A few weeks ago, Jerry and I were in London for a couple of workshops for the tech community there. During the second afternoon, we sent participants out in pairs for a partner walk, as we often do. When the pairs returned, they joined one of three larger groups to share their partner’s story. In the group of folks that came to the circle of chairs I was sitting in, I was curious that so many of the stories shared were variations on a theme of taking the leap into something you knew you needed to do whether or not it was easy, such as starting and sticking with their companies. Right alongside these stories were the themes of fear, safety, regret–the tenuous, trembling feelings of making choices and moving forward in life’s uncertainty.
One story in particular stood out: the walking partner of today’s podcast guest shared Richard’s story about leaving the world of consulting to set out on his own path until he got the diagnosis of cancer. Afterward, he told the group how important that moment was. “It’s a feeling like no other,” he shared, “It’s a feeling I keep coming back to and want to keep alive for myself. I wish I could bottle it for you.”
I bet that would go down like the ultimate clarity serum.
Sometimes life throws you a curve and it proves to be an immediate plot twist — for better or worse. It can also be cloaked in big news that shatters your old way of being and doing things. It’s a paradigm shift–the ultimate pivot, really. You don’t always see those coming. In the section on death in Anam Cara, poet and former priest John O’Donohue talks about death as the unknown companion that is with us in life. “No one can say with certainty what is going to happen to us tonight, tomorrow or next week. Time can bring anything to the door of your life…When we look into the future of our lives, we cannot predict what will happen. We can be sure of nothing.”
I’ve written about uncertainty and the need for a plan a few times in the past year. (See also: Passing By, The Beauty of Not Knowing, and Unfinished Poems) The owner of the ranch that I worked at years ago used to say: “Plan the work, work the plan.” I liked that. It was catchy and made my list-making heart smile. But it was inflexible to the moment to moment pulsing reality I encountered in my days working the horses. We all know the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. I later adapted it with an addenda: “Plan the work, work the plan, and be ready for a revisionist strategy when necessary.”
Even when we think we’ve got it all figured out, the trajectory is as opaque as the exact time of our own death. Grounded in the here-and-now present moment, there’s no “clear above visibility unlimited” for us. Life doesn’t necessarily oblige to your plans. Stuff happens, both good and bad, that you don’t choose and it’s often nothing you’d expect. A phone call can become a threshold of sorts, when the news on the other end of the line leaves you or your life forever changed.
When life unfolds in ways that don’t adhere to your Google calendar, the question is: This being so, so what? How are you going to respond? What’s your resiliency practice? (How’s that working for you?) And, through it all, what is life teaching you about you?
I like to say “your medicine is always right in front of you.” Everything can take us to a deeper part of our humanity if we are open to the discovery. Life happens to give us a plethora of opportunities to not only find us scrapping our plans, but also to find what richness this life has for us that we didn’t even know to ask for, much less plan for. Even when life hands us an open faced sh*t sandwich, such as cancer, that opportunity is there–and embracing it can be transformative in our attitudes towards our own aliveness.
One principle we often draw on is “When in doubt, turn to wonder.” Staying open with a stance of wonder and genuine curiosity can loosen our attachments to any specific outcomes, therefore lessening the stress when plans change. Wonder gives us pause, space to inquire, and space to not know what’s going to happen next. It creates a wholly other way for us to find our way.
We all have our own favorite reactions when things happen in the moment. Reboot alumni Bart Lorang wrote a great blog post on the Openness to Discovery Scale that we used at a bootcamp. It’s a great tool for seeing where your defaults are and how you can begin to recognize your favorite tactics for shutting down to the present and show you where you can shift to have a different experience. “There can be no growth,” writes John O’Donohue, “if we do not remain open and vulnerable to what is new and different.”
And, in those choice point moments, remember Richard’s elixir. Feel the unknown companion beside you. Benedictine monk, Brother David Stendl-Rast, notes that the basic approach to the daily life of the monastery is to have death at all times before one’s eyes. “It isn’t primarily a practice of thinking of one’s last hour, or of death as a physical phenomenon; it is a seeing of every moment of life against the horizon of death, and a challenge to incorporate that awareness of dying into every moment so as to become more fully alive.” In moments like that, there’s not much room for a plan, no matter how much time you plan the work. There is perhaps an aliveness stirring, though, and that may be your best guide afterall. Everything is workable from that place.
Moments, by Mary Oliver
There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
Like, telling someone you love them.
Or giving all your money away, all of it.
Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?
There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.