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A well-lived life and the difference between wanting and being

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“I ask you to stand with me at this new turning-point of our life, that we may look before and after, and judge ourselves alike in the light of early dreams and accomplished goals. We cannot too often accept the challenge of self-examination. It will hearten, it will steady, it will moralize us to reassess our hopes, restate our ideals, and make manifest to ourselves again the principles and the purposes upon which we act. We are else without chart upon a novel voyage.”~Woodrow Wilson, The Ideals of America

I’m not sure how often we get to look back, or do look back, at the life we have built – especially when intentional decisions were made in the hope of a desired end. I have not lived an intentional life, at least not the way some do, setting goals like a road map to some desired future outcome. I mostly lived my life by desires and found creative ways to fulfill them. They were short term goals that satisfied an itch but that ultimately got me nowhere beyond the goal. The person I had become had come into being absentmindedly, as if I were merely a passenger on the ship rather than the captain. It was not until my mid-thirties that I began to know who I was and what I wanted.

When I awoke and realized that I was the captain of my ship and took the helm, I saw myself and began to understand how all of the pieces of my life shaped the internal form of who I was and I liked who I was despite how directionless I had lived. The haphazardness of my life had also shaped me. There is a certain beauty in the mystery and discovery of self but there is also the dull remorse that follows discovery, as knowledge reveals lost time and opportunity.

The eventual awakening that provides a clear view into the exhilarating array of possibilities of a self-directed life if not made early in life is short-lived and inevitably constrained by the decisions made along the way that anchor one to a certain path. Perhaps this is why people seemingly stop living. They may never have really lived before, but once that perspective is gained, the burden of reality is that much heavier to bear and then all that is left is the struggle to carry on and not succumb to routine, resignation or distraction.

Two years ago I sat on the precipice of a decision. Like Janus, the god of beginnings and transitions, I knew enough to know that every decision was a one-sided door and that walking through any one of them meant not going through any of the others, and further, that once I crossed the barrier between then and now, my life would turn down the road chosen – for better or worse. This decision had the potential to set my life on a trajectory of my choosing. So sitting at a soccer tournament in Las Vegas, challenged by the book I was reading, I let the world know of my impending choice, and then I jumped.

My calculations were accurate and the door I chose brought me where I wanted to go, but ironically, not what I wanted to become. Like being granted a wish from a genie, the consequences were only visible once the wish was attained.

When we are young, we don’t understand the weight of our decisions and that’s probably good. The young do so many things that the experienced are no longer willing to risk. They build mountains and seize opportunities that bring joy later in life when security and safety are paramount. But there is a difference between wanting something and wanting to be something. Not being something as in a profession, like being a lawyer, but being in terms of who you are – what you are. The first is external, the second internal.

I didn’t know what I had at the time of making my decision – which was time. Sure, there were struggles and desire for things and opportunities I didn’t have, but there was a plenitude of time for thoughtful introspection, for the formulation and sorting of ideas, for crafting ideas into something meaningful to my life. There was time to connect – to people and place. It was a fertile land, both mentally and physically. And now, though I am on the path that I chose and wanted, I look back with longing. Is that the curse of growing older? Or is it the challenge of growing older – to fight for pockets of time that enable you to infuse the mind and soul with intangible riches? To deposit life’s capital into your internal bank account that runs dry without use?

I am impotent with busyness; my mind and body consumed with work and chores and focused learning but starved for sustenance and nourishment. There is no room to roam, to let my mind float and to see. My body lacks the soreness of labor and movement. A cold front has moved into my being and I am trapped under the inversion of my decisions. I’ve succumbed so quickly – more quickly than I’d like to admit. Routine, comfort, and mindless entertainment have unwittingly become my companions. How quickly we divest ourselves of the responsibility of living intentionally.

But like Mary Oliver said, I have seen the difference between doing nothing, doing a little, and the redemptive act of true effort. As we get older, the dichotomy between how things are and how we’d like them to be is stark and so it is redemption we seek – renewal and meaning and depth – that signify a life well-lived, well-worn, and hard trod – but to have fulfilled that end begs repeating the question: What do I want and how badly do I want it? Because life is not static and neither are we.

…I don’t know exactly what prayer is
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do 
with your one wild and precious life?
~Mary Oliver

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