent months, you can imagine my surprise the other day she when totally flipped the script with the announcement of a possible retirement. WHAT?!?!? I was flabbergasted. A reasonable guess would have been that she was clinging for dear life to the normalcy and regularity of her career in these wildly uncertain times. Nope! Just the opposite. After explaining herself, she at least showed her self-awareness by asserting that with all of the stressors that our whole society has been flooded with this year—coronavirus, George Floyd, Donald Trump, etc.—she probably has no business making any major Life decisions at this point.
That counterpoint flashed me back to last Autumn, a conversation I had with my niece. She is a freshman in college, and she was by that point a few months into it and feeling very unsure as to whether her chosen school was really the right place for her. Not sure about the people, the vibe of the campus, all of that stuff that is crucial at that transformative age that so many of us recall as a life-defining year on our journey of self-discovery. I remember saying to her, “This is going to come as no comfort to you, but I think you may not get to have an answer to that question this year. You may go through the whole school year isolated in your dorm room and at socially distanced meals, not going to the parties and club meetings and lecture halls that all of the other college freshmen in the history of college campuses have used to find their crowd and their niche. You may have to wait a whole year until you can start a “normal year,” using your second year of college to learn what everyone else in history has learned in their first year. But if it’s any consolation, all of the other freshmen in the world are stuck in this same Purgatory. How can you know if a place is right for you if you are not able to experience it as it usually is?” I’m sorry to say it, but you may just not get to decide anything big this year.”
I mentioned that conversation to my friend the other day when she was questioning the sanity of her sudden desire to retire. We both agreed that the crazy extremes of circumstances and emotions this year have left us feeling like our minds are on shaky ground and thus we ought to be suspicious of any major, Life-altering inclinations that flash through them. It has become difficult to trust our impulses, knowing that everything this year has been “unprecedented”—a word used more often this year than any other—and therefore “not normal.”
We have good reason to think that when we return to that normal—please tell me it is soon—that our inclinations and tastes will probably be more like they were before. Our current desires to overhaul our lives and the world around us will go from a boil to a simmer, maybe even to a cool. We will almost certainly go back to the same old, same old. Our minds and passions will go back on autopilot and cruise control. We will quickly shush those inner voices that suggest we shake it all up, whether that shake-up is a new job, a retirement, a new health care system, or a new way of policing our cities. Big ideas will be replaced by small ones again. Progress, if any, will be by baby steps again. You remember, the usual. These impulses—whether personal or societal–that have been allowed oxygen during these “unprecedented times” will crawl back under the rock they emerged from. If you just ignore them for a little while longer, you will get to that spot where you won’t have to be so suspicious of your inclinations. You will be safe and boring and uninspired again. We all will.
But should we ignore them?
What if the lockdowns resulting from the coronavirus pandemic made it crystal clear to you how little time you had actually been spending with your family and how important that time is, making you want to dramatically shift your schedule and perhaps your career path? What if the economic crisis made you aware of how thoroughly unfulfilling your luxury car or jewelry or fancy whatever is, making you want to sell off some things and simplify, giving more of your wealth to causes that you now see truly need it. What if the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor stories sparked a sudden realization of your privilege in this inequitable world, stirring up an activist streak in you that you had no idea existed? What if the Capitol insurrection of January 6th and the exposure of the lies about the election fraud made you wake up to the reality of the damage your political beliefs have been doing in the real world for years, causing you to re-think not only your use of social media and usual news sources but also your political party? What if all of these cascading crises have actually made things not more fuzzy for you, but more clear? What if it took all of this to reveal your true values and priorities?
Maybe we haven’t had our foundation shaken but rather just had the artifice scraped off. Maybe it took all of this drama and uncertainty to make clear who we really are inside and what we want our lives to be truly about. Maybe all of these “out of nowhere” impulses to change ourselves and our world aren’t really so out of nowhere. Maybe they have been at our core, our foundation, the entire time, just covered up or blurred by all of the other superficial stuff that we thought we should be doing or the speed at which we’ve been going to try to keep up with all of our commitments. Isn’t there some quote–or at least a meme–about how life is not about finding yourself so much as it is about uncovering who you always were? Well, that is what I am getting at. It’s just so easy to get swept along by “normal life,” with all its busy-ness, and become numb to the signs from our soul about what is truly important to us and what resonates deep in our being. The panic of a global health scare, the guilt and grief of knowing a loved one is dying alone in a hospital, or the graphic video of one man calmly kneeling on another man’s neck as the life force slowly goes out of him—these things have the power to shake us to a different level and perhaps expose our Truths in a way that we can no longer deny. Trauma breeds uncertainty, no doubt, but maybe it also breeds clarity.
