I'm (ideally) around a quarter of the way done with my life. In sixty years, if I don't become a chainsmoker, I might end up at a ripe old age, companioned by the lifesize dummy of Elon Musk we'll all be given courtesy with our Tesla microwaves. 2016 was 2016, and like I feel when I slither guiltily in and out of a McDonalds, I needed to detox.
There's a quiet room, a glorious quiet room, at my local library. The Dr. & Mrs. Allee room is where I went into the temple of dissection, with my year passed on the operating table. No scalpels were spared, and my mistakes, lessons learned, accomplishments, relationships, jobs, bad movie choices; they were all under examination. Like my usual self diagnosis, pulled straight from the Mayo Clinic of Facebook memories and a few scrolls down my Instagram feed, mixed all together with several look backs on my overly meticulous calendar, the verdict was there were things I did that mattered, and others that, in the long term, really didn't.
Call it a quarter life crisis, but all of a sudden in that room in the library, I realized we're not here very long. Ever heard of the Carl Sagan analogy for the representation of time of humanity thus far? If Earth's life so far is a year, we're here on December 31st, everyone. Near midnight. Grab your party hat and streamers, because we get here, and *snap!* we're out. My revelation as I'm now wiping my feet on the welcome mat of my 20s is that it's so important to do something so important.
The tumultuous currents of the year passed has illustrated the need to look at the big picture; we've spent ourselves recently in the far reaches of the minutia, focusing on things that are temporary, quick fixes for a short term problem, in sacrifice for a long term, big picture benefit. Looking past the marginalized to keep our own privilege, encouraging division and strife in favor of working towards unity, ignoring some of the reasons as to how it's getting really hot outside all of a sudden - all of these pieces, and more, of a larger puzzle in the cultural and political atmosphere have painted a picture that encompasses far more than what floats on the surface.
Looking at the big picture means to know what to look for. Like an architect with no blueprints, and a runner with no finish line, some of us run in circles around the piles of what-am-I-doing-with-myself that heap us as a byproduct of no mantra. What are you doing with yourself? On my own examination table, I saw that my issue wasn't that I was doing things that were blatantly bad, but that I was spending myself clean on too many tasks on my time. One of my end of the year reads was Grit by Angela Duckworth, in which she points out:
Have you ever considered that we might be self medicating ourselves with making ourselves busy, instead of focusing on what's most important? Duckworth in Grit continues by painting a picture of people who drop the baggage, evaluate why they do what they do, instead of only what they're occupying themselves with. This means having a commission, a focus, a purpose, and the margin to carry it.
I just finished listening to Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin, a detailing of all 17 of the NASA Apollo missions. Mid-century America had front row seats to the show of a lifetime; an experiment in just how far we could go. In the book, there's an account of the first Earth rise, captured by this photo taken by Will Anders on Apollo 8's lunar orbit, manned by Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman.
Anders, Borman and Lovell were on the first manned mission to the Moon, and the home for humankind's next big steps was being prepped for a future mission where a fuzzy, "One small step for man..." transmission would come through to NASA & the whole world from Apollo 11. Anders was running the camera, and the LRM shot above the horizon of the moon, revealing a spectacular, sunbathed blue Earth:
The three astronauts who were the first to witness blue, spheric history followed a system; with the commission from Kennedy to go to the Moon, "Because it's hard," it was simple (not really, but kind of): prepare for the flight, send the pilots up, get them home and figure out how to do it better the next time. Life is like an Apollo mission; we can plan to a certain extent, fly for a bit and figure out how to live it a bit better for the next round. This was not always easy, in fact it involved taking risks that resulted in the giant leaps for man(&woman)kind as well as national crises. Again, Angela Duckworth:
It took stepping out, perhaps uncertainly, and relinquishing control in sacrifice for a larger, more transcendent goal than that which is right in front of them. Instead of a new mantra, this is more about a shift of realities, or all the components of what life is comprised of. And, as much as doing is important, careful consideration of the facts - what your story has involved up to this point - is perhaps as equally important. Susan Cain in Quiet points out that what is perhaps missing from some of our lives is well weighed thought, a process that sets the stage to discover and move around what's all involved in the big picture.
There's something deeper, behind all of these things we occupy us with that has to be discovered, worked over and acted on. What is good, true, significant, and remarkable, like Seth Godin points out in Tribes, is worth the purposeful, intentional practice in order to be unlocked and celebrated as an individual, as well as with others. Like Adam Grant once wrote, “The greatest shapers don’t stop at introducing originality into the world. They create cultures that unleash originality in others.”
