Setting Sail

Recently, having volunteered to participate in a study investigating “gay men’s spiritual development at midlife,” I found myself being interviewed about my faith … and my life in general.

The interview, which lasted two hours, was wide-ranging. As a child, how did I see God? (He was a bit like Santa Claus, actually — an invisible spirit whose omnipresence allowed him to know when I was bad or good.) How did this image change over the years? (My image of God shifted from benevolent to harsh, fierce, and judgmental — a parent who would withhold love and salvation if certain terms and conditions were not met.) How do I see God today? (Less personal, perhaps, but also less constrained by human ideas of what God is or can be.)

In addition to matters of faith, the interview also cast a spotlight on my progress through life. While filling out a pre-interview questionnaire concerned with achievements and goals, I had a disturbing revelation.

Recently, having volunteered to participate in a study investigating “gay men’s spiritual development at midlife,” I found myself being interviewed about my faith … and my life in general.

The interview, which lasted two hours, was wide-ranging. As a child, how did I see God? (He was a bit like Santa Claus, actually — an invisible spirit whose omnipresence allowed him to know when I was bad or good.) How did this image change over the years? (My image of God shifted from benevolent to harsh, fierce, and judgmental — a parent who would withhold love and salvation if certain terms and conditions were not met.) How do I see God today? (Less personal, perhaps, but also less constrained by human ideas of what God is or can be.)

In addition to matters of faith, the interview also cast a spotlight on my progress through life. While filling out a pre-interview questionnaire concerned with achievements and goals, I had a disturbing revelation.

As a young child, I had a clear goal: to please my parents by doing well in school. As a teenager, I had a clear goal: to please my parents by doing well in school and rising to a leadership role at church. As a young man, I had a clear goal: to earn a degree while pleasing my parents by preaching and preparing for ministry. In my late twenties, I had a clear goal: to escape the church and be honest with everyone about what I believed and who I loved.

In my early thirties, I had a clear goal: to rise through the ranks at SkyTel and move from training designer to training manager. In my late thirties, I had a clear goal: to fulfill my old dream of becoming a writer and see my books on the shelf in the local bookstore.

Now, here I am, in my early forties … and, for the first time in my life, I have no clear goals.

In fact, as I look back over the past three years, instead of forward motion … I see someone drifting. Oh, I’ve gotten a lot done: writing more books, designing more decks, and, now, creating more websites for friends, businesses, and corporations. In other words: I’ve taken old achievements … and I’ve achieved more of the same.

But what’s the next milestone? The next big challenge? The next step in my personal evolution? The next thing that will inspire me to push my limits? Honestly? I don’t know … and I haven’t known the answer to that question for at least three years.

That realization has shaken me to my very core.

I discussed this with the interviewer — a wise young man, despite his youth — who tilted his head to one side, considered my insight, and said, “Drifting may be a harsh word. There’s value, you know, in just being receptive, in opening yourself to see what comes your way, in taking time to attune yourself to the flow of events around you. Waiting for guidance and drifting are two different things.”

This is certainly true. At the same time, though, I want to live a life that has direction. I want to know that direction, and I want to feel passionate about that direction — to be willing to work hard, to push my own limits, to learn new things in order to achieve a meaningful milestone. I crave a sense of achievement, of arrival, or triumph — and I realize, very suddenly, how long it’s been since I’ve experienced that.

So I guess my prayer, today, is, “God, I’m ready for a change in direction. I’m ready to have a new passion to pursue, a goal to reach, an achievement to attain, a brass ring to grab. Help me make better choices, every moment of the day, so that, instead of wasting my energy on piddling little projects that amount to a way to pass the time, I find opportunities to go beyond what I’ve been called on to do before.”

Life’s short. I don’t want to look back, three years from now, and see myself still drifting on a sea of directionless days.

Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.

5 comments

  • In my early 40’s, I felt rudderless. I could not imagine building the same homes over and over until I was 65, in fact, I reached a point mentally that I refused to accept that fate. But….what to do?

    I slowed down and listened….to my children (“Go back and teach school?? No, Dad, that’s a really bad idea. It would be Public School and kids like us!) To my friends (What can you afford to do? Whatever you’re changing to, will it pay what you need? Didn’t you learn anything from the days when you were really poor?!) To my heart (You know, I really do get great satisfaction from building a beautiful home that someone then buys as part of their dream. I just have to find the perfect situation that allows me to do what I love….and what I recognize as the thing that I do well.)

    I listened….I looked hard….I waited..(patiently?) Stayng focused on that goal helped me get through the frustrations. I steadfastly believed that God was keeping an eye on me as I stayed the course. Then I found Alex….or maybe he found me??

    Thirteen years later (with maybe two more to go) I actually have lived the “dream” job….which better defined was a “clear goal”.

  • I’ve been through a period of such change lately that having goals almost seems like an impossibility. I do have life goals, yes. But I’ve already discovered that the Universe has a way of making these easier or harder to achieve at various times. Trying to force them at the wrong time is the wrong move. Being more open and receptive to the flow of things has helped.

    Ask yourself – what if your goal was to experience each moment more fully? What if, in pursuit of future goals, you’re missing the now? My goal right now is to lessen the amount of time I spend thinking about the past or the future, and more time experiencing what I’m doing right now. That way I won’t lose years and years – it’s an empty victory to get to a spot where you’ve achieved a goal if that’s the only moment of it that you enjoy – and then you feel lost again.

    Not that you shouldn’t have goals and think about the future – I can’t help doing that, of course. One look at my blog and you can see that. But I think the reflections above are useful checks on the Western tendency to be continuously goal-driven.

  • I used to have goals, too. Loved to compete, love to achieve, loved to be “out there” pushing my limits.

