Friday, December 11, 2020

Roads Diverged

I love when life connects dots of wisdom for you as if directed by a secret source. Deepak Chopra calls this 'the organizing ability of pure consciousness.' I think of it in layman's terms as the domino effect. Exposure to one idea or work of art leads to another and yet another, a rabbit hole of interconnected insight and inspiration.

The Optimal Living Daily podcast has been a tremendous source of organizing consciousness for me as of late. It's a short (and I mean short-ten minutes or less) podcast with a new episode every day of the year, and it's become a part of my daily quarantine routine. Recently the host read an excerpt from Adventures in Opting Out by Cait Flanders, which reminded me that my dear friend Hazel had tagged me in a post about the book. I enjoyed the reading, in which she referenced a piece of work by the wildly (get it?) popular author Cheryl Strayed.

Though Cheryl is most famous for her book Wild, she also wrote a popular advice column for years called Dear Sugar. The particular question and answer referenced by Cait in her own book is about the ghosts of our sister lives. You can read that here. A reader writes in with the question "For those of us who aren’t lucky enough to “just know,” how is a person to decide if he or she wants to have a child?"

He goes on to explain all the ways in which he could be happy either way. Already so relatable for those of us who have never felt a strong pull towards parenthood, but could still see ourselves in the family Christmas photo all the same. What Cheryl says in response though, not only about this decision but all decisions, is what really struck me. She acknowledges that none of us really know what we're doing, or how to chose perfectly as roads diverge. There will always be a loss, a grievance of "the other" in every major life decision. There is the thing we choose, and there are the many other possibilities that scatter into the ether once a choice is made.

"There will likely be no clarity, at least at the outset; there will only be the choice you make and the sure knowledge that either one will contain some loss....

I’ll never know and neither will you of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore." 

-Cheryl Strayed

Oooof. These words, and her answer in its entirety, offer much to think about. Being decisive and sure AND following through with total abandon has never been my defining strength. Decisiveness isn't listed on my resume as a top ten skill in my repertoire. Rather, I've struggled with the choice paradox for years- the idea that too many options can actually manufacture paralysis.

I admit it: I'm in love with the ghost ships of my life. It's hard not to fantasize and imagine what the other roads could have brought, had circumstances or timing been different. But as Cheryl says, those sister lives aren't actually mine. They might have been, but now are not. I have to wonder too, if it's the sister lives I long for, or the always-out-of-reach siren call of certainty itself. As if one of those other choices could have been the one to bless me with the joy of being sure.

Back to Cait, and her book Adventures in Opting Out. Despite its title, it's a not a book about the annual opt out holiday pioneered by REI to replace the rampant consumerism of Black Friday. Instead, she shares stories of the many ways in which she has opted out of standard social norms-be it marriage, home buying, child rearing, or drinking. It's a great, quick read in which she writes "You may not be able to figure out what your values are until you're living out of alignment with them." Some choices won't expose themselves as missteps until we've made them, and that can be awfully hard to accept. If trial and error is the only way you know how to operate, then this elimination diet approach to life is old news. It doesn't mean you always find it easy to contend with the failures and changes and sister lives it entails, though.

Over the past couple weeks I've thought a lot about Cheryl's advice and the threads of similarity across these writings. Also of the many choices and commitments I've struggled with, especially in this difficult year where forward thinking feels more theoretical and unsubstantiated than ever. To passionately pursue something with reckless abandon and no concern of outcome-or escape-has felt at times simply impossible for me (brain: JULIET! What about x, y, z, money $$, rent, failure, blah blah blah).

That's the Catch 22 though: most success (even just satisfaction with a choice) requires irrational, zealous commitment despite the fact that there is zero promise of a desired outcome. We don't get to make choices based on promised derivatives or decisive results. That's exactly why there will always be some loss to the big decisions of our life.

A few days ago the O.L.D podcast hit me with another domino. A blog by T.K. Coleman was shared, where he wrote "What happens to our need for certainty when we begin to question the myths we’ve inherited about all the dragons and demons who will supposedly destroy us if we don’t have the answers? The more I unlearn, the more I begin to suspect the following: We do not need certainty. We need liberation from the unsubstantiated assumption that uncertainty is some kind of threat against which we need to arm ourselves." 


Excuse me while I commit this phrase to memory and tattoo it on my brain. Yet another reminder that tracing our anxieties and fears back to our root beliefs and assumptions is incredibly important work. Perhaps all the effort expended in trying to be sure about something (anything) would be better spent finding authentic ways to make peace with uncertainty instead. 

Photo by Alex Burtch

Now that I read these words over they certainly feel like a companion piece to Divinity for the Faithless, where I wrote "Further, what if you miss the train to your destiny by only a moment, or make one wrong turn? How do you make peace with the paths not taken and near misses that feel like failures to launch? The distinction between an intuition to pause and fear holding you back can be hard to discern."

My goals for 2021 are two: to move through choices and relationships with both an abundance of curiosity and a healthy amount of detachment from specific outcomes. Will keep you posted, friends.

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth" 
-Robert Frost
 *Photos from recent hikes to Lena Lake and Green Lake at Mt. Rainier*


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