I met a man on my birthday who owned a coffee shop, and we quickly began talking about what mattered in life. I had just come back from a conference to develop grand plans, and I was thinking about what it meant to be 40, and what the next stage of my life was going to be like. I had all kinds of questions tumbling through my mind about the past, in order for me to step more clearly into the future. I grapple, always, with one central question: What is my choice, and what is destiny? And can I change my destiny? If I can, should I? If things are going well, can I get in the way of my own happiness and fulfillment?
I think too much, you see. I am always trying to figure everything out, the laws of life, the essence of being. It’s alternately tiring and invigorating.
Anyway, this man. He had a successful business, but he was lonely, and he didn’t want to admit it. He had gotten through some trials, too, and he made a decision to focus on work, and he woke up very early every day for his job, but it frustrated and tired him out. He didn’t know how to have fun. (I’m guessing.) But I had been reading poetry, and I asked him—flash forward to when you’re in your 80s. Say you’re sick and only have a few days to live. What is going to matter to you? What will you wish you have done that you didn’t do?
And we started talking about travel.
You see, I’m a wanderer, a gypsy soul. I became a wanderer by necessity. I had all kinds of plans when I was in my 20s. I was going to teach and write books. And that’s actually still my plan, and it’s still what I do, but the way I do it, or the manner, is a bit different.
Because the thing is, when you go through huge life hurdles and setbacks, you begin to wonder if you ought to be changing direction. That maybe the thing you were after was not really meant for you. This is where that question of choice vs. destiny comes in, and why I turn it over and over again in my hands. If the first big commitment I made in my life, marriage, ended in such drastic disappointment, how or why would I commit to something so large again? And so people like me become grasshoppers for a while, flitting from thing to thing. Searching for a place to rest and sleep for the night before going on our way.
People with big hearts and big souls and curious minds and wild imaginations—sheesh, I’m not sure we belong to this world. I mean, we do, of course. But there’s good reason we go in search of new places that will appreciate us. Because most of the world runs on some other fuel. Donuts, perhaps?
The thing I’m getting at, is you can chart your life and chart your course, but sometimes storms get in the way, and you end up landing on other islands. And those islands are pretty, and they have nice people, too. And they are full of really beautiful trees and vegetation and kind people everywhere. So where is home? You begin to ask. If the storm came, and I ended up on this random island, but I like it here, might I consider staying? Was that destiny? (You see my pressing question.) Or perhaps you get back in your sailboat and then another storm of a different kind comes. Or this time, a big ship nearly knocks you off track so you have to change course for the south. And now there’s a wild and exotic place you stay for respite, and you sit under the stars, and you have some special moments here, too. But by the time you’re ready to leave, you don’t remember where you were going, originally. The directions have all shifted, your compass is broken. The course has been taken over by something vast, something beyond your control. Your life is not actually in your control, you realize: the sea just keeps having her way. And all you can claim is your boat and your heart and your experience as belonging to you, and you set sail again, but this time you’re just not sure of the path, so you begin asking for some overarching help, because it seemed that overarching presence must have directed you here and there and thither for a reason.
Do you get what I’m saying? About the course of some people’s lives? About the way it seems strange to plan and strategize when something beyond us is in charge, and that something is so powerful, and it has shown you again and again how powerful it is, that you just start giving up, giving in, opening your hands and saying, Take me where you want me to go. I trust you. Am I ever, like ever, supposed to make a plan?
A question came up in my Quaker meeting this past week about happiness, about whether happiness should be a root desire for us, or whether we should be motivated by something else.
I guess this depends on how you define happy. And I think a question like this stems from a seriousness, a harshness, that suggests we do not deserve to be happy.
You deserve all the happiness in the world. You are really here to enjoy your life, despite pain, despite trauma. You can get through all that. You are meant to live. And it is hard sometimes, so, so hard. But there is hope and so much glory and so many cookies to be eaten and meals to be had. Happiness is your destiny. If you don’t have it, or have hope of having it, then you know you’re off course. Because it’s not something that comes once you’ve achieved something else. Happiness is a state of being.
It just may not look like what you thought it was going to look like. And you have to be open to that.
And when you blend purpose, which involves calling on the divine—and I don’t mean the divine from above, I mean the divine from within too, and I mean the divine in the root of us and the root of the earth—and the people you love, and travel (it resets the mind and opens you up!), and your own unique talents channeled in a positive way, and plenty of moments of space and quiet and breathing, you become happy.
It does not mean you’re giddy all the time. It does not mean everyone always feels upbeat. It just means you know what’s real, and you ask for help when you’re confused or searching, and you appreciate your blessings, and you’re filled with so much gratitude for life as it really is, not how you’ve been seeing it, or living it. And you have patience with yourself, and kindness, too. And you learn what you can take and what you can’t, where you need to draw lines. And you’re open to growing in a gentle, loving way, and showing others that mercy in return.
There is no formula, other than presence and honest searching in the heart of you. No one has figured your life out. It is yours. It is blessed.
So back to my friend, the birthday man. The central question. When you’re 80, and you’re lying on a mattress somewhere (if you’re lucky), what are you going to wish you did? What risk will you have wished you took? What words do you hope you would have said?
Let’s pretend you’re not 80. You’re you, now, except in that situation, asking yourself these central questions.
If the answer is nothing, if the answer is, I’m at peace with the way things have gone down, or are going down.
Then Honey, you are marvelously on-course.