Recently I spoke at graduation at East West College of the Healing Arts. Below is a transcript of that talk.
Hello my dear ones. It’s an honor to speak to you today. First, I want to congratulate all of you on finishing school. I know that you’ve all worked really hard and achieved this goal in spite of all kinds of obstacles. At times like this it's natural to think about what's next. Graduation speeches often advocate for and celebrate things like ambition and goal setting, and following your passion. Well I’m not going to do any of that today. Those things have their place. And yet, they also have a dark side.
First, I have to break some bad news: we are not really in control of our lives. Not 100% anyway. We can respond to this truth by desperately trying to deny it, by orchestrating every possible aspect of our lives so that we don’t have to face the discomfort. Believe me, I know a little something about this. Maybe a lot. Another possibility is to try to accept, dare I say even embrace, this truth.
I’m not suggesting you completely abandon all goal setting and planning. They absolutely have their place. A plan likely helped get you here. I’m not suggesting you be passive, a spectator in your life, and that things will just happen. You must engage in the world. You must take action. However, what I am proposing is that you consider how you might lean into this uncertainty, how you might balance action with receptivity. To wonder what it would be like to live, as the poet John O'Donohue says, “like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”
While planning can help us create the life we want, it can also limit us. In general we’re only able to imagine something that is just a few steps outside of where we already are. The poet David Whyte says: “We may direct the beam of ambition to illuminate a certain corner of the future world but ultimately it can reveal to us only those dreams with which we have already become familiar.”
These words point to the fact that the future contains more possibilities than we’re able to envision at any moment. These possibilities lie outside of our plans. Paths that could lead to a life that is greater than we could have imagined...but because we were holding so tightly to how we thought it should be, we miss those nudges telling us how it could be.
An overly planned life can cause us to have blinders up. It can stand between us and the lives that we are actually living in the moment. Perhaps things are going really well, but we miss the chance to pause to savor this. Perhaps what we are missing is the truth that we are unhappy, that we feel disappointment or resistance, suggesting that it might be time to make a change. We can miss signs that are inviting us to take a closer look, to have a deeper and more honest conversation with our lives.
I’m certainly not here to give you any advice. I don’t believe in advice. But I do want to offer you an invitation. An invitation to consider another way that you might relate to your life. To continue making plans, but holding them loosely. An invitation to commit to something other than your goals. To commit to cultivating and attending to your curiosity. To listening to the messages you get from our bodies about whether something feels like a yes or a no and to take heed.
Rather than life being something that we try to figure out in advance, what if we start with what is right here, and take that first step, the only step that is clear, and then let the next one appear. That next step may not be visible until you have taken the first one because in doing so you are already in a new position, a new relationship to your life. It has already begun to unfold.
What I’m suggesting is not unlike working with clients. We take the information that we have gathered and make a tx plan. We have a plan going in based on what we think we will see and where we think we should head. It's an informed agenda and it's useful. But it’s entirely based on the past. What happens when we actually make contact with that client in the present moment, and what we see is not what we expected? Hopefully we’re paying close enough attention to notice. And hopefully we are willing to let go of that plan so that the treatment can unfold as it’s meant to. My invitation is to consider what it would be like to meet your life in this way. Holding loosely to what you think it should look like, willing to ease into the conversation with what is and allow it to unfold before you.
And one last word about passion. Maybe you have a specific fierce burning desire for how and where and with whom you want to do this work. Maybe you feel as if nothing can stop you from taking that path. If so, great! Follow it. You will have no choice but to do so. But if you’re sitting there feeling like you’re supposed to know exactly what you want to do next, or like you’re supposed to feel passionate, but you don’t, remember this: passion is not available to all of us and certainly not all of the time. But it is also not required for a meaningful and fulfilling life.
Elizabeth Gilbert has this to say: “Passion can seem intimidatingly out of reach--a distant tower of flame, accessible only to geniuses and to those who are specially touched by God. But curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity… Curiosity only ever asks one simple question: Is there anything you’re interested in? Anything? Even a tiny bit? The answer need not set your life on fire...it just has to capture your attention for a moment. But in that moment, if you can pause and identify even one tiny speck of interest in something, then curiosity will ask you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look at the thing a wee bit closer. Do it. It might seem like nothing, but it’s a clue. Follow that clue. Trust it. See where curiosity will lead you next. Then follow the next clue and the next. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a voice in the desert; it’s just a harmless little scavenger hunt that can lead you to amazing, unexpected places. It may even eventually lead you to your passion--albeit through a strange, untraceable passageway of back alleys, underground caves, and secret doors."
fara tucker, lcsw
therapist and teacher in Portland, Oregon