I have a friend who spent her 20s dabbling. For various unforseen personal reasons she wound up on a somewhat circuitous professional route. She went to journalism school, she travelled around the world, she wrote, she taught yoga. Things happened, bad things, and heartbreak. At 30 she decided to change her life and go back to law school. She had always been intrigued by the idea of law school, though had not anticipated going at this point in her life.
She forged ahead. We spent many hours, drinking wine, crying, talking about the twists in life’s road that we did not anticipate. She was full of angst about her concern that her various choices and jobs did not really add up to anything. She felt tormented at what felt like wasted years. Several months ago, a year into her post-law school job, she emailed me about a new job opportunity that had come her way. I read her email with tears in my eyes. “This is it,” I wrote back, my fingers not able to write as fast as I wanted them to, so eager was I to convey my enthusiasm. “Really?” she responded, admitting that I’d always been the cautious voice of reason and she had not thought I’d react this way. “Yes,” I wrote, “This is the thing that makes it all make sense.”
And I’ve thought about that exchange so much. I don’t know when my friend will make the move into the opportunity that I was so excited about, but I feel certain she will eventually. And suddenly there is a glowing sense of peace about her, at least when I look, a design that has descended onto what previously looked like randomness. In retrospect, now, with this piece of reality in place, we see the order.
What strikes me is that my life is kind of the opposite. All of my decisions made sense prospectively; it’s only now that they appear not to have been adding up to anything. I always made the “right” call, in the moment, at least if you define right by what the world will approve of, as the most conventional option. And now, at 35, I find myself reflecting on 20 years of careful choices that have brought me … here. Home to … myself. To this frantic restlessness.
Maybe what we really need is to let go of the need for an order. Maybe what I need to do is to let go of my desperate desire for there to be a plan, an ordering logic. Perhaps making a decision in the moment, with all of the information we have at that time, is the best we can do. That, and accepting the surprises that come our way, shifting our course infinitessimally but irrevocably. Maybe my friend and I aren’t that different, after all. Maybe we both have the same single and fundamental task: to make peace with the roads we have travelled, as straight or winding as they have been, and to trust that we are up to the task of what lies ahead, whatever it may be.
E.L. Doctorow’s quote comes to mind: “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Maybe now my job is to stop squinting past the headlights. It’s only causing me panic that I can’t see, hurting my eyes, and taking my attention away from what is right in front of me.