This poem by William Stafford has long been a trustworthy place to return if I feel lost or confused about how to move gently through the tumultuous challenges in the world:
the way it is
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
Every day of our lives we face a series of choice points. These are moments that require some decision—to work at our desk or get something to eat, to get up early or sleep in, to have lunch with a friend, or go for a walk by ourselves, to make a phone call or read a book, to take our child to the basketball game or find another parent to drive.
This is but a small sampling of the countless choice points we face every day. As our technologies multiply the speed and frequency of choices coming at us, at dizzying frequency, the faster we feel compelled to respond to each choice. We are accosted by choice points that come at us as bullets from an automatic weapon—computer- generated emails, tweets, mail, phone calls, text messages, voice mails—all piled on top of the myriad choices anyone makes in the course of a day at work or as part of a family. Culture, technologies, and their requirements override more gently subtle events like the sunrise and sunset, and thus they erode any rhythm of a natural life and fervently drive the arc of our days.
Two things combine to increase our suffering as we try to comply with this avalanche of choices. First, we feel compelled to make decisions more quickly, which ensures they will be less thoughtful, reflective, or accurate. And second, we feel that the potential impacts and consequences of each choice are so far- reaching, it is impossible to know if we have ever chosen carefully enough, wisely enough.
We are likely to find ourselves tied in knots. Each choice we make can feel as if we are either ensuring or destroying a vast array of future possibilities, as if worlds are being created and destroyed in front of our eyes with each decision. We feel responsible to choose perfectly each time, as each way we go somehow decides the shape of our destiny. Choices take on more and more weight, as we project their impact further and further into the future. What will this yes, this no, mean for the next few minutes, the next few hours, days, weeks, or years?
Our wanting to be able to control, predict, or ensure a good and hopeful future can make us feel overwhelmed in every moment, as each and every choice will either keep open, or eliminate, countless future possibilities; we seal the fate of our lives and those around us. Who wouldn’t feel exhausted and overwhelmed if we were always, every single day, in this terrible position of unbearable responsibility?
But we are not. Because the only real authority we ever have over the course, direction, and trajectory of our lives is how we listen whenever we are met with one of these relentless choice points, how we listen for what feels, in this moment, to be the most clear, true, next right thing. In the same way, the following moment will offer its own new and unexpected choice, which helps create the next moment, and our moments shape our days, as our days become our lives. In short, we find the path through our own life by following the thread.
How do we do such a thing? How do we follow some invisible, intangible thread that runs through our life? How can we even know it exists? The most honest answer I can give is to simply turn around and look back at the story of how your own life has emerged and unfolded. Can you not see the thread that, perhaps unseen or unavailable at the time, helped you choose, like as with a stream that wanders down the hillside, whether to go right or left, whether to pool up and wait, only to later spill over?
If we can trust that we are good and whole, if we trust that our hearts, minds, and bodies know how to find and recognize life, always life, how can we possibly doubt that there still remains in our hand at this moment the very same thread that guided us safely here? But we ache for a blueprint, a manual; we need specifics.
How do we follow this thread, how do we choose this next right thing? What tools or practices, what knowledge or resource do we turn to find our way? First, as we have seen, we begin by choosing to nourish and strengthen a deep faith and trust in our own inner knowing, our intuitive capacity to listen, the reliable wisdom of our bodies, minds, and hearts.
Second, it is useful to clearly define the difference between how we make choices, and why we make them. Gerald May, in his book The Awakened Heart, posits a contrast between love and efficiency. Efficiency, he says, is the how of life: “how we meet and handle the demands of daily living, how we survive, grow, and create, how we deal with stress, how effective we are in our functional roles and activities.”
Love, he says, is the why of life: “why we are functioning at all, what we want to be efficient for.” As we grow older and more responsible for people and things, we are conditioned to believe that efficiency is more important than love. This is a common and universal trap into which we all fall again and again. We want to take good care of people or projects because we care for them. May offers as examples parents who become preoccupied with efficiency—what are my children eating, are they involved in enough activities, will they get ready in time for school—when the how of caring for them eclipses the small, tender hurts, needs, or fears our children may be feeling in the moment.
