When I was in law, I had reoccurring nightmares about climbing. Well…perhaps “nightmare” is too strong a word. But the gist of my almost-nightly subconscious wandering was that I was, in some way, shape, or form, climbing upward on something that was shaky. Either a wobbly ladder or poorly connected platforms or a broken escalator…. Always upward, and always on unsteady ground. Taylor Swift's proverbial tilted stage.
My mind is clearly terrible at subtlety in its metaphors. The ground was slipping out from under me in my steady march up the ladder of success.
But for all of its wobbling uncertainty, upward was – and is – delightfully measurable. What is above. What is below. Who is above. Who is below. ~Height~ is so very quantifiable. Whether you are higher than you were last year. Whether you are higher than anyone or everyone else.
But forward. What is forward? What is backward or stagnant or forward when the process is a cycle and there is no finish line? We are told that baby steps in the right direction without knowing the ultimate destination are the way to approach these things – and really the way to approach life in general. And I accept and believe that with all of my heart. But particularly after more momentous and tangibly “right” changes or events – moves, job changes, completed races, and on and on – when the steps are big and clear and the progress is unmistakable – it's easy to lose sight of what little steps and decisions are right and to what the monotony of the typical day contributes. What place does a day of cleaning and laundry and sick kids and packing lunches have in a life that is moving in the right direction? How do we keep from falling into a rut when the big moments aren't happening and we are so consumed by the typical day-to-day chores that the bigger picture feels 1000 miles away?
To what extent does moving forward sometimes require nothing but for us to learn to be still?
I'll never forget reading Karen Armstrong's The Spiral Staircase years ago and the “a-ha moment” that I had when she described how the nuns' strictly regimented outer life was meant to free the mind for larger, contemplative pursuits. That the simplification of our outward lives allows for grander internal endeavors. My head goes there when the monotony of daily regimens begins to take over. Let the repetitive tasks happen. Let your mind go.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. That's always seemed a little pompous to me, as some of the happiest people I know don't seem to spend a ton of time waxing philosophical. But, to the extent that waxing philosophical is my lot in life (and let's face it, it is), perhaps losing myself in the laundry isn't the worst thing in the world.
I no longer have the OED at my fingertips, but a quick search defined “forward” as:
- toward or at a place, point, or time in advance; onward (dictionary.com)
- onward so as to make progress; toward a successful conclusion (Google dictionary)
And on and on….
Here I think it's less about that conclusion or finish line and more about the never ending process of progress that precedes it. For a goal junkie, that loss of tangible “finishing” is perhaps the hardest part of leaving society's definition of success and attempting to rewrite it yourself. And those times that follow the big leaps, when the days settle back into quiet and normal, can be the hardest. Especially when you can start to doubt your little steps because the bigger goals are such black boxes.
But perhaps learning to be still is, for many of us, an enormous part of moving forward.
Perhaps when we are feeling most lost it's important to trust that, for all of its definitions, much like the Supreme Court and obscenity – forward is just something that we know when we see it. And, in truth, much like running, the joy and fulfillment is so much less in the finish line and so much more in the process.