Beyond the headlights, retrospect and prospect, and letting go of my need for an order

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.

35 thoughts on “Beyond the headlights, retrospect and prospect, and letting go of my need for an order”

  1. What a post! I so identify with this. I feel like all my life I’ve made the “right”, cautious choices; however, now I feel like the “right” choice is to take risks and it’s completely uncomfortable.

  2. This is so on point, I am speechless. Almost. I really resonate with the trying not to squint part…. will think of you, Lindsey, while keeping my eyes open. You are such a wonder…

  3. The first thought that struck me is, wow, what a wonderful friend you are. Living those moments with her and feeling such emotion for her. Lovely.

    My life has followed a similar path, I’ve always done what was expected, been an overachiever, followed the rules. I’m not unhappy with my own choices, but I do often wonder what would have been if I’d been a bit more brave in my youth, felt a little more free to follow my heart rather than my head. I suppose what we can learn is, it’s never too late. Do what feels right, follow your though and live life more for the now. You are on your way there, I can see it in your writing!

  4. What this post illuminates, among so many things, is that being brave (so to speak — though I’m sure your friend at the time wouldn’t have categorized it as such!) and making heady choices without thinking about them is scary too, and probably creates the same angst that one feels when one has been too cautious. Both approaches make us think and fear: what are we doing? What are we missing out on? Will it ever all make sense? Lindsey, you illuminate that glimmer of possibility that it DOES. I’m sure your friend would think to that moment of utter support from you–when, as you say, your cautious self embraced her path with such enthusiasm–as a real turning point in her life. 🙂

  5. I feel a book coming on…”The Restless Heart”…you can do it! Thousands of women relate to this. Who doesn’t look back and think, “I could have been a contender?” — no matter how many accomplishments have been garnered? Thank you for this, and allow me to forward to every woman I know…

  6. “Frantic restlessness.” That resonates with me. It rises up at times, and subsides at others.

    I also find much wisdom in the Doctorow quote.

    An intriguing post, as usual, Lindsey.

  7. The last two days, I’ve been dancing with angst and uncertainty. I feel …. ugh. I always want the answers. This post sums it up for me… I will trust that the path is there, and relax in the comfort of the illumination of my soul. Thank you, as always, for your sincere honesty and fabulous writing.

  8. In one sense I do think this is true, we can’t plan for everything.We have to make decisions in the moment and can’t always plan ahead. But then I do think there is some truth to the idea of a calling. It’s not necessarily easy to spot, but there is the yearning to be doing something I think we need to listen to. I’ve always felt like writing was that for me, so I started the “right” path early, so I could someday find myself where I wanted to be. Of course then life got in the way, I made “wrong” (wrong careerwise at least) choices for other reasons. Then suddenly one day I was reading something (I can’t even remember what) and was like THIS SHOULD BE ME. I COULD DO THIS. It was a yearning unlike any I’d felt previously, so I finally buckled down and just took the leap. There was a lot of stumbling and rejection as always, but now I’m here and so happy. Rereading this comment, I’m not even sure if it’s relevant to your post. But your story of “this is it” reminded me of my own journey. Suddenly the “right” and “wrong” choices I made came together and gave me the idea I’m now passionate about. I think maybe I’ve now gone off topic… Sorry! But if the point of your blog is to get us to reflect on our lives from a slighty new perpective, you’ve succeeded!

  9. I love this phrase: “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.”

    We have to make that peace with our past – good and bad – and trust that we can forge ahead, bit by bit. We don’t have to see to far, just the little bit in front of us.

    Excellent post!

  10. I just *love* this post!! Like you, and many of the commentors, I’ve always done what was expected of me and I’ve been very successful in my career. What I am struggling with now, though, is that I am a 33 year old woman and my p ersonal life is not how I planned it. I thought by now I’d be married with children and I’d be on a completely different road. I am so scared and anxious about not knowing what lies ahead and having a very hard time just “being”. I am going to try to follow your guidance and just trust that whatever lies ahead, I am ready for it. Thank you for a lovely post Lindsey. I’ve read it three times so far (and it’s only 11:30 am.

  11. I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed your blog since it crossed my path. I have been wanted to write to you, and today your post compelled me to at least leave a comment.

    A difficult concept I’ve had to embrace this past year is the idea that there isn’t necessarily a particular “fate” ordained for me, and yet I do believe that there is an order to things in a bigger sense. Fate is a comforting idea, but I realize that the truest path for me keeps changing and shifting. It’s never fixed. So how does a Type A like me learn to go with the flow? 🙂

  12. I can relate to this post on so many levels. Like your friend, I did the law school thing, stuck with it for 9 years, and then left it for my first love, writing. I still struggle with the decision that I made because it doesn’t follow the “order” that I decided for myself in my twenties. Letting go is sometimes so hard to do. Thanks for such a wonderful post.