How often have we allowed the how of our choices to overshadow why we made them? We decide to take our children to the park because of our love for them. It has been cold and wet all week, and now we have a sunny day at last. We set the time and start preparing everyone to get up on time, eat properly, get dressed and ready to leave at the appointed hour. But invariably there is a lost toy, a forgotten mitten, a skinned knee, each of which becomes an exasperating frustration and obstacle to getting to the park as planned. Perhaps one child announces he is in the middle of a book and would rather stay home and read; another asks if she might have a friend come over and play. Soon the parents are upset, even angry, because the children are being uncooperative, foiling their well- intentioned, loving plans for sharing a beautiful, happy day together at the park.
In the end, the parents likely feel weary, defeated, and unappreciated, given all the time and careful planning that they had put in to making this gift happen. Clearly, the parents logically conclude, no matter what I try and do for my children, it is never enough.
But what if this has nothing at all to do with enough of anything? Here, it was efficiency that won the day, forcing love into a subordinate position. What if the next, right thing would have been to abandon all plans for the park, allow the children some gentle family time at home with books and friends, perhaps some hot chocolate, a fire, a game of cards after dinner? Where, then, are our feelings of doing everything and never feeling it is enough?
More importantly, where are our feelings of love, care, and passion for our children and our lives? When we bargain our lives away to a series of endless plans and practicalities, when we sacrifice our heart’s desire, over and over, on the altar of efficiency, we slowly erode our essential, sensual, wise, intuitive soul’s natural trust in itself.
Following the thread, listening for the next right thing—these may seem insignificant, but they are no small things. They dramatically shift the way we see, the way we choose, and the way we live. They determine whether we live a life oppressed, overwhelmed, and scarce—or spacious, honest, and fully sufficient. When we curtail our tendency to follow habitual patterns of efficiency and instead choose love as our deepest intention, it allows us to reclaim our passion, our vitality, our fierce integrity. As one dear friend confessed, “I feel like I am finally living not as a reaction to external pressure and coercion but from within my own heart, my own body, from inside my own skin.”
Gerald May, from The Awakened Heart:
The natural human spirit is irrepressibly radical; it wants the unattainable, yearns for the impractical, is willing to risk the improper. But as we conform ourselves to the practicalities and proprieties of efficiency, we restrict the space between desire and control; we confine our intention to an ever- decreasing range of possibilities.
The choices we make—and therefore the way we feel about ourselves—are determined less by what we long for and more by what is controllable and acceptable to the world around us. After enough of this, we lose our passion. We forget who we are.
When we listen for, and surrender to, the simple clarity of the next right thing—liberated from the inevitability of previous plans or declarations—we are likely to find that the next moment brings with it a sense of easy sufficiency. By feeling our way along this path, moving carefully into the absolutely perfectly next right thing, we are more likely to do less, move more slowly, and come upon some completely unexpected meadow of spacious, gentle time and care that feels remarkably, for now, like enough.
It may be useful to set aside some time for quiet reflection on your own heart’s deepest motivation, to listen for the most sacred or essential why of your life. It may be something you have known and carried your whole life. It may have changed, or be evolving in some new direction in this very moment. If we can know with confidence and trust the source of love, the unshakable veracity of why we live and work and struggle and give, and remember always what we are living for, the choices we face each day regarding how we will choose and act and move will become vastly less complex and more simple. Day by day, your choices, because they are more accurate, honest, and true, may feel increasingly obvious and may open within you a slowly emerging spaciousness and sufficiency.
Excerpted from the soon to be released book, ‘A Life of Being, Having, and Doing Enough’ by bestselling author Wayne Muller. You can order a copy of this new book now from Amazon.