Choice. It’s the word that allows yes and the word that makes no possible. It’s the word that puts the free in freedom and takes obligation out of the mix. It’s the word upon which adventure, exhilaration, and authenticity depend. It’s the word that the cocoon whispers to the caterpillar.*
“We are not like the social insects,” writes Lewis Thomas, biologist and physician, “which have only one way of doing things… We are coded differently, not just for … go or no go, but also for maybe, plus what the heck, let’s give it a try. We are in for one surprise after another if we just keep at it… There is no end to what we might do.”
And there is no end to what we might do. We have the power to transform the quality of our lives—no matter when and no matter what the circumstances. If that is possible, well then, what the heck, why not?
The why not is mostly because people don’t know it’s really possible—and because we don’t know that, we play for low stakes. If we took our day and divided it up between the stuff that really made a difference, and the rest of the stuff (not between what was important and what was unimportant, but the stuff that really made a difference and all the rest), what would we see?
You might have to go back in your life a few years to consider this matter. Remember, for example, when you were a teenager, the stuff that was REALLY IMPORTANT. Remember when your parents said you couldn’t go to a dance, or you had to be home at a certain time and couldn’t stay out an extra hour. Remember how really, really important that was? Now, as adults, most of us forget that “important” things are pretty much just like that—they seem important at the time, but a week or two later, a month or a year later, what was the big deal?
This brings up for me something about my teenage step-daughter, Alex that she, my wife, and I wanted to share in this piece. Alex has taken The Landmark Forum for Young People and for Teens. She knows what it takes to play powerfully in the game of life and she has created very big shoes for herself—mostly.
Once in a while she likes to pretend the shoes aren’t hers. I remember a fight she had with my wife, Diane, over a curfew agreement. Afterward, Diane and I both thought the issues had been sorted out, that they had been discussed fully, and agreed to. Alex went off to school the next morning, but she did not come home when we expected her. It got later and later. We were upset and enormously concerned for her safety and well-being. Once she did get home, we all sat down together and talked about it. For her, the issue was more than merely a conversation about a curfew. It was about things that were HUGELY IMPORTANT in her world—her peers, how she looked to them, her sense of independence, and being in control of her own life.
Everything got sorted through—and what was left was that she knew that all of this could have been sorted out without a struggle, or any looking bad with her peers, or any upset with us—but to do so, she would have had to live up to the person she knew herself to be. She, however, chose not to go down that path. She preferred to be part of the same conversation her peers were having, to not communicate, to be defiant even when she knew that it wasn’t necessary and wouldn’t get her what she really wanted. When it was all over, we talked about the courage it takes to live in a transformed way, to know what it requires, to know that under any circumstance we each have a choice, to act and live from that reality.
That’s the story of a teenager. But I also know from interacting with many adults that this issue of living in a way that’s consistent with who we now know ourselves to be, of filling the shoes that we can’t pretend aren’t big, doesn’t stop when our teenage years are behind us. It goes right into adulthood, and that’s the point for me.
Under many circumstances, we aren’t willing to stand up for living a transformed life. In some circumstances, we tell ourselves that’s not important to us, that it’s enough just to get by. We’re so wrapped up in our own concerns, particular positions or points of view that the idea of getting ourselves to a place where things can be resolved in the moment seems untenable. If somebody had a magic powder to come and sprinkle on us, in those moments, and just through that, we could be transformed, we might say, “No, thanks—I don’t want any!”
We might hear ourselves saying, “Don’t let anything different, or even great, happen to me. Let me stay just like I am.” And then we might spend a lot of time building up a justification for where we are—afraid to give up the leaky life boat that’s so familiar, to take a chance on getting in one with no leaks. And our justifications will be rational and intelligent—just like my step-daughter’s initial response, and like all the thousands of reasons people use every day to justify staying where they are.
Living a transformed life takes courage. People often think of courage only as what is called for in a moment of crisis, but that’s not the case. Courage is called for on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis, even when there’s nothing urgent at stake. It is up to us to create our lives consistent with who we know ourselves to be—making what’s at stake that which we say is at stake. It’s the stand we take on ourselves. That stand then becomes who we are. Saying that something is at stake is always a purely existential act. This business about freedom, this business about power, is really a product of a place to stand—not something that is out in front of us, that we’re working on or measuring ourselves against. When we live consistent with what we say, we are being true to ourselves.
Transformation has the power to upset the status quo, to unseat us from business as usual—it gives us a platform for being all we can. To choose living a transformed life requires us to wrestle with our resistances, small and large, to come face to face with the angst of giving up our self-imposed limits, our mediocrity—but most important, to live consistent with what we know is possible. Transformation carries with it a wisdom and a knowing that we have a choice about who we are and the full range that is available to us in being human. With transformation comes big shoes.
* Adapted from Tom Robbins