Joseph Campbell once told an instructive story. “I was living in Bronxville when I was teaching at Sarah Lawrence. Before I was married, I used to be eating out in the restaurants of the town for my lunch and dinners. And Thursday night was the maid’s night off in Bronxville, so that all the families were out in the restaurants. And one fine evening, I was in my favorite restaurant there. It was a Greek restaurant. And at a table was sitting a father, a mother, and a scrawny little boy here, about 12 years old. And the father says to the boy, ‘Drink your tomato juice.’ And the boy says, ‘I don’t want to.’ And the father with a louder voice says, ‘Drink your tomato juice.’ And the mother says, ‘Don’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do.’ The father looks at her, and he says, ‘He can’t go through life doing what he wants to do.’ Said, ‘If he does only what he wants to do, he’ll be dead. Look at me, I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life.’ ... And that’s the man who never followed his bliss.”
Far too often we are put upon by others. People tell us what to do with our lives. They suggest colleges, jobs, ideas, beliefs, worldviews, etc. But the worst of it is that we too often happily sign up to BE put upon by others, signing up for responsibilities and tasks and empty pursuits that takes us away from our true and best selves. We go in the direction that is created for us, not necessarily the direction ultimately best for us. As Spock says to Admiral Kirk in Star Trek, “If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny; anything else is a waste of material.”
The world will always happily distract us with that which doesn’t serve us. We can distract ourselves with sex, drugs, food, social media, promotions, etc. and the world will keep spinning. We can work long hours, volunteer to work overtime, fill our schedules up with parties, games, family events, virtually anything to avoid confronting ourselves and the work we are meant to do. We become great employees, but terrible humans. It is a daunting thing to stare at yourself knowing you are not living up to your potential.
Meanwhile, our talents lie dormant. Cages can be comfortable, can’t they? Nothing much is demanded of us as slaves. We know what to do. Every day will be the same. Little anxiety. No dark night of the soul. Our fate is known.
But for some of us the cage is abhorrent. Where others see money and success and fame, we see the bars for what they are. With freedom, of course, comes anxiety, and we will gladly face it if it means discovering who we are and what we are meant to do. Often this means moving in opposite direction of our culture. After all, culture is very often the height of mediocrity, and to fit in, to cope, means assuming mediocrity.
Facing ourselves is the paramount task before us, and yet, nothing else will save us EXCEPT facing ourselves. Not money, not fame, not love. It will mean very little if at the end of our lives we die and did not discover who we were, our treasures left buried in us. We would die as another person, a lesser person, a person not worthy of us. If this sounds tragic it’s because it is.
And so, here we are.
We wait our entire lives for the day when it will all come together, when the weather is just right, when we have exactly the right amount of time, when we feel 100%, when our loved ones support us completely, when...when…
The day will NEVER come.
If you waited a thousand years it wouldn’t come. We begin where we are with what we have. You’re not always going to feel 100% (when have you ever?). You’re never going to have enough time. We’re never going to be supported completely. And so what?
Life doesn’t care what you have to sacrifice to succeed, only that you.
We think we need permission from others to become who we are. Like Dumbo’s “magic feather” we use others for courage. But it’s a false kind of courage because it’s not yours. It’s borrowed.
If we wait for permission, we’ll never get it. Don’t wait. You being alive is all the permission you’ll ever need for anything.