There’s still a point.
This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about clarity, intention, and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. Subscribe here. I am also a coach who works with sensitive people so they can stop second-guessing, make decisions confidently and live the life they’ve always dreamed of. You can learn more about working with me here.
(You can listen to this essay as audio here)
Back when I was running the first iteration of my Introduction to Intentional Living course, a student asked this wise question (which was apt, as the start of the course coincided with the unfolding of the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder):
How does one live intentionally, set goals, and pursue dreams while also being present, and aware that the course of life is not something that can be carefully controlled?
A more blunt form of this question that I have gotten before the course, and since the course, from friends, clients, Soother readers, whoever, has taken the same form with a slightly more nihilistic view:
What’s the point?
When the student asked her thoughtful question, I pondered it, because I hadn’t really considered it from that angle. As a naturally goal-oriented person, setting goals and going after them is kind of just the way I live my life. I also have some resilience in this area; I don’t believe in failure, only data gathering and pivoting, and if a goal goes ungotten, to me it’s just either a matter of time, a matter of approach, or a sign from the universe that for whatever reason, it wasn’t meant to be.
We’ve all seen the person who single-mindedly and perhaps even obsessively pursues a goal, whether it’s acceptance to a school or organization, a job, or a relationship. And we’ve seen how crushing it can be when somebody has attached and invested their identity to that outcome, only to have that outcome not happen, and the deep disappointment, sense of loss, and aimless wandering that can come afterwards.
Perhaps we’ve had the opposite: seen or experienced the achievement of that goal — and the sinking realization afterwards that it didn’t necessarily change anything about the way we felt.
None of us want those outcomes. And though I advocate for intentional living, understanding your values, and going after goals that feel really authentic to you, I never encourage anybody to get wrapped up in the placing of a goal on a pedestal.
But nor do I advocate for the abandonment of even trying.
I’m not religious, but when I think about this duality, I think of two religious quotes:
“Trust in God, but tie your camel,” and “Hold lightly to the things of this world.”
The first is one of the reported sayings of Muhammad. According to iterations of this, one day Mohammed noticed a Bedouin leaving his camel without tying it. He asked the Bedouin, “Why don’t you tie down your camel?” The Bedouin answered, “I placed my trust in Allah.” At that, Mohammed said, “Tie your camel and place your trust in Allah.”
To me this encapsulates the duality of both planning, and surrendering. Make your plans and treat them carefully (tying your camel up) but understand there’s a larger force at play, too, that may guide things in an unexpected way.
The second saying is from Corinthians, I think. (I’ve never read the Bible!) I don’t know there if there is a standard religious interpretation, but to me it simply echoes the tenets of non-attachment. Have things, plan things, and yes, hold them, revel in them, but don’t hold on with a tight-fisted grip, because it is possible those things will need to be released at some point and you don’t want to spend a chunk of your life dragging behind them, wailing.
As for how I personally answered the student’s question, I wrote this:
This is a wonderful question and worth pondering. Generally I find an approach/metaphor I started using a couple of years ago helpful:
Life is a river. I am in a kayak in this river. The river, ultimately, is in control, and I am not 100% sure where it will take me. Some days it will be stormy. Some stretches of the river will be stunning and peaceful. Some will be stormy and rocky. There will be bends, straight patches, towns I pass through, waterfalls. I don’t know where the end will be.
But I have oars. I have strength. I have the ability to practice steering (er, rowing?) and navigating. I have the ability to make the choice to give up and just lie down in my kayak and give over to the river. Or I can employ those abilities. I can invest in better oars, practice my skills, know that after the rocky patches and the storms something calmer and beautiful may be coming.
This is the dance between control and no control, and I find the space in between is what makes up a fulfilling life. Does that make some sense?
Also meditation. Lots of meditation :)
So, what are some ways you can start embracing the duality of planning and surrendering at the same time? Here are a few tips I use:
- Explore your relationship with ambiguity and increase your tolerance for it. These two sets of journal prompts I created might help.
- Write down the goals you’re dreaming of. Then after each goal, write the feeling you are hoping to achieve via that goal. Most of the time we think we are going after a “thing” or an accomplishment, but what we’re really looking to do is feel a certain way. Acknowledging the feeling you’re hoping to call into your life can be illuminating.
- Try a “universe box,” (or a god box, or a whatever box). 1. Write down the thing you want. 2. Write down why you want it. 3. Write down the feeling you hope to experience by getting it. 4. Write down the first step you will take to achieve that thing. 5. Then fold up the piece of paper, put it in a box on your altar or dresser, and forget about it. You’re working to see if the universe can help you fill in the dots. You’d be shocked at the synchronicities that can unfold when you try this approach.
How do you handle uncertainty, creating a life in a time of chaos, or anything else around planning and ambiguity? I’d love to hear from you. In the meantime… tie up those camels, but don’t forget the trust.