When I was in college, I fell in love with the work of writer John Irving. One day, I came home (I lived with my family) from a full day of class and work to find a new, hard-cover copy of Irving’s The World According To Garp laying on my bed. The first page inside bore the inscription, “Jeni: Keep passing the open windows. Love, Dad”.
Dad was referencing another of Irving’s novels, The Hotel New Hampshire. In that novel, the phrase was used repeatedly to reference a suicide by one character, and for the surviving characters to remind themselves and others to avoid the temptation of opting out in the same way. The phrase stuck with me, as I’m sure it has for other readers of the novel, over the years. Occasionally, I have uttered it, sometimes to myself and sometimes to friends, at moments that were particularly stressful or trying.
After last night, I may never use the phrase in that way again.
I came home from a long haul at work, very tired and in need of some inspiration. As I sometimes do, I grabbed a random book off the shelf, and headed to the coffee shop for a hot Americano and some reading. It is an interesting game of trust in providence to put a good, maybe even “the right”, book in my hand when I do this. Almost every time I find something I need to hear or think about in the book I grab.
Last night, the book was Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue. I bought the book new, but have owned it long enough that the pages are yellowed. At some point, I clearly read the first three chapters, as I have underlined and made notations. But last night, perusing the table of contents, I saw a chapter titled, “Work as a Poetics of Growth”. Because my work life, and my professional future, have been so omnipresent lately, this chapter seemed a good place to commence random reading.
Early in the chapter, O’Donohue uses the image of a tower of windows to describe the “complexity of growth within the human soul”. He asks the reader to imagine a tower of windows, and sadly notes that many people remain stuck at one window, always looking at the “same scene in the same way”. He suggests that growth occurs when one draws away from that window, walks around the tower of the soul, and sees all the different windows that are available. We see different possibilities through different windows, “new vistas”. O’Donohue says, “Complacency, habit and blindness often prevent you from feeling your life. So much depends on the frame of vision – the window through which you look.”
With that line, my attention was truly caught. I have often, with sadness and regret, described the decades of my thirties and most of my forties as a period in which I wasn’t feeling my own life. I was stuck at one window, not able to see new perspectives, only the one landscape I felt trapped within.
O’Donohue goes on to say:
“Deep within every life, no matter how dull or ineffectual it may seem from the outside, there is something eternal happening. This is the secret way that change and possibility conspire with growth…Change, therefore, need not be threatening; it can in fact bring our lives to perfection. Perfection is not cold completion. Neither is it avoidance of risk and danger in order to keep the soul pure or the conscience unclouded. When you are faithful to the risk and ambivalence of growth, you are engaging in your life. The soul loves risk; it is only through the door of risk that growth can enter.”
I sat with one line from that paragraph for long minutes, my warm coffee cradled in my hands. “When you are faithful to the risk and ambivalence of growth, you are engaging in your life.” At this time in my life, when I make it to the end of an exhausting day only to wonder what, if anything, I have accomplished, I find this thought very energizing. My life is not perfect, but I AM engaging in it. For me, learning to trust my own inner guidance, to make my own choices regardless of (sometimes completely against!) the advice of well-meaning loved ones, is a new window for me. It isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t perfect. But there is no question, now, of me feeling my own life.
I can look around me at others who are making the choice to engage, as well. A friend who chose one day to move from the window at which he had been standing for years, a window through which he saw only failure and hurt. Choosing new windows, he sees himself accomplishing things he didn’t realize were possible. A colleague who was frustrated and felt used and lied to in her work life, confided in me that she realizes she needs to change her perspective, and that she is actively seeking mentors and role models to help her grow. My dear friends Molly and Kate, who successfully pitched to job-share a position for a women’s leadership nonprofit. None of these individuals have chosen to stay at a window through which they view the world with complacency, habit and blindness. For no one has this choice to be faithful to the risk and ambivalence of growth been easy. There are rough spots aplenty, there are chasms to cross in both our actions and our thinking. But we are doing it – and as a result feeling our lives more deeply than ever before. We are experiencing the stretching, and sometimes the muscle strains, of growth.
In the end, O’Donohue’s version of the open window speaks more deeply to me than Irving’s. However, it is useful to note that both recommend passing the windows – both writers see the danger(s) inherent in stopping too long at any one window. Both authors speak of metaphoric death: of the body and/or of the soul, should we stop moving. Should we stop growing. As a result, I challenge myself – and each of you – to step away from the window of complacency. Check out new windows and perspectives on life. It can be uncomfortable to remain actively in the risk and ambivalence of growth, but it is infinitely better than being stuck.