The Thing Itself

Rainbow over the Midtown Greenway
Rainbow over the Midtown Greenway

A while ago, in a moment of deep relaxation, I saw in my mind’s eye an image of clouds in a mirror next to the actual sky in which those clouds floated. Looking from one to the other, I became confused as to which was the real, and which the mirror, image. A voice in my head clearly said, “I want the thing itself, not its reflection.”

Sometimes, the voices in our heads are just chatter. Other times, we know they are telling us something important. However, interpreting those voices, and what they say, isn’t always easy. For one, while they are quick to tell us what to do, they are often silent on how to go about doing it. For two, the voices in our heads are capricious, sending us in one direction today and another tomorrow. For three, we don’t always want to do the hard work – or find it difficult to maintain the focus required – to align our lives with the true direction they’ve whispered to our hearts.

“I want the thing itself, not its reflection”. For me, distinguishing between the real and the “looks real” or the “almost real” can be quite difficult. I find that, when I am not making a conscious effort to stay grounded in the specifics of what I want myself and my life to be, I am easily distracted by things that feel good in the moment. This is not, in itself, a bad thing. Enjoying the moment, spending time just being, is wonderful. But we live in a world that constantly works to pull us in directions that lead away from both our heart’s desires – from meaningfulness – and from our life’s purpose. Like a mirage of water in the desert, we move toward the tantalizing sparkle in the distance, only to discover there’s nothing real there at all.

As I thought carefully about the clouds and mirror image I had envisioned, and about the thing itself versus its reflection, three questions came to mind. I think they may be helpful to anyone who, like me, too often finds they’ve lost track of their “thing itself” in favor of chasing after mirages.

What do I want? What is “the thing itself”?

Some people seem to have been born knowing exactly what they want in life. Others discover a passion and move with determination and unwavering focus toward mastery and refinement of that passionate vision. I am not one of those people. Instead, when asked what I want in life, I have a tendency to list airy visions: “I want to live authentically”; “I want to be happy”; “I want to make a difference in the lives around me”. While I do want these things, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting them, they tend to lack specificity.

For a while I worked with a personal coach named Charlynn. Much of our time together was spent drilling down from these airy statements, attempting to reach solid ground. To reach specific, concrete goals for my life. A huge take-away from my work with Charlynn was that I am someone who benefits from having a sounding board, a listening ear AND a direct questioner to pull me out of the clouds and into a more grounded place. If you need this, too, there’s no shame in asking for help.

I heard author Elizabeth Gilbert interviewed on public radio a few months ago. She said she hates when people are told to follow their passion. She said, “What if you aren’t one of the lucky ones who knows what your passion is?” Instead, she advocated that we follow our curiosity. Another author, Claire Cook, in her book Never too Late: Your Roadmap to Reinvention (without getting lost on the way), advocates for picking something and getting started. She believes that the clarification you need will happen as you move forward – but moving forward is the key to refining what it is you want.

In any case, the importance of the question, “What do I want?” isn’t so much in answering it once and for all. Instead, its importance lies in zeroing in on the person you want to be and the life you hope to manifest. If you are getting close to “the thing itself”, you’ll find that your answers don’t vacillate wildly from one thing to another. Instead, you’ll begin to see a steadiness in your responses, with adjustments of degree rather than of content.

What reflections am I settling for?

If you are at all like me, this question is vitally important. If I feel reasonably happy and free from fear, I am willing to coast along from day to day for…sometimes years.

This is only a problem if what you want is something other than being reasonably happy and free from fear. For me, accepting reasonably happy and free from fear has also, at times, meant: not addressing my morbid obesity; remaining too long in a job in which my commitment and hard work were taken for granted but not compensated or reciprocated; living in a community that did not offer the opportunities my heart longed for. It has also meant not facing a deeper fear than for my immediate well-being: the fear of risk.

It is so easy to let inertia take over. And it is sometimes so hard to make yourself do something other than settle for what you currently have. But once you’ve awakened to how different it feels to  have or go for “the thing itself”, as opposed to an approximation or reflection, you know it is worth the effort.

What needs to change or happen in order to get the real instead of the reflected?

This question is the “come to Jesus” moment. Nothing changes without a change in our own behavior. And I don’t have a lot of good advice, for myself or anyone else, on how to align behaviors with goals and create a roadmap for change.

What I do know is that I have to be honest with myself about whether I am really doing things that are moving me toward “the thing itself”. I have a tendency to fudge on that, to make excuses, or, when I finally do get real, to beat myself up for being a lazy bum and NOT taking concrete action. All of that is equally useless. Let it go.

Each day is a new opportunity to take action, to make corrections to your course, to redirect toward the real and away from the mirage. Getting lost in self-recrimination – or self-deceit – just uses valuable energy we could otherwise be directing toward necessary tasks.


Clearly, creating a life in which we achieve that “real” thing our hearts desire, in which we accomplish something meaningful rather than settle for a shiny approximation of meaning, can be a difficult and life-long process. But from the glimpses I’ve had, the moments in my life when I’ve touched “the thing itself”, I can wholeheartedly say it is worth holding myself accountable to get there. To keep reaching beyond the illusion or mirage to grasp something truly valuable. Each of us will define that “thing” differently, which is both the beauty and trickiness of it. It’s the reason no one can tell you exactly how to get there. My hope is that we can, at least, help each other ask the right questions.