In other words: Forget about the dots

“Wanting an intimate relationship doesn’t mean I get one. But to paraphrase Stephen Stills, if I can’t be with the one I love, my best insurance policy against a sad, lonely old age is to love the one I’m with. The one who will never leave me, no matter what, for real. That one, of course, would be me.”         — Meredith Maran The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention

 

You take a step. Make a choice. Decide.

You never know exactly what to expect, how it will “turn out”, where it will lead. But you think you’ve looked at it from every angle you can, and it seems like the next right thing to do, so you think you know approximately, at least, what will happen.

In Steve Jobs’ famous commencement speech, he said ““You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” You know this is true, but even hearing Jobs’ wisdom in your head at each decision-point doesn’t stop you from trying. Doesn’t keep you from thinking that, maybe, this time you’ve managed to connect the dots forward. This time you’ve mapped the trajectory of your own future correctly and all will proceed accordingly.

But it doesn’t.

You fail. Someone you rely on fails. Markets fail. You get sick. Someone you love gets sick. You calculated based on certain assumptions, now proven incorrect. (Donald Trump gets elected President proving all bets are off.) People refuse to act according to your predictions. Life refuses to act according to your predictions.

You feel disappointed, disillusioned, depressed. Alone.

Now what?

Self-recrimination (what did I miscalculate? how could I be so wrong? I must be missing a crucial gene!)? Shut down and spend days, weeks, just getting through until I can sit in my easy chair at night and fall asleep? Blame everyone else for not meeting my expectations (which, of course, are perfectly reasonable)?

I don’t have any prescriptions for fixing a life that goes off the rails, for solving the endless riddle of “how did this happen?” or “How did I end up here?”  But here’s what I’m learning*, or at least what I think I’m picking up on right now:

Whatever happens, wherever I go – I am the common denominator. Blame, anger, self-loathing…not helpful. Helpful? Compassion, forgiveness, self-awareness. If I have to live with myself, I prefer peaceful, loving cohabitation.

Whether I am proactive and take-charge or reactive and passive, I will experience the results. In which case, doing is preferable to wallowing; action preferable to waiting; woke-ness preferable to somnolence.

Endlessly ruminating on what happened yesterday or last week or four years ago, trying to pinpoint a moment “where it all went wrong”, is a waste of my energy. If I had known when I was 29 what my life would look like at 49, I might have chosen differently. But I didn’t know. And I chose what I chose. Move on.

Endlessly ruminating on the future, on my fears of being old and alone, or getting sick, or…just not ending up where I wish I would end up…only paralyzes me and wastes my days in longing. “Stop gazing at your reflection in the Mirror of Erised,” I practice saying to myself; step away, then step onward.

 

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”       —Ranier Maria Rilke

* Like most important lessons in life, these “learnings” are not new to me. I am simply spiraling through them on another curve. Right now, it is helping to read a bunch of books about women my age reinventing themselves, changing their lives (whether forced to change or choosing to change).

 

 

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Pulling a Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump: That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d run to the end of town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I’d just run across Greenbow County. And I figured, since I run this far, maybe I’d just run across the great state of Alabama. And that’s what I did. I ran clear across Alabama. For no particular reason I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I’d gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going.
 

Lately, I’ve been thinking I’ve lived my life, in some ways, a lot like Forrest Gump – at least during his running phase. In the movie, Forrest claims he just felt like it, so took off running and kept going. Until he didn’t feel like it anymore. Plain and simple, just like the character of Forrest Gump himself.

Those of you who have known me for any length of time are likely wondering in what possible way I have been like this image of Forrest – I rarely run, after all. And I am hardly considered simple (recent descriptions have included cantankerous, introspective, difficult and an overthinker – not one simple in the bunch).

As I look at my life and ask, “What next?”, I can’t help but look back and wonder – what the??? How did I get here? It is as if I just jogged along the path of my life, for no particular reason continuing on the same trajectory. When I came to a roadblock or a turning point, I made a minute course correction and kept jogging. I figured that since I’d gone this far, I might as well just keep going. This is how Forrest crisscrossed the continent, and it is how I passed a lot of my days. I just kept going.

Aside from the obvious oversimplification – there were, after all, moments of soul-searching, difficult decision-points, days when striking out in a different direction was a near possibility – this is a fairly accurate description of my adult life. It is only relatively recently that I’ve learned to recognize the truth – the downside of over-identification with your career, your social milieu, your physical condition or your whatever is not that others define you by it. The downside is that you define and limit yourself. You are so far “in”, you can’t even see that there is an “out”.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a place for “staying the course”, for commitment. But Forrest just ran. He thought he “might as well”, which is hardly the same as commitment. And while he ran, a series of events and adventures happened around him. But they didn’t actually happen to him. They happened because other people were seeking meaning, looking for answers, trying to discover a purpose or a passion. (In the movie, others mistakenly assume that these things will be found by running with or after Forrest. We are meant to see these others as pathetic, but I think that’s open for interpretation. At least they are searching for something.)

One day, Forrest stops running and begins a new phase of his life. Who can say why, for sure? The same thing happened to me. One day I realized that I was just mindlessly running on a treadmill and calling it “my life”. I decided to stop doing that. Many people have asked, primarily wondering about my weight loss. “What was different? Why did it ‘take’ this time?” I don’t have a ready or easy answer for that. The day I stepped on the scale and decided 352 was a really high number felt, otherwise, like any other day. So did the day I started working out. I refused to begin with a solid statement of commitment, “This is the day I change my life!”, because I’d done that before and it hadn’t been true. I began with more of a “Meh. Maybe I’ll give this a shot.” I might as well.

If that’s how it began, very much in the vein of Forrest’s running phase, that’s not how it continued. Stepping off the treadmill I’d been running on took daily effort, and continues to take daily effort. I wake up in the morning and decide to exercise. Decide to eat more veggies and less dessert. Decide that I can go one more day without pizza. And in the other areas of my life, my emotional and professional and spiritual selves also have to make active choices, set goals, decide. There is no room for “I might as well” or “for no particular reason”. Because that old treadmill (or hamster wheel if you prefer) is still in working order and, even after several years of wakefulness, it is easy to step onto it and forget to choose. To just jog along with the status quo, to somnambulate at pace.

Steve Jobs famously stated that you can never connect the dots moving forward in your life. You can only connect the dots looking back. We still have to move forward, trusting that the dots WILL connect. There are periods when living consciously is exciting – we feel our own forward momentum and it is exhilarating. And there are periods when making deliberate choices day in and day out feels really hard. Sorry, Forrest, but as endearing a character as you are, I don’t want to be like you anymore. I would rather choose the hard way and stay awake, live with purpose, than look back at my life and say, “I did it for no particular reason.”