Planning is only the ego’s decision to be anxious now. ~Hugh Prather, Notes to Myself
Beginning with the end in mind is, for many people, the 13th commandment. It is the second of Franklin Covey’s “7 habits of highly effective people” and assumes that we need to be goal directed. One business consulting website, for example, argues that each person needs to be able to articulate what they want but also: What is the purpose of what I’m trying to achieve? What outcomes do I want? Why are these outcomes important/valuable? While it appears that we are being asked about our principles, the underlying message is that effective people lead their lives according to one or more value-driven plans. But I don’t have such a plan and I never have had one. So where does that leave me?
Of course my assertion that I lived a goal-free life is an overstatement. One example: I knew early – before college — that I wanted to work with people in other countries. I had no firm idea of what that would do for me but felt a persistent curiosity about places where assumptions about “how we do things around here” were different. So I worked tirelessly to find opportunities, especially those where someone else might foot part of the cost. My efforts worked out well: I met many people who are still important to me and never felt that my time in strange airports and out-of-the-way countries was wasted. But the goal of becoming what my husband calls “International Karen” was vague, guided by questions about what I might learn and how that might change me. It required instinctive rather than logical responses to opportunities. Being curious helped when I accepted (for instance) an out-of-the-blue invitation to review a teacher education program in Azerbaijan, a country about which I knew almost nothing (another “I work for airfare” opportunity). Paul Coelho asserts in The Alchemist, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieving it”. But every encounter increased my questions and my longing rather than a sense of closing in on a goal.
Longing for something (like becoming International Karen) is not the same as having a goal. A defined “end in mind” has some clarity, but longing is, for me, often shapeless and imprecise, shifting with accumulating experiences. And that has become more so as I get older.
I still long to live in another country (again) but need to balance that against the fact that Dan, whose company consistently grounds and delights me, does not share that longing. I have a persistent fantasy about a tiny home in Georgia O’Keefe’s scrubby New Mexico landscape, with its unique amalgam of Gringo, Spanish, and Indigenous cultures, but am reminded that living hours from good medical care is unwise, much less coping with the an off-the-grid lifestyle and the lack of neighbors. I play with more realistic versions of one aspect of this longing–silence and a particular kind of nature–in a glamping version of Nomadland. Then I remember that I want to spend more time with my grandchildren, who are neither silent nor located in New Mexico.
In other words, the inherent dilemmas between the experiences and relationships that I want are increasingly apparent. As my wise older friend Larry often said, “I can do almost anything I really want, but not everything I really want.” Longing is an element of my primal need to keep reshaping my life, balanced against other realities. I must keep examining my longing and what it is telling me….it is a voice speaking to me rather than having an end in mind. I may long for multiple, incompatible futures, knowing that they express something of my heart’s desire. But I only need to think about the more near-term future, which may mean trading off Nomadland in New Mexico for Christmas with family in Boston. But longing is also never satisfied; there is no end to most of my dreams. When I published my first book, I didn’t achieve an end – instead I peered into a whole new world in which I could think about and use words in ways that would give me pleasure (and maybe do something for others as well).
There is another, but decidedly non-Covey approach that is increasingly appealing as I (finally) exit an intellectually and spiritually engaging career. I hinted at this when I wrote about my friend Barb’s work on choosing joy as a key to successfully negotiating the last 1/3 of life. In my mid-70s, I am aware that realizing longing—turning it into a goal and a plan–is constrained by the unknowability of what the future holds and how that might reshape what I long for. But I can choose which emotions I want to experience regularly. Joy may be a bit exaggerated for someone who is Swedish-American to the core, but I can consider the meanings that the word evokes in me: Happiness. Flourishing. Engaged. Useful and not used up.
The past two years made it apparent that the next step is often revealed by unanticipated (and even unwanted) “opportunities”. Most of us existed with a simple hope that a year-and-a-half of chaos and inability to plan for anything, including dinner with friends, would end. But it is complicated. In the waning phases of my paid work, someone recommended that I become a life coach. Intrigued, I did my homework and consulted with friends who combined coaching with their research and teaching. Seemed like a no-brainer and clearly a plan: I could develop a small life coaching “business” as part of my retirement. But I have not, in part because of COVID, in part because we moved away from my networks, and in part because I found opportunities to use what I learned in ways that that I did not anticipate. I am not interested in being an entrepreneur. Do I feel that I have been unable to achieve something I wanted? Absolutely not: Instead, I see the many ways in which coaching has just become part of how I live in relationship with others. It changed me without becoming a goal.
I am beginning to understand that my inchoate and often unarticulated curiosity, imbricated with longing and constraints, conspire to help me to define “opportunity” more nimbly and make choices guided by something that is more instinct than intellect. I admit that my mostly goal-free and mostly “successful” life has been a gift – and try to appreciate the last lines of Robert Frost’s poem, Acceptance (which I will never fully live into):
Let the night be too dark for me to see
Into the future. Let what will be, be.