Waking To Where You Belong
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
"Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake."
~ Henry David Thoreau
Three years ago a client left the insurance business to produce musicals framed in New York history dating back to the early 1800s. In a recent meeting, noticing his high spirits, I asked,"What drives you...why do you do this?". "I'm not sure...", he replied, "...I only know this is what I'm supposed to be doing." How many of us see our lives that way?
Years ago, my clinical mentor said, "Whatever is going on with you, will show up in your work." I assumed that meant struggles of the psyche - insecurities, wounds, the things I should be aware of and never let interfere with helping others discover who they are. Them not me. Avoid swaying the vulnerable. Maintain the integrity of your role. Be responsible to those entrusting their story to someone they barely know.
I expect the professor's caution was broader than first thought, suggesting I consider the impact on others of personal inclinations and bias - the stuff we're made of - disposition, likes and dislikes, values and tendencies that would cause me to lead others down paths they may not need to walk. Not always harmful, but worthy of question.
My 'stuff' comes in the form of fierce needs for freedom and independence, following a least complicated approach. More imposing than beliefs, these are palpable, enduring guideposts reminding me to be open and curious, but hesitate before following too quickly.
I've wondered - is the crowd right, what's the teacher's source, the priest's guide, society's conclusion, would God really have said that? Then, wondered again - are suppression and expectations of conformity, one to the other, of use, or are they only reflections of the private fears and limitations known to the suppressor, the one who believes their way is best?
My doubts may look like courage, even rebellion, but what they are is fear. Fear of constraint, fear of missing life's beauty and mysteries, when what I hear in the words, "You can't do that", or, "You should want this", are the advice giver's needs for predictability and security. I don't choose security.
In the midst of a tornado when I was five, the nun led our first-grade class into the hall to kneel in prayer. "Shouldn't we just go home? Is praying the best thing to be doing when a ferocious gust of wind just blasted through the hall window, smashing it to the floor in a million tiny pieces?" Yes, safety was primary, but I wondered, would sheltering in a closet, saving prayers for bedtime, be a better choice? When to pray. When to act. Uncomplicate.
At 22, watching as my brother's 'upwardly mobile' friends drank and danced and laughed aloud at a party he was hosting, I thought, "I don't know what I want, but it isn't this..." - this looked like a wild effort to force a state of happy -"...should the effort be more natural, more simple, less frenetic?".
At 30 I sat in a room outfitted with Persian carpets, original art, leaded casement windows and a blazing fire, and asked the man I loved why he was troubled. Why would all he'd been given, all he'd accomplished, not bring him peace? When he died too young just 10 years later, I asked, "What was it for? The turmoil, the frustrations, the arguing over business and money, the demands of privileged children and an angry ex-wife? "How...", I thought, "...we spend the treasure of time in turmoil and the unnecessary...the players left behind to continue the unsolvable conflicts, repeating the same waste.
What does matter? The search for happiness has grown into an American pastime, charged by beliefs in the material and keeping up - the ideal job, letterhead, the car meant to tell the world who you are, the right outfits for the right occasion, a preferred address, a few children and a well-behaved dog. With most or even some of that, how could we not be happy? Dropping in the ranks of who's happiest worldwide, with a five-point loss to 19th place in the last two years, the numbers say we're not. 'Keeping up' with what?
While America is high on income, we're woefully lacking in other elements of life well done, down to 61st place on the list when it comes to feeling free. And, trust ranks poorly, as well. Do we search in the wrong places? Ask the wrong questions?
I realize my tendencies have been the silent party in the room. I'm guilty of guiding the 40-something man looking for his next big role in corporate America, the one he says he doesn't want, the one he, "...has to make happen", when he tells me, "...as much as I dislike the corporate world, it's the only place where I can make more money...". I probe. "Is there any other way to cover rent and reduce debt while satisfying your longing to write and study the classics?"
I'm guilty of questioning the woman executive dreaming of leaving the city to live on her small farm 70 miles north...guilty of asking in too much detail about her failing health and the vegetables she'll one day grow and the bed placed in front of the window where she wakes to the green of a sun-kissed meadow. Guilty of posing questions I almost know will elicit the response revealing the fear,"What if I can't get back in?".
I'm guilty of challenging the young, single mother, earning little in a job that does little more than feed and clothe her child in a city too expensive with endless possibilities mostly out of reach, asking why she stays, why she believes this one job in this one place, is her only option.
What was your dream before it was shaped by things outside the self...your dream, not theirs. What was it when you were ten, or seventeen? Or, now, in your later years, if it's changing, what is it becoming? Can you see it rising, taking shape, asking you to listen?
Distanced from the dream, separated from its promise by the busyness of keeping order, the call comes through every now and then, fragile, clouded in doubt and practicality. So, we live with whispering discontent - life as struggle, the mind fatigued, arguing with the way things are, stress felt in the ache across the shoulders, doing what's expected today and tomorrow and the day after that. The longing to live differently brings not joy, but judgment and guilt for such foolish thinking. We feel stuck and confused.
Addressing graduates at Wesleyan University in 1978, the late author and professor of writing, William Zinsser, reassuring in his thoughts on "separation" from the known, but fearless in asking graduates to trust their instincts, said... "...if you don't do what other people seem to be insisting that you do..", "...something very nourishing can happen - a blessing, a form of grace. Be ready to be surprised by grace. And be wary of security as a goal. It looks like life's best prize. Usually it's not...".
Have I been irresponsible? Have I led clients to question their lives in ways that unsettle, more than make clear? Or more kindly, was this an early form of mindfulness, prompting thought that awakens the truest self? I hope the latter.
Years go by fast. Awfully fast. No repeats, no second chance. If the place where you are never feels right, those rumblings beg for respect. At least give them that. Walk with them quietly. Make their acquaintance. Be open to grace.
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