Guiding Yourself to Your Self

“Progress” and the other traditional ideas that used to cushion people against change have become harder and harder to believe in, but you can still create your own cushion. What these concepts did was to bring together changes into a meaningful pattern, which is important because people can handle large quantities of change if it hangs together and makes sense.

One of the oldest life patterns, which turns up in all societies and all ages, is the picture of the individual’s life as a journey. In that image, life events are stepping-stones or crossroads. We instinctively turn to this metaphor whenever we talk about “the path we followed” to some situation or event. We use it when we talk about life’s “beginnings” or its “turning points,” when we muse on our “roads not taken,” when we say that we are at a “dead end,” and when we talk about “where we are going” and “where we have been” in our lives. There are two different ways of seeing the life journeys that people take. Both offer ways of patterning and giving meaning to the changes that we journeyers encounter.

The first is a journey toward some external goal: influence and power, a happy family, salvation, or self-actualization. The characteristic of this journey is that it has a recognizable destination that is so desirable that we are willing to put up with the hardships along the way. Those hardships are just hurdles or barriers to be overcome. We may even see barriers as “filters” that keep the impure, the undeveloped, or the basely motivated from reaching the valuable goal. We may also view them as filters that screen out elements in ourselves, in which case we say that the journey made us better people.

The second kind of journey is toward becoming the person that you really are. It was this journey that the Jewish wise man Rabbi Zusya had in mind when he said, shortly before he died, “In the world to come I shall not be asked, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ I shall be asked, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’ ” This journey turns up in many spiritual traditions. Jesus obviously had it in mind when he urged us to become perfect the way that God is perfect, because the word he used means (in the original Greek of the New Testament manuscript) “ripe, mature, developed” rather than ‘flawless.’ In terms of the journey, most of us are less like damaged goods than we are like green, hard, underripe fruit.

On this second journey, we are trying to become the people we are meant to be. We’re “ugly ducklings” who don’t know that we are really swans. We keep imagining that there is some better way to be, some better person to be. We fail to see that most of what the “great people” of the world have accomplished was not done because they were different but because they were not busy trying to be somebody else. Most of what has been worth doing since the beginning of time was accomplished by people who were (like you and me, most of the time) tired, self-doubting, ambivalent, and more than a bit discouraged.

This second journey frames the difficulties along the way not so much as hurdles to be cleared as signals to be attended to, or even lessons to be learned. It does not necessarily presume that “someone out there” has a message for us. Rather it means that in the process of looking at our experience as if it were full of messages, we can discover meaning that would be otherwise missed. When someone on this journey says that “there are no accidents,” that does not mean that we are living according to some great computer program in the sky, but simply that those times when “the wrong thing happens” are simply the times when we are looking at the world through the filters formed by outgrown expectations. It means that if we could see the accidental as if it were part of a lesson plan, we would be in a relation to it that is creative—much as when an artist takes a found object or a naturally occurring pattern and incorporates it in a work of art.

This lack of understanding is not caused by our stupidity. The mismatch of intent and actuality is just how life works. Our original goals and expectations are little more than the “bait” that has lured us into whatever is the next leg of our journey. Anyone who has come to appreciate these things and can see how often the life journey includes or even depends upon events and situations that we didn’t really want to happen can appreciate the definition of the journey offered by an anonymous sage: “A journey is a trip after you’ve lost your luggage.”

Such an understanding will also make it clear that finding a guide for your journey isn’t a question of finding a special person. It is a question of becoming a special person: a traveler, a pilgrim, a person on a journey. When you have done that, the whole world turns out to be full of guides. Events themselves become the guideposts that tell us whether we are still on our path or not. The changes that befall us along the way are just the various experiences that we encounter on the journey. As the novelist Eudora Welty put it, “The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order…the continuous thread of revelation.”

William Bridges, JobShift

Leave a Reply