Friday, March 28, 2008

Choice and Necessity in Life Truly Lived

My senior year in college I spent a semester studying the novels of James, Ford, and Conrad. I was dismayed to discover that this coterie of writers believed that the definition of a well designed character is one whose actions are finally inevitable. It seemed untrue to life that one's destiny is sealed. That one is locked into a fate with no chance of change. As far as I could tell, one always has options. One just needs the courage to deal with the consequences.

Six years later I found myself grading blue books in grad school. It was a beautiful day, and the window was open. I hated grading exams. It filled me with dread. I was never sure who was right, the student or me. And calculating points was a tortuous process. Suddenly, as if an angel had landed on my shoulder, I heard a voice say, "You don't have to do this." I got up, walked out, and never looked back. From that moment on I knew I'd never be a professor. I made the choice to change the story line of my life.

This was a transformative moment for me. I recognized that I had a choice in my career. I didn't have to follow the plot I was given. Or even the one I wrote for myself. I got to change the narrative whenever I wanted. As long as I was ready to handle the fallout.

The fallout was massive but utterly vitalizing. I finished my doctorate, took accounting and finance, temped to support myself, and moved to California -- in hopes of pursuing a career in entertainment. I had little savings, no job, few friends, and a rusted car. I was starting a career from scratch at age 30. But I was chasing what I wanted and leaving behind what I didn't. That alone was worth the losses incurred.

It took a decade from my moment of epiphany in the library to settle on a career that made sense for me. In the interim I was a Kelly Girl, a would-be producer, and a developer. I learned what it felt like to work in an office, to option a script and pitch a movie, and to buy land and build apartments. I discovered the exhilaration and anxiety of doing deals. I got a huge dose of the reality I longed to experience. Then I was ready to explore something new.

When I realized that I didn't have to be a professor, I discovered that what seemed necessary was actually optional. This freed me to ask myself what truly felt good and on the basis of this feeling to change my career. Though I didn't realize it at the time, my paradigm had shifted. I stopped following my head and started following my heart. Not only in what I did but also in how I did it. And not only professionally but personally as well. It was only an illusion that my destiny was sealed. Once I saw the illusion it ceased to exist.

Over the years I have come to the shocking conclusion that very little in life is actually necessary. We don't choose to be born, and we don't choose to die. But much in between, within absolute limits, is in many ways within our control to negotiate. The challenge is to be mindful in the choices we make -- while recognizing that at best they're no more than good guesses. As long as we can accept the consequences of change, we can continue to exercise our option to choose. To choose lives that feel right despite our thoughts and fears. To choose lives of courage, and freedom, and change. To choose lives that continuously surprise and confound us with the unfolding mystery of who we really are.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is such a hard lesson to learn. And how often it must be relearned. Many times after having apparently mastered it, I find myself back in the same predicament. Why is it that we (or some of us) find it easier to believe the script is already written?