So, how do we tell which is which? How do we know if that newfound impulse to switch careers or run for City Council or lead a protest march or have a baby or get a divorce or buy a bookmobile or join the Peace Corps or get a dog–how do we know if these are the insecurity of a totally shaken core talking, and how do we know if they are a finally revealed core talking? Is there a different sound they make—a resonance—we can listen for to know if this is the thing to reject due to the extremity of the year rather than attend to because it is the revelation of our essence? How does one feel compared to the other?
Honestly, I don’t know. That is why I journal every day: to try to flesh it out. I fill up my pages with the rolling of ideas around in my head, taking them from different angles, ascertaining whether and how the impulse evolves over time, questioning my motivations and scouring my psyche for insecurities or unsatisfied longings. I attempt to look at myself in the mirror as clear-eyed as I possibly can, hoping to decipher which of these new impulses is an imposter out for a persuasive but fleeting flight of fancy, and which is my Truth revealing itself in a way that my eyes can finally see.
I think my friend is right to be suspicious of her motives for her recent, dramatic shift in outlook on her career. Not even necessarily the motives themselves—they should be mined for lessons for their own sake—but the sustainability of her motives. Will they keep when her job goes back to the normal that she loved for so many years? Maybe not. I am guessing most of our impulses and temptations from this year will not. Most, but not all. Truths have been revealed to us; I am sure of that. Whether or not we will do a good job of combing through the lot to dismiss the pretenders and find that priceless gem—or whether we even allow ourselves the courage to entertain the new ideas and inspirations at all—is a different matter. I happen believe in the power of those impulses; I think they are messages from our deeper levels. There is Magic in there. Sure, it must be sorted through, but true Magic is worth the labor. That is where the marrow of Life is. It is why, when my friend was verbally dismissing her retirement idea with, “Of course, now is the absolute worst time to be making any sort of meaningful Life decision,” I replied with, “Or maybe it’s the perfect time… .” Maybe. I am here to find out.
How about you? Do you trust yourself to make an important Life change at a time of multiple societal crises and a swirl of heavy emotions inside you? Open up your journal and try to get a sense of how steady your current grounding is to your True North? Generally speaking, how has your mental health been in recent months compared to other points in your life when things were more “normal”? How much more grief, anxiety, and sadness have you been dealing with this year? Have you found your mind feeling more foggy, your senses dulled, or your motivation lacking? Have you enjoyed things as much as you usually do, or are you one of the many experiencing anhedonia, the loss of the ability to feel pleasure? Do you like your job as well this year as you have in other years? Are you as engaged in your work and as fulfilled by your tasks? With all of that considered, how confident are you in your ability to make the wisest decisions on major Life issues this year (e.g. career or location change, family changes like having a child or getting a divorce)? How much more or less confident is that than you are in “normal” times—i.e., any time before 2020? Have you had to make some big decisions anyway, whether you wanted to or not? If so, how has it worked out so far? What fresh impulses or ideas have you had in the last year around bigger changes to your lifestyle? In what area have they popped up most frequently or strongly? Career path? Family life? Health of your lifestyle? Politics? Spirituality? Relationships? How have these inclinations and impulses been different than what you have felt in other, more stable times in your life? How do you interpret their meaning? Do you tend to take these new tastes or ideas seriously and follow through on them, or are you more skeptical of any big idea you have during these unprecedented times? Which new changes have you made? Which ideas did you disregard? Which ones will you keep on your radar until Life settles down a bit and returns to normalcy? What is the biggest, game-changing decision you have made in the last year? How has it worked out? Would you have made the same decision in normal times? Has all of this crisis, change, and chaos served to make your values and priorities more clear to you? How will this period change your Life in the long run? Will you be better for it, or will you carry the mental and emotional scars and be weighed down by them? If someone came to you now who has struggled emotionally through this period and announces a major Life-changing decision, would you caution them against making such a big move given the circumstances—essentially telling them to wait it out until it is easier to be clear-headed–or are you inclined to think that these times are good for clarifying priorities and are thus a great time to make a big change? Is your opinion on this different for yourself than it is for the general public? Leave me a reply and let me know: Is this age of cascading crises the absolute worst time to make a big Life decision, or is it the best?
Take care of yourself,
P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it. Together we can get through anything!
P.P.S. If this way of self-reflection suits you, consider buying my book, Journal Of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth, at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.