It used to bother me that my life didn’t have any real direction.
Not that it was a bad life. On the contrary, I’d had a good mom and dad and brother, never wanted for a meal, visited dozens of countries, read more roadside historical markers than most people probably know exist, worn a military uniform and kept my brass polished, cooked and eaten more than my share of exotic delicacies, shaken hands with movie stars and heads of state, discovered great friends and found deep and abiding love.
It’s just that this life of mine didn’t seem to have a point. It’s been interesting enough, and surely never dull, but I’d gone into adulthood assuming I was supposed to know right then what I was going to do to fill up the next -– knock wood –- 60 years or so, and the revelation just never came.
For a long time I simply passed the time energetically but figured it was all a waste.
After spending spells without distinction in three universities and two years in the Navy I found myself sitting at the college commencement of my best friend from high school.
His mother was next to me and I remarked that I couldn’t help feel a little jealous that Craig was moving along in life at a “normal” pace, like he was supposed to.
His mom jerked her head towards me and said, with a warm, almost holy kind of love, “I’m happy for Craig today. Of course I am. I’m his mother. But when you find out what it is you’re meant to do, whatever that is and whenever it is, the realization is going to mean far more to you than this ceremony means to Craig today.”
The statement shook me. I drew on it for strength again and again over the years when I found myself on yet another detour.
I liked retail sales, of all things. I seemed to be good at making people enjoy being in Marshall Field’s or Bullocks Wilshire or Saks. But that wasn’t my purpose, my whole-ness.
I’d always loved to cook so went to school and got myself some credentials. Working in nice people’s nice homes was, well, nice, but it was just something to do.
The generation of someone’s sensual pleasure over a great dish or meal provided satisfaction but it wasn’t anything bigger. It didn’t matter.
I enlisted for a political campaign and –- Lord have mercy -– it turned into seven years of nonstop movement as an employee of state government.
They were seven blurry years during which I know I provided value but, yet again, it didn’t seem to mean more than a paycheck.
But then something happened.
I woke up one day and realized I had come to see my winding, non-linear life path not as something shameful or as proof of my incompleteness, but rather as a plus, as something unique and valuable.
It was as if my internal “half full-half empty” switch had been flipped. As if sun had begun to push through clouds, like on one of those greeting cards they sell in religious bookstores.
It was a welcome companion, this new attitude. And while I’m thrilled to have it I would also like to know what attracted it to me.
(Funny, but it occurs to me just now that when bad things happen I assume I caused them, yet when something really swell happens –- like, say, developing a positive outlook on an entire life –- I assume it “just happened.” I need to give myself more credit but that will have to be next week’s assignment.)
The facts of my life hadn’t changed, just the way I regarded them.
It was within me to discover the right meaning for what I was doing to occupy the gift of years that fell into my lap.
I’ve taken not one but several “roads less traveled” in my time and emerged not just intact but richer. I’ve tried to put my walks down those roads into the context of something beyond just a tourist’s itinerary.
I’m still in awe of the experience –- scared, even, because it continues to surprise me and I continue to doubt my ability to endure -– but I tend not to mind it so much anymore.
Now, I understand that it would tie up a lot of loose ends and make this little essay a lot neater if I could lay out a one-two-three for how to flip that metaphorical switch.
But the answer to that question has several doctoral theses in it and I won’t try it here. The important thing is to accept that we have the choice to look at our lives in different ways.
I don’t by any means want to imply that I’m through traveling, that I’m “there.” Heck, as I write this I’m in a tiny village in the French countryside to which I was somehow drawn to spend a few months and think and write about…stuff.
It’s crazy but it’s my choice and my reality and so there’s value in it.
These baby-step realizations don’t ensure that my remaining –- again, knock wood -– 30 years or so will be Nirvana. I don’t wonder if challenges and problems will arrive; I accept that they will.
The real challenge will be to make sense of them and to embrace them for what they are.