What Now?: Inspiration For The Next Move
Most of us have and will again encounter crossroads in our lives. These are those moments when we realize that making one choice instead of another will lead us down a much different path. Such decisions can include deciding where to attend college, whether or not to abandon the security of your day job in order to pursue a career in music, or deciding whether or not to have children. These decisions are often difficult and even laborious because we cannot often predict how making one choice over another will affect the whole of our life. When I decided between the two colleges I wanted to attend, I had only a dim awareness that this was a major decision. Since I made lifelong friends and found excellent professors at the college I choose, I am pleased with this decision. Despite being satisfied with this particular decision, I have occasionally wondered what would have happened had I decided to attend the other college.
It’s been said that the only guarantees in life are death and taxes. Even if this isn’t exactly true, I know from my own experience how unpredictable life can be. There are numerous unknowns no matter how much we try to control and manage our lives, and learning how to accept this fact is one part of growing up.
Many great thinkers have commented on how to proceed when faced with a decision. Robert Frost declared, “The best way is always through,” whereas Robert H. Schuller has declared “Never make your most important decisions when you are in your worst moods.” He makes a fair point, and I am reminded of the expression about how it is wise not to decide anything when tired, hungry, or angry. At the same time, there is likely never going to be an ideal time to take any fork in the road. Everyone’s life has a different construction, and, adding in personality and life circumstances, it is virtually impossible to say that the best time for you to have a baby is a certain age or to claim that it is best to retire before doing any extensive traveling or have any grand adventures.
In “What Now,” her written companion to the commencement address she gave at Sarah Lawrence College, Ann Patchett offers this piece of advice: “Even if you have it all together you can’t know where you’re going to end up. There are too many forces, as deep and invisible as tides, that keep us bouncing into places where we never thought we’d wind up. Sometimes the best we can hope for is to be graceful and brace in the face of all of the changes that will surely come. It also helps to have a sense of humor about your own fate, to not think that you alone are blessed when good fortune comes your way, or cursed when it passes you by. It helps if you can realize that this part of life when you don’t know what’s coming next is often the part that people look back on with the greatest affection. In truth, the moment at which life really does become locked down, most of us are overcome by the desire to break it all apart again so that we can re-experience the variables of youth.”
Her statement “It also helps to have a sense of humor about your own fate” resonates with me. After all, I can think of no one I know whose life has unfolded exactly according “to plan.” Even the most disciplined and focused individuals in my life have encountered detours in the form of divorces or personal illness.
Elbert Hubbard’s words “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one” are useful for anyone who feels stymied by inertia because he or she wants to assess all variables before making a decision. It is prudent to weigh decisions and to look at possible outcomes before deciding. At the same time, however, often you must take a leap of faith while deciding. This is true when deciding to marry someone, or deciding to have children, or even applying to a competitive graduate program. Risk can never be avoided completely, and, depending on your perspective, it can even be worth embracing. Failure happens to most of us, and, overall, most of us are able to move beyond our failures in order to try again. Indeed, those who have persevered after failing can serve as inspiration to anyone who is experiencing momentary defeat. Two famous examples, Michael Jordan and King Gorge VI, come to mind. Michael Jordan, one of the most famous professional basketball player in history, didn’t make it onto the varsity basketball team while he was in high school. England’s King George VI’s struggle to stop stuttering is another example where initial failure, coupled with perseverance, changed more lives than just his own.
In “What Now” Ann Patchett comments on the complicated and promising moment of being able to ask “What now? What will I do or not do?” She writes, “What now is not just a panic-stricken question tossed out into a dark unknown. What now can also be our joy. It is a declaration of possibility, of promise, of chance. It acknowledges that our future is open, that we may well do more than anyone expected of us, that at every point in our development we are still striving to grow. There’s a time in our lives when we all crave the answers. It seems terrifying not to know what’s coming next. But there is another time, a better time, when we see our lives as a series of choices, and What not represents our excitement and our future, the very vitality of life.” Her words are important because it’s easy to experience mild despair when making a major decision. After all, many decisions are not easily undone if the person making them concludes he or she made the “wrong” choice. At the same time, the mere act of taking a risk, striving and seeking, can reap great benefits. It’s possible to stretch ourselves, even under less-than-ideal circumstances, and this stretching can help us to find the proper path.
When you are sitting at a crossroads uncertain what to do, it may be helpful to remember that being given a choice is ultimately a gift. Even if there are circumstances we cannot alter, we have the choice to change our attitude concerning them. Viktor E. Frankl, a holocaust survivor, once wrote: “Man is able to snatch everything except one thing, the last of human freedoms: the choice of an attitude under any given set of circumstances to determine his own path.” Since not all decisions made at crossroads are pleasant ones—you may, for instance, have to determine whether or not to admit your father to a nursing home because he has dementia, or you may be forced between deciding whether to forgive your unfaithful spouse and remain married or seek a divorce—it is essential to remember that, no matter what your life circumstances, you can choose your attitude.
Major life decisions are rarely easy or uncomplicated. Nonetheless, it is possible to be encouraged by the words of others who have also wrestled with the questions of “What now?” and “What am I willing to sacrifice in order to make this choice?” You may feel alone in your decision, and in some sense you are because you, more than anyone else, will have to live with the consequences of what you decide. At the same time, however, it is important to remember that virtually all of us, at one time or another, has stood at a crossroads in our lives and wondered what to do next.