Have you ever been in the middle of a particularly major life transition and wondered if you were doing the right thing? Or, perhaps you were quite certain that you were headed in the right direction; you, however, weren’t sure that some of the lesser but still impactful decisions you had to make were correctly decided.
That’s descriptive of me right now. I’m in the middle of a huge life transition–I’m planning a move to the West Coast next summer. Were it just me it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but I’ve got my daughters’ quality of life to consider. We are all in the mix. I’ve got to sell my house, put the finishing touches on moving to a different post-graduate program, find housing in the Bay Area (yeah, that’ll keep you up at night), minimize all my possessions, and…and…and…
It’s a colossal effort, and yet I know it will come together. But…
There are those moments of quiet when I take in the magnitude of it all, and I ask, “Am I doing the right thing for everyone?” It’s not often, but it’s not an unimportant question. When there are children depending upon us to care for them and build a foundation under them, we need to ask such a question. As a Jew, I pose that question to God as I and my ancestors have come to understand him both personally and corporately. And, I sincerely expect an answer although answers don’t always come on my preferred timeline.
The late Brennan Manning once told a story of a Jewish Bubbe out with her grandson at the shore. She was delighting in watching him play with his new shovel and bucket until a large wave unexpectedly washed ashore and swept his toys out to sea soaking her young grandchild in salty water. Running to her grandson as he sat crying on the sand, Bubbe called out, “Bring back my grandson’s shovel and bucket! It makes him so happy to play with them, and, if it makes him happy, then I am happy!” A few moments passed, and suddenly a wave spit out her grandson’s bucket and shovel right at their feet. Smiling and clapping, her grandson resumed playing as if nothing had ever happened. Bubbe, however, frowned and said, “He had a hat!”
Some would say that Bubbe is ungrateful. Look at the miraculous quality of what just happened! The sea returned the shovel and bucket! So what that his hat wasn’t returned to him. I say that Bubbe is expectant, and this boldness and sense of anticipation in believing God, as she understands him, is what informs how she interacts with him.
So, what does this have to do with my moving out West? Well, I think that regardless of one’s understanding of who God might be–even in terms of agnosticism, interacting with God (or if you want to call the Divine “the Universe”) can be a highly rewarding and reassuring process. It can remove a sense of ontological loneliness that plagues so many of us and guide us through incredibly difficult circumstances. In my case, on the day I decided that we were going to move West, I asked for a reassurance that it was the right decision–something I rarely do, but it was such a big, life-altering decision. I wanted the strongest sense that it was right. So, I drove my car along a stretch of highway pondering what a “good reassurance” might be. Something that I could look back on when circumstances got rough and remind myself, “Oh, you’re on the right track. Remember? You saw that sign.”
Suddenly, I had it! I love bald eagles, and we have a few of them in my neck of the woods. I decided that I wanted to see a bald eagle in a tree right by the road as I was driving–something I never see. It didn’t have to be that day. Just…soon. I’ll confess that I felt silly. Asking for a sign. P’shaw! as my grandfather would say. As soon as I asked God to give me a sign, I almost took it back. I don’t do things like that. But then, in the middle of my embarrassed rumination, I saw it. I slowed down my car to take it in. A beautiful bald eagle perched majestically on a branch overhanging the highway’s shoulder at 7 AM. I was shocked. “Did that just happen?” I thought. It did indeed.
My mind has returned to that moment during times of high stress and anxiety, and it has caused to me to wonder what signs really are. What is a sign?
When we drive, we see signs all the time, or at least we should see them if we are paying attention. We’ve probably all encountered people who don’t pay attention to the road signs. Those are the people driving the opposite direction on a one-way street or doing a U-ey when they should not. How about those folks who run stop signs for lack of paying attention, thusly, causing an accident? Signs serve a very good purpose. They let you know where you are, what you should do, how fast you should drive, where to go, and where not to go. The most important thing to note about signs is that one has to see them in order for them to be effective.
Well, if Tom Cochrane’s song is correct and life is a highway, then it stands to reason that we need signs, too. We need to know when we are on the right road. We need to know where the next rest area is. We need to know where we should not turn and where we should. What does a Do Not Enter sign look like in terms of our own lives? What does a Be Alert For Bears sign or an Avalanche Warning sign look like metaphorically speaking? More important, what does a Dead End sign look like? How do you know when you can’t go any further?
For me, this is why I asked for a sign. I needed to know that the road I had just turned onto was the right one since the journey was going to be so long and, frankly, fraught with hurdles.
So, how does one recognize a sign?
- Many signs directing us are dismissed as coincidences, but the longer I’m alive the more I’ve come to believe that there are few coincidences in life.
- Stay present to your circumstances and surroundings. Pay attention to the interactions you have with people. Just as in driving, when we fail to see crucial signage we often miss exits we intended to take, get stuck in traffic, or get lost. This is analogous to our lives and our journeys.
- Learn to trust your intuition and insights. For example, a few weeks ago I was at a crossroads. I needed to decide if I was going to continue taking classes next trimester in my medical program. I have the support of everyone around me to discontinue at my current school and continue at the program in the Bay Area, but I still feel anxious about it. I woke up last week wondering if I should just enroll in classes next trimester even though I don’t really want to do it. Then, the mail came. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) found my college guilty of discrimination based on sex–a violation of Title IX. I read through all the provided documentation and the OCR’s mandated corrective actions which will cost the school thousands of dollars into six figures. I knew then that I could not enroll again. My original decision not to continue my medical education with this college was the right one. The documentation and guilty verdict were a sign or sign post, if you will, that I was on the right road.
- Don’t feel afraid to ask for a sign. Why? Well, traveling outside of the spaces in which you feel safe requires taking risks, and humans don’t like uncertainty. We like to know where we are going and what to expect. While it’s not possible to know the outcomes of everything, it is possible to get into the driver’s seat of your own life and gain a sense of personal empowerment. There is paradox in here. The people who do their best to avoid risks are generally the ones who are bound by anxiety. There is a strong link between risk aversion and anxiety and depression. Leading a narrow life never lessens the anxiety. It just forces one to become an emotional and physical shut-in preventing one from experiencing the happiness and fulfillment so desperately desired.
- Cultivate trust in yourself: “How do we leap and trust that it will all be okay? By cultivating a practice of self-trust, which connects us to the well of our deepest knowing where the answers to the unanswerable questions live. And these aren’t answers so much signposts or hints at the paths we want to walk, the decisions we want to make, the risks we’re willing to take. Because death exists life cannot be anything other than risk. Because loss exists relationships are the ultimate risk to our hearts and how can we do anything other than forgive our ego – that part of us that desperately attempts to safeguard against pain – for trying to protect us in the only way it knows how?
But risk we must if we’re to live a full life (like our cat). People who take risks are happier because they live their lives more fully, without fear at the helm of their ship charting the course (which means they venture out to open seas). They not only jump out of airplanes and off mountaintops – as my son is itching to do – but they dive into the murky waters of the greatest emotional risk of all: relationships of all kinds. They risk their hearts (which do not heal as easily as a broken bone). And they do so from a platform of self-trust, which is the launching pad for all of life’s decisions, big and small.” (Risk Aversion and Anxiety)