  13. Some really lovely metaphors in here. I too have made all the “right” decisions. But it’s the events I had no control over that seem to be giving my life the most meaningful direction these days. I find that both disconcerting (all my intentions and control were for naught?) and comforting (even if I make a wrong decision I’ll make my way to the best path for me). Relinquishing control is an incredible challenge. I’m not much good at it, but I try.

  14. Welcome to the outer edges of what some might call “mid-life crisis.” Just remember, it’s all a journey and the pleasure is found in taking in the 360 degree view, not just what’s in front or what’s been left behind. At least, that approach helps me start breathing again when panic sets in.

  15. Ah, rule-followers. Those of us who are can’t help but wonder (fantasize?) about not being that way. I think there’s always regret, but that comes with every path, just as your friend felt. There’s always opportunity, too. I hope your headlights shine brightly on them!

  16. You beat me to the post. I’ve been mulling over the path and the need to be able to see further down it for days now. I too made the conventional choices. Until a few years ago – when I went back to school – and landed somewhere rather unconventional. And it’s been okay until now. I’m done. And I have to decide where to go from here. I would give my right arm to have a linear path in front of me, but it isn’t there, or if it is I can’t quite see it. So yes, making peace and resting my eyes from the squinting seems a good place to start.

  17. Hmmmm, It is good to focus on what is right before us. Plans are good……but shouldn’t consume us to the point that it prevents us from living in the now.
    Seriously, I NEVER would have Planned on 3 marriages, my life has taken more twists and turns then a freaking roller coaster. I am tired of free falling….I want to be more a part of NOW.

  18. We can only make the best decision for ourselves at the time, with what we know at the time, with what we need at the time, with what we THINK we need at the time. Peace, I think, will always come and go. My goal is to try and make peace with that! 😉

  19. Before I read this: “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…” I knew exactly what my comment was going to be. And then I read this.

    But here it is anyway.

    I think we should switch brains or switch modes or something. Nothing in my life has been straight or fixed or planned. I have been on a winding, wavering road for as long as I can remember. And while I feel so lucky to have succeeded in the ways that I have, I feel in my gut that it is time for a shift toward more calculated thinking and planning and acting. So can we just swap mindsets for a bit or something? Or maybe I could just borrow the order part of your brain and use it a bit in my own life. Because things are spinning so fast out of control that I want to be able to just line them up, but I have no knowledge of how to do it. I never took the time to learn the discipline to do it.

    I had chills long about the second paragraph of this. Thanks, Lindsey. I meant it when I said that things here have taken a turn. So thanks. Just thanks.

  20. I read an entry of yours on Embrace the detour, and I clicked on your blog. I feel compelled to offer that in God, our place is to listen as best we can and make a decision, and God will go ahead to “prepare a place” or to get our path ready for us. We may have chosen a difficult path, but as a Christian I believe that God works with what we give him. It’s not our worry to know the path ahead, it’s just our responsibility to listen. Which is really, really hard!

  21. Lindsey, It is like this for virtually all of my female friends. Very few have been able to strike the elusive combo of professional “success” and personal “success” at the same time on a time frame that is also rewarding. Embracing what we have is a crucial part of the journey to find happiness, and something I struggle with too…

  22. Lindsay, it never fails that you sum up my exact feelings into words far more beautiful than I could find. I am so thankful for this fact. And I believe this here, this, is the exact reason why so many of us have a hard time being present and why we lament the passing of time before it has even passed.

    We agonize about what is ahead, what we should or could be doing now to get us where we want to be in the future. We have just enough years behind us to understand how fast time really does move and we see the results of our decisions. We have only one chance at this life and we want to get it ‘right’. But now we see that there is no ‘right’.

    My mother is a bit of a free spirit and always encouraged me to do what makes me happy. So I studied child development in college and loved it. Later, though, cursing my mother’s advice and the meager pay I was earning, I went to b-school. Today, I have come full circle and see I had it right all along. Now if I only I can combine these two things I may truly “make peace with the roads” I have travelled.

    Thank you for another brilliantly insightful post.

  23. “Maybe what I need to do is to let go of my desperate desire for there to be a plan, an ordering logic…”

    Nothing in my life (or at least very little) ever points to a plan; rather, seeming randomness…but with a design.

