The Universe works in mysterious ways. I wrote the following essay 10 years ago, when I was taking a mini-sabbatical from my job and working in Munich, Germany. I was thinking then, as now, about what else I wanted to do with my life. Someone who read the essay several years ago sent me an e-mail today, saying how much the essay had helped him switch careers into something that he found incredibly satisfying now. I find myself at that same crossroad today. As I read the essay again, it was as if I were writing it to my future self. It appears I need to take some of my own advice.
I’m thinking about what I want to do when I grow up. I admit it might be an odd thing for a 50+ year old man to be thinking about, but there it is. I’m two months early this year. Most of the time I am depressed and morose the last two weeks of the year, as I suffer through the commercialization of Christmas. I don’t want to talk to anybody. I don’t want to see anybody. I sure as hell don’t want to go to Christmas parties. Maybe I’m depressed because of Christmas parties, come to think of it. I don’t like them. Never have.
And I get pre-occupied with the items on my New’s Years list that are still unfinished, the 15 pounds I said I would lose by June, the linear algebra and statistics books still both open at Chapter 3, the ever mystifying layers in Photoshop still unexplored. I did play 3463 sets of tennis this year, but that is small compensation. I don’t appear to be getting any better at it, for all the effort I put into it. I start thinking about next year’s list, what will go on it, what I would like to accomplish. I’ve mostly recovered by February, but not always. This year I was particularly uneasy.
I wanted to spend some time on sabbatical this year because I thought it might clarify my thinking about where to go from here. What do I feel passionate about, anyway?
I gave up passion for awhile sometime after I got married. Well, not that kind of passion, but the kind that gets you up and gets you going to work in the morning. I looked around and realized all my friends had graduate degrees and I had none. I had gone to college for a few years here and there. Well, quite a few years, when you count them up, but I was an indifferent student and had never graduated. I either got an A in the course, because I was interested in the topic, or an F because I wasn’t. There wasn’t too much middle of the road about me in those days. I had created a job for myself as a scientific illustrator when one day I got tired of working in the agronomy lab as a research assistant and just quit on the spot. I couldn’t explain it to myself, let alone to my wife.
But my real work then was as an actor. Community theater. I was passionate about that. I loved the togetherness, the interaction with people who had all manner of real jobs, but whose passion was for creating magic in a theater, together. There was a closeness there, and I didn’t appreciate then how rare an experience it was to feel that with a group of people.
I gave it all up to go back to school and study physics. I picked physics because I thought it might be hard enough to get my attention for an extended period of time, and because I had made friends with some of the professors in the Physics department by drawing illustrations for them. They told me if I came back to school I could hang around their labs and do independent study projects if I wanted to. I was nearly crushed the first semester. I had never in my life studied so hard, and done so poorly, as I did on those first exams. But by the end of the semester I had perfected my study habits and managed to pull those grades up to an A. I loved physics. Still do today. And although I managed to get all A’s in my course work, I didn’t think I was very good at it. I struggled with the math. I didn’t understand a word the Indian professor who taught Electricity and Magnetism said the entire semester and still managed to get an A because no one else understood him either and he graded on the curve. I got a 20% once on a test in quantum mechanics, the highest score in the class, as it turned out. But you have never seen a more dazed look on a student returning from an exam. It was nearly as bad as that nightmare you have in which you are taking the exam naked.
Finally, when it came time to pick a graduate school, I chickened out and chose molecular biology, a topic I didn’t know much about, beyond the fact that I had to take a science course out of my major and chose an upper division course in Cell Biology, taught by one of the best teachers I have ever had. Less math, I heard. No quantum mechanics, it didn’t look like. I wish I had known someone then who could have taken me aside and told me that passion was everything. That if you like what you do, you are always good enough to do it. You find a way to make it happen.
But no one did. So I wandered in the wilderness for the next 10 years. I got a Ph.D. in a topic I wasn’t particularly interested in, for reasons that had more to do with an ill-founded search for love and acceptance than it did with intellectual curiosity. Graduate school was a disaster, from which it took nearly a decade to recover. I was practically dead emotionally when it was over, barely registering on the electrocardiogram.
Then, the year I turned 40, I had an experience that turned my life around. I still don’t know what to make of it, although I know it sent me to the New Age and Religion section of any bookstore I entered for years afterwards. I was looking for books on altered states of reality. I thought I might be going crazy. I wanted to read about shamans, about mystical religions. Later I learned Carl Jung called the technique I stumbled upon “active imagination.” What happened is that one day, as I was writing in my journal about what a sorry mess I had made of my life and how there was no possibility of getting out of it, my journal started writing back to me! I’m being serious now. I’m not kidding. My journal started writing back to me.
It’s a bit of a shock, I’ll tell you. I’ve never been more surprised by anything in my life. And the worst of it was this…person, thing…I don’t know exactly what I should call it, was the most foul-mouthed, profane jerk you even wanted to engage in a writing duel. This was the last person you would expect to be sent from the Universe to give you a message! But there he was. Right in front of me–or somewhere, it never was really clear to me where this person was. And after arguing with him for nearly an hour I became very clear that whoever this person was, he loved me very, very much. He told me it wasn’t necessary to have all the answers. What was necessary was that I be willing to live in the liminal space that is neither here nor there. It is the space between rooms, between the rungs of the ladder, where nothing is certain. “If you live in the Question,” he told me, “all things are possible.”
I’m sure it sounded as much like nonsense to me then as it must sound to you now. But I was so affected by the encounter I decided to try it. I gave up having to have answers. I made every effort to live in the Question. And my life was miraculous. Yes, that is the right word. Miracles started to happen. They don’t teach this in physics. (Although respected physicists must have had the experience because one of them, David Bohm, has tried to explain it with his ideas of a holotropic universe.) Within six months I was working at home and making twice as much money as I would have ever made in the dead-end job I had when my pen took over my hand and started writing to me.
And life has been miraculous ever since. I never look for work. When I need work, it shows up. The phone rings. One year I waited a particularly long time for the phone to ring, so long that I started to wonder if I knew where the liminal space was anymore. You see, I think this only works when you are on the path, whatever that means. For me, it means doing those things that are consistent with your truest self, with who you really are.
And that is the part that is always hard for me. Who am I? What is my path? Is my path the same this year as it was last year? Am I doing what I am doing because I love it, because it is who I am? There is a Rumi poem that expresses the essence of the path for me.
Today, like everyday, we wake up empty and afraid.
Don’t go into the study and read a book.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the thing you love be what you do.
There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
I want my life to be about the things I love. I want it to be a musical instrument. Today, this evening, I started to take down a book. And then I came to the computer instead and wrote an essay I had no intention of writing, on a subject I don’t even share with close friends, most of the time. It’s strange. It’s not what I expected. I’m trying to decide if it means anything. That’s all I’ve been doing, I guess, since I arrived in Munich six weeks ago.