    However, when my goals seemed to vaporize (and my beliefs were shaken) by tragedy, I eventually realized–like Teresa mentioned–that I had totally missed “the now” moments. I was never really IN the moment, because I was too busy dreaming about, and striving towards, “the goal”.

    Honestly, I haven’t had a goal in quite some time. Short term goals, maybe, like “I’d like to review that book”. But I have no idea what my future looks like–and I’m not working towards *anything*.

    Ironically, the last year or so has been the MOST fulfilling of my life! I’m productive, projects seem to materialize out of the blue–but I now have the flexibility (and trust?) that everything will work out–and is working out–just like it should.

    It would seem to me that being in a place of “not knowing” IS stretching you–IS a brass ring. After all, look how hard you’re trying to escape it and go back to the familiar treadmill!

    It’s just as possible that you could regret being a human “doing” rather than a human “being” when it’s all said and done…

    Joseph Campbell once said that we have to give up the life we’re living for the one waiting for us. It can be uncomfortable and utterly disconcerting–at first–but I now know exactly what he meant.

    I could give lots of personal examples, but I think you get my drift…

    Anyway, some books that helped me when *I* was at the place of “OMG, where do I go now?” (which always, incidentally, happens after the illuminating Tower experience!) are:

    — Loving What Is– Journey of Souls– Destiny of Souls– The Power of Now

    I believe that we incarnate to learn certain lessons and experience certain things–and that those experiences, ultimately, may not be what we envision here on Earth. Just a thought…

    I also like the book Renaissance Souls, because it reminded me that I can’t do everything all at once–and, that I really need to be “doing” in alignment of what I value at the moment (and, sometimes that “doing” is really NOT doing–or doing without striving). I Could Be Anything I Want If I Only Knew What It Was is also a great book.

    Like Teresa mentioned, I had to extricate myself from the Western mindset of being goal-driven and having “tangible” proof to success. I had to realize that certain goals weren’t really mine at all–they were just absorbed from the messages of parents, church and society.

    And, if a child absorb’s a belief that “I only have value when I produce” or “I am only a success when I have something to show for it” or “Life has no purpose unless there are goals to be set and achieved”–then it will get re-lived over and over until the original belief (often subconscious) becomes identified and then deconstructed (which is why I love Byron Katie’s books! I Need Your Love: Is That True? is also fantastic).

    Just some thoughts based on my experience…

    Janet

  • By the way, I didn’t mean to come across preachy or anything. Honest to God, I really know how you feel. I remember when it suddenly dawned on me (through hearing a minister deliver a sermon) that there was no literally hell…

    That was the beginning of quite a few Tower experiences where I found myself saying “What now?” I DID feel adrift. When I would talk to my husband, I used that very same analogy: I feel like I’m floating at sea and there is NOTHING to hold on to–there is no land in sight.

    This also happened when I finally realized I wasn’t supposed to be IN the system (church) trying to reform *anyone*. For years, my goal was to be a pastor. And I was. BUT, I was a MARRIED minister who kinda got through the back door by virtue of the fact that I was MARRIED to a pastor. I guess I was a part of the “2 fer 1” deal…

    But when he died, it was a whole ‘nother ball game trying to get my foot in the door, despite being a credentialed, experienced minister. So after feeling “called” since I was a little girl–and assuming I would be a minister (and having went through a lot of crap just to be credentialed!)–I was, again, “adrift” when it hit me that there WERE no openings for me in traditional religion…that I’d have to walk the road less traveled that literally had no path already carved out for me to follow.

    If it wasn’t for those experiences, I wouldn’t have written for the web nor would have I “found” Tarot. But the life I am now living is unfolding without me having to “make” it happen–and I’m truly at peace and joyful. But it was a difficult transition (and it took years) for me to get from an ambitious, striving, goal-setting mindset–to where I’m at today.

    Don’t get me wrong, I take advantage of opportunities! I’m just in a place where the “best ones” (for me) can be recognized more easily–and, they’re often not necessarily where I thought I was going!

    By the way, another good book you may like: Your Destiny Switch by Peggy McColl.

    One time I “heard” in my spirit “It’s OK to leave some races unrun, Janet.” And that has guided and comforted me for years now. I sometimes forget and try to enter all the races I see (LOL), but when I “remember” that I don’t HAVE to run them all…and only run the ones I really want to…then a whole lotta pressure comes off me.

    Anyway, hang in there. You’re not alone. :o)

    Hugs,Janet

  • Wow.

    This post prompted many comments, and I also received a lot of passionate email from people with whom this post struck a chord.

    I appreciate everyone’s insights, atta-boys, and stories; thanks for caring!

    After some reflection, I think that, for me, “enjoying the now” and “having clear goals” are not mutually exclusive states of being. In fact, I’m pretty sure that, in order to enjoy the now, I need to have a very clear idea of where I’m headed and why.

    An example: it’s no secret that I’m not fond of living in Jackson, MS. Jackson’s a fine little town; it’s just not the place for me. Being here, though, is bearable when being here is something I’m doing in order to:

    – live less expensively- have more money for travel- get somewhere else.

    In other words: seen in the context of larger goals, living in Jackson becomes something I can do. Without that context, living here would be incredibly depressing. (Heck, sometimes, even *with* that context, Jackson can be pretty depressing.)

    Different strokes for different folks and all, but — and I hope I’ve captured this in a way that makes sense — for me, having a direction and having milestones to reach is deeply balancing and satisfying.

    And while culture and upbringing have certainly played a role in that … I also think that my soul is “goal-shaped.” I like the feeling of flow, the sense of achievement, the deep satisfaction, and the confidence I feel when I can see my clearly-defined goal up ahead of me.

    I know this is true professionally.

    I think it may be true, personally, too.

Who Wrote This?

Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.

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