A few years ago, a group of friends and I were relaxing in front of a toasty fire in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area. As a journalist in search of a bright new topic, I saw a perfect opportunity. So, just when my hiking pals were tucking into a baked artichoke dip and a second glass of Sauvignon blanc, I tossed them a question:
“How many of you are living your Plan A?” Nobody raised her hand.
The typically chatty group that had just been weighing in on whether to fish for walleye or call a moose fell silent.
“I don’t even remember my Plan A,” snorted a psychiatrist from Saint Paul.
“My last kiddo just left for college,” added a fellow journalist. “I feel a little blue but also excited about what new adventure could be coming my way.” Another had lost her job as a marketing executive and, at age fifty-five, faced the thrill of nonstop networking and spiffing up her resume.
Fishing licenses and moose tracking would have to wait. The group discussion exploded with stories and observations about best-laid plans that had veered off the path or simply run out of steam. Everyone acknowledged that, while life offers plenty of opportunities, it also tests us with do-overs, dead ends, hellos and good-byes. Friendships ebb and flow. Jobs lose their shine, or disappear altogether. Responsibilities mount. Sickness and losses arise. Most of us find ourselves steering from one safe harbor to another, searching for continuity and meaning, while scrambling to set out on a new leg of the journey.
Our group unanimously agreed: life typically shows up as a series of interruptions making it easy to drift through the years fussing over inane details while paying scant attention to the big picture. One day we’re twenty-five years old, charging out to join the flow. The next, we realize that time has moved forward, though maybe we have not.
Worse yet, we’ve hooked up with a plan that neither reflects our joy or our ideals. Even when life feels comfortable and secure, it is helpful to take stock of where we’ve been and where we hope to go. Consider the following questions:
1.What dreams did you hold closely in your twenties, forties and sixties?
Rarely do we meet someone whose life has followed a blessedly predictable path to success and happiness. Dreams have a way of getting bumped and bruised through the years. Unfortunately, we often label stumbling blocks and setbacks along the way as personal failures. Why did I choose the wrong mate? What made me a spender rather than a saver? Why did I take that job that never did suit me? It really doesn’t matter why.
What does matter is we each possess a wealth of resources to initiate, investigate, and recreate the next step in our travels. These personal assets include qualities such as resilience, courage, imagination, curiosity, and more. Taking stock of our resources also helps with shaping fresh dreams.
2. What are your dreams and hopes at this point in time?
Maybe it’s a product of maturing, but I’m convinced that most of us get better at recognizing our inherent capabilities as we age. It’s these authentic gifts that likely define us more wholly than traditional job skills. Our frequently hidden talents hold real power to brighten the quality of our lives and the ease with which we move from one chapter to the next. Whether we have tenaciously followed our dreams or found ourselves stubbornly stuck to an old and familiar method of interacting with life, there is no statute of limitations on when to start rebuilding a new strategy.
3. Do you feel a healthy sense of belonging or connection with individuals and communities that matter to you?
Belonging comes in many shapes and places. Some of us are quick to partake in groups and communities. Others feel comfortable observing from the edges. In either case, it’s vital to identify sources of community that suit you, and then consider exploring new ones. Impractical as it might seem, when it’s so easy to Skype someone on an iPad, we really benefit from getting together. Refreshment lies in celebrating the fundamentals with others, even if it’s nothing more than a book club that has stopped reading the books but still delights in the potluck happy hour.
4. Do you have relationships in your life that need healing?
If words like “love” and “compassion” have suffered from excess or misunderstanding, it might be because we have forgotten where they really belong. This whole experience that we call life is really a single lesson that lies at the heart of wholeness and wellbeing.
Relationships thrive when we express sincere appreciation of another. Send a note. Set dates to spend time in the presence of people whose relationships you value. Keep appointments. Send a photo of your new cat. Rent a canoe or kayak for an afternoon. Busy schedules are fine, but making your relationships a high priority is essential.
5. If you had only one year left to live, how would you spend the time?
A fellow hospital chaplain once said to me after a particularly tense meeting, “I hope that I’ve learned to never miss an opportunity to keep my mouth shut and hear what’s really happening.” Listening to the rhythm of our own life patterns provides an abundance of information about where we are going and where we might consider tweaking the route.
Some people like to create bucket lists and check them off. Others find it more rewarding to reconnect with places and pastimes that have previously nourished them. I happen to draw strength and inspiration from riding horseback in a wilderness or over the bluffs in Western Wisconsin where I grew up. Several of my friends travel extensively. Another climbs mountains. Whether it’s relationships, seeking community or shaping new adventures for the future, the most important thing to remember is don’t postpone joy.
READ MORE – The Promise in Plan B: What we bring to the next chapter in our lives, by Mary Farr
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