There were many parts of my life, contextualized as existing as an individual as well as part of a community - cultures that, like Grant points out, could unleash originality between its members - that I was forced to evaluate on the path towards finding what God's real purpose for me here is. Everything from my diet to my role as a family member, to my relationships on a larger level - when something becomes important, a correlative priority is that you spend more time with people who also consider that thing to be important. Bob Goff wrote in Love Does that,
Sometimes, we can see the big picture, or something more important than us that we feel magnetized towards, but we drop it. Like the Saturn 5 taking the Apollo astronauts up to black space, it's as if our jets decide to stop because there's still a long while to go until moon dust is on our boots. Duckworth in Grit talks about the premium on sticking with it, and going on when the going gets tough. This takes deciding between the things that work, and the things that don't work. Not on your own, but through through intra-inter-introspection; self sacrifice to something bigger, more meaningful than what's in just the frame of your own window.
The story goes that Bob Goff quits something every Thursday, and I've committed to taking a page out of his book. Perhaps not every Thursday, but certainly every time that, after a long look at the big picture, something comes up short, as a not-quite-there step towards what the larger, true purpose is all about. Life seems more and more to be about making decisions that concentrate on what is most significant, and closest to your core priorities; and less on the things that weigh us down on the path towards being able to love others, and do the things that are most rewarding.
There are many of us that are on sedation, taking the blue pill when Morpheus is letting us choose between life as it is, and life as how it could be. I just went and saw Assassin's Creed - remember when I mentioned bad movie choices? I'll vindicate myself by pointing out that this was entirely a raw, nostalgic visit back to my days in high school. - and the narrative described two choices, both objectively difficult to decide between. The protagonists, the assassins, are proponents of protecting free will, the ability to live deeply & widely however you choose; the antagonists - the Templars - are pushing for a more metaseditive effect, one that makes life more uniform, adherent to how things are and should always be.
Look past the less than favorable aesthetic and you can see what Jesus was describing when he talked about the narrow and wide paths. The narrow path is hard, and takes sticking to a second order volition that prioritizes something bigger, more substantial and meaningful than that which is right in front of us.
This takes thinking and doing. It's all about the process, and it starts in a long look at your life, like sitting on a bench in front of your favorite piece at the art museum. Contemplate your life - what are you made of? Your story; all the experiences, relationships, choices you've made - these are the tiles on your mosaic. Audit yourself, and shine a light on the good, bad, beautiful and not so beautiful. Do you know your story?
Knowing yourself lets you step out of your own skin, and see how you fit in the big picture. Instead of being self-obsessed, wouldn't there be more benefit in having an appropriate scale of yourself? Perhaps when we realize, after taking a long look at ourselves, that we don't have everything figured out, and we can be more willing to listen, give, celebrate, learn. Like the old adage, "We have two ears and one mouth for a reason."
When we have an idea of who we are, we can act on what we know to be the priorities, or the "definite life purpose," like Andrew Carnegie called it, that we've been purpose to operate by. Like a painter with a rendering, or a ship with a commission, there's a heading to sail towards. Certainly, there are details that work differently than what we might assume as the journey begins, but the point is that the destination remains certain in our sextants.
Like astronauts landing back home in the blue oceans of home, we can climb out occasionally and figure out what went well and not as well, then make adjustments. When Kennedy commissioned the Apollo missions, the end was to reach the moon. The journey there looked different with each successful mission, but the point was to ascertain the best way possible to do it better next time.
The point is not to quantitate your life, and manipulate it towards achieving more control over its outcome. Rather, the point is to be aware, not only of yourself but your surroundings, and this is because the greater goal, the big picture, as it always has been, is to sacrifice ourselves for the good and joy of others. A little while after Jesus spoke about the narrow and wide paths, he met a rich young ruler who had it all figured out. He asked Jesus for the key to life, and Jesus returned his question with an invitation to give all he had. "He was sad, because he was one who owned much property." Read: he was focusing on what he couldn't keep instead on what he could never lose. There are bigger things to life than the things we have, our idea of how things should be and what us lumbering giants, rulers of a small rock in the middle of the universe can accomplish all on our own.
We don't discover our bigger purpose in ourselves, or even in the people we know, or our experiences, the articles we read, the tear jerking videos we watch; rather, we find it in surrender to something(one) not just bigger, but all-purposeful, loving, sacrificial for us. The point is not to find in ourselves something that didn't come out this entire time that we were focusing on ourselves. The point, rather, is to sit, listen, and enjoy the sweet, soft voice of our Small Path on the Big Blue Planet.
I hope that today, in this moment, you embrace the sign post to that Small Path; that you contemplate your life, resolve to live deeply, and leave behind that which you can never keep, in exchange for that which you may never lose. I'll finish with a line straight from the Nobel laureate himself; take a word from Bob: