Stumbling on the Path

Stumbling on the Path

Path of purpose
Path in the woods

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
–Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”

What is this thing called mission or purpose?   To me, mission is not an idea, not a statement of purpose, not a promise or commitment. It is a path, with many changes. Sometimes the path seems very wide, so that I can sashay from one side to the other, sometimes it almost disappears. For me it’s a zigzag walk, not straight, not the shortest distance between two points. I have a sense from time to time that I am on the path. Then something happens and I am blocked, or I sense that I have gotten off the path—it must have taken a turn that I missed. It’s not a path I can map, or blaze with blue paint on the trees. It is interactive, changing all the time. I can never “know” my mission. Oscar Wilde says that “Only the shallow know themselves.” The path is more like the elusive Tao, the “Way.” The first lines of the Tao Te Ching translate roughly, “The path that can be spoken of is not the true path.” I can glimpse it from time to time, sense that I am near it. But I can’t fully grasp it.

This means that now and then I may believe I have captured it in words.  But then it can suddenly dissolve, leaving me lost again.  I think the experience of loss is important, because it reminds me that this purpose is an elusive being whom I can’t control or understand with my ego.

This happened to me recently, when I was involved in a commitment to a job that I believed was my mission. Without warning the energy dropped away, and I found myself standing in the empty air, like Wiley Coyote when he realizes that he has sprinted out over the edge of the cliff. In practice, I find myself irritated, strangely blocked, silent. I am out of sync with my inner voice. Usually, I am stubborn, will continue what I have been doing, trying to subjugate my mission with my ego. I push myself, lecture myself about persistence and fortitude. At some point, though, I start to feel myself dying. Something unmistakable within me is saying No. Maybe then I stop to listen to my heart with all the subtlety I can muster, let it start to shape me and lead me again.

How might I know that my life is not purpose-driven, that I have strayed from that elusive path? In my experience, there are several sure signs that I’ve lost my way:

  1. I can’t decide. Faced with one of the big questions—career, relationship, whether to have a family—I freeze. And when I write the two columns about the pros and cons, the lists cancel each other out, so reasoning can’t get me there.  I am missing a tiebreaker: that passion which will put its thumb on the scale all at once.
  2. I look back at my life, and don’t remember deciding anything. How did I get beamed down to this planet? I’m in a life—career, marriage, house, two dogs, and five hens that don’t lay eggs any more—and can’t figure out how this happened.
  3. I get burned out. At the end of a day or a week, my fuel tank is empty. Mondays are brutal. On the other hand, when I am in touch with purpose, I’m connected to a limitless power source, and the energy flows naturally.
  4. I get mad. In my opinion, anger is a sudden hijacking by my purpose, which I’ve turned my back on. But my purpose comes out sideways, in destructive form. I’ll have more to say about this in a later post, when I talk about the Spirit in the Bottle.
  5. I procrastinate. I set goals, then fall short, then slap myself around for not reaching the goal, so I reset it and (surprise!) fall short again. Maybe the procrastination is some deep, powerful voice within me that is saying “Fuck, no!”
  6. I give power to other people—let others take control of my to-do list, and I find things that are essential to my soul crowded off the bottom of the page.
  7. I have what I call a “gurney moment” during medical crisis. I spend time doing a life-review in the emergency room after a close call, or at someone’s funeral, imagining my own obituary. I imagine the headline “A Life of Quiet Desperation.”
  8. I chase money, without having a clear idea what the money is for.
  9. I become a human doing rather than a human being, the energizer bunny running around getting things done,  checking things off the list . I return library books, pay the car insurance, set up the meeting, drive the carpool, and end exhausted, wondering where the day went. This is what I will call “missing in action” in a later post.
  10. I please others—live the life my parents (or my spouse, or “society”) want me to live.  But the hard truth is, I don’t please them well.  My life-blood is not really in this work, I don’t love it.  My actions are only shadows on the wall.
  11. I avoid risk.  I contract for safety in every waking moment.  At all costs I keep my head down .  By contrast, when I am connected to mission, I am fully awake—alive, on the edge of my seat, and ready to die.  I am in service, in that moment, to something more important than me.   And though that does not mean that I want death, I stride into risk, and don’t hide in the back of the closet.

In other words, I get this gut-sense that something is wrong.

I believe that it is important to put mission into words, to have in mind a current rough draft of what my mission is. However, I also believe that my sense of purpose is a mystery, and can’t be finally expressed in language. This is a paradox—it’s important to say it, but the words fall short. I spend time and energy trying to contain it, all the time knowing that my attempts are at best temporary and futile.  But this paradox is a familiar one—every poet or artist of substance is familiar with this. A poet writes a line, but then deals with a nagging sense that it’s not quite right, those words don’t do it. So he or she re-enters the poem and ask again, “What would work here?” This may lead to trying something new that is a little better, or scratching out the line completely, or putting it aside for now, or throwing the whole thing away. All the while, it may be very difficult to articulate what was wrong before, why that particular original line didn’t work.

Expressing mission is an art and not a science. And while I can offer some pointers, this is not an IKEA lamp with assembly instructions included.  In the next post, I will offer some suggestions of how to start asking the question: “What is my Mission?”

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