    That design, it seems, comes through themes – not particular circumstances; through intuition – not learned/absorbed data. And through perspective – looking back, being grateful for hindsight, and letting such create the “headlight” for what’s yet to come.

    On some level, it’s faith, right? It’s a letting go and holding on all at the same time.

    ‘Wish it were easier. But it couldn’t possibly be richer or more beautiful…eventually, sometimes, in glimpses and glimmers.

    As always, Lindsey, your words touch me, make me smile, invite tears, and usher me more deeply into hope. Thank you.

  24. Lindsey, You express the uneasiness of “not knowing” so beautifully. I am fifteen years ahead of you, and STILL wondering. . .and yet as time goes on I do realize that the question “What am I going to do with my life” does become less perplexing; it actually starts to answer itself. In the meantime, I offer you another quote:
    “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty–not knowing what comes next.” Ursula K. LeGuin

  25. Your writing is soooo beautiful and heartfelt and warm. You bring a lot of joy, wisdom, humour, profound insight and wonder to everything you leave here for us to read. Thank you for that. So many things that I have never been able to put into words I find eloquently placed on your site for me to find.

  26. We all have to make peace with the road we’ve traveled, no matter how straight or circuitous it is.

    And order? Order implies control. I think we’re not willing to admit we really don’t have a lot of that.

    So we turn on the headlights, look up, hang on, and go forward.

    Thought-provoking post.

  27. Hi Lindsey.

    I have been following your blog for a while now and have often felt compelled to comment, but haven’t been brave enough until today.

    My experience seems on some levels to be similar to your friend. I, too made some seemingly capricious decisions in my early 20s, particularly to “travel the world” a few years after finishing college. What was supposed to be a four month stint in a particular country has turned into over four years as I ended up falling in love with, and later marrying, a man I met while travelling. During that time, my high school and college friends uniformly went on to law school, b-school, or high-earning careers in consultancy and I bounced from menial job to job, hindered for a long time by visa issues and by the fact that my husband and I live in a rural part of the country where “professional” careers aren’t easy to obtain.

    Much like your friend, (and from the looks of the comments, like all of us) I had a lot of anxiety over the trajectory my life was taking, feeling that while I had a wonderful marriage and in some ways an idyllic life I had still sacrificed some intrinsic and very career-focused part of myself to get it.

    Finally, about a year ago things took a positive turn and I started retraining for a career that absolutely fits my interests and temperament perfectly and that I never knew existed while in college. Recently I have been offered a tremendous job opportunity in my new field largely based on the fact that I live, and want to remain, in the very same rural area where the company just happens to be expanding.

    When I first received the news, I had the “aha” moment you described so well, where I suddenly saw the pattern emerging from what previously appeared to be a string of unrelated choices. Immediately, I felt such an enormous sense of peace and thankfulness that those years hadn’t really been “wasted.” Now I find several of my friends who chose the safe option confronted with the urge to do something uncharacteristically drastic, while I, for whom drastic choices were the norm, am temendously excited to embrace the stability that they have long had.

    For me, that is the crux of the lesson I am taking for my experience- that I clearly wasn’t “ready” to do the whole college-grad school-corporate job thing at 22, but now I am ready, and feel so much more grateful for and energized by the opportunity because I have dealt with adversity before attaining it.

    Sorry for rambling a bit, this post just really struck a chord with me. Thank you for creating such a consistently well written and thought provoking blog!

  28. After having similar thoughts and sharing them largely with myself for the last couple of months, it’s such a huge relief to confirm that I’m not alone. And it’s great to see such a perfect name for what I’ve been feeling: “frantic restlessness”.

    Thank you for being open with your feelings and thoughts.

  29. Your friend is very fortunate to have you in her life. I have struggled (and may always struggle) with these same feelings, which are so often difficult to discuss…difficult because we know, deep down, we are so lucky…and because the ineffable accomplishments we desire stink of egotism…because, without a doubt, we do already have what is *most* important in life. And yet some days I feel haunted by the specter of my unclaimed “success…”

    Here is one of my favorite quotes:
    “Those who cannot tell what they desire of expect still sigh and struggle with indefinite thoughts and vast wishes.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

    Glad to have found your blog…

  30. Sometime I think we are more hopeful with other people’s choices. For example, I’m thrilled that my brother and his wife are planning on teaching in Spain for two years. “Go for it!” I say with enthusiasm, but when it comes to taking leaps like that, I hesitate. I once made a life altering decision in the blink of an eye, and it was the best decision I ever made. It was my leap of faith that helped me to float from a known entity (tho’ not good) to an unknown one that turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered. Nice post!

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