Imagine stopping in the middle of the path you are traversing, but unlike Robert Frost who came to a crossroads and had the choice of taking the “road less traveled by,” your road ahead just continues straight to the horizon in the same bland, unbroken path. You haven’t stopped because you have lost your way or have to make a choice; you have stopped because you are not sure if you wish to continue walking the path you are currently walking—you just can’t see another course to take. Turning back is also not an option. You ask questions like “Is this it? Is this the only view I’ll ever have; the only path I’ll ever travel?” As you stand there contemplating a future of repetitive, unfulfilling meaninglessness, you notice three tornadoes forming, one on each side of you, and one straight ahead. They are moving your way, and it looks like they are going to hit you at about the same time. There is nowhere to run, so you stand your ground and examine the approaching tornadoes one at a time.
The tornado to your left represents the chaos heading toward your current professional life. This chaos is to be yearned for, and feared. It brings invigorating, stimulating change to your stagnating career. You can see that; whirling within its maelstrom are new approaches, strategies, and ideas that will breathe new life into your job and give you a renewed sense of purpose and a chance for meaningful engagement once again. It is strong. The thing looks like it is going to tear you apart if it hits you, and it will—at least that part of you that is unwilling to bend with it. It will shatter old paradigms; the old ways of doing things will be forever unmade if it takes hold of them. Part of you wants to leap into the tornado’s vortex, embracing all of its disparate possibilities; at the same time, another part of you is afraid of the difficulties those possibilities represent. Integrating its changes into your professional practice will be very challenging work. The status quo is so comfortable, so easy. Part of you doesn’t want to let it all go. Well, the tornado is picking up speed. You can’t turn away, you can’t resist it. It’s either embrace it and weather the storm as best you can, or be broken by it. There are two more tornadoes coming, you realize.
The one to your right represents the potentialities of your physical self. The hamster wheel of life with its endless, menial, time-sucking “duties” has all but eliminated your ability (choice?) to exercise and keep yourself in good physical condition. There just isn’t time, you tell yourself. I can’t afford the gym membership, and it’s too far from my house. You see visions of the available alternatives whirling through the tornado’s winds: vigorous walks in the morning before heading in to work; inexpensive resistance exercises in your living room—all the options you see are free and don’t take long to do. You also see visions of your future self in the doctor’s office, pharmacy, or in the emergency room with symptoms of conditions that moderate exercise would have likely prevented. You also see the faces of family members who are no longer alive, who died from cancer before their time. Yet you are still alive, and have the chance to care for the body you have been given if you just choose to take advantage of your options. The tornado is closing in; you can either embrace the options it is offering, or face a future filled with painful, expensive medical products and procedures. Getting in shape will be hard, especially in the beginning since you haven’t had a decent workout, or even broken a sweat, in ten or more years. Which do you prefer: the pain of a muscle that is sore as it heals from several sets of lunges or push ups, or the pain that accompanies the procedure of putting a stent in your artery? Here comes the storm. You’ll have to choose soon. Hold on, the one ahead of you is almost here.
Coming directly at you is the intellectual/spiritual tornado. It contains the wisdom of scholars and philosophers you have never before encountered, the ideas of great thinkers—scientists, authors, musicians. Their ideas stand to challenge any and all beliefs you possess and force you to either defend or discard them in favor of that which makes the stronger case for truth. If your mind is open to this tornado’s possibilities, the potential for growth and expanded knowledge is unlimited. Should you resist, shielding your mind in an echo chamber of limitation, you will be blown down into the deepest, darkest recess of Plato’s cave, effectively stripping from yourself the possibility of making any meaningful difference in the world.
These tornados, though expressed as metaphors, are very real experiences, and I am facing them in my own life right now. I am a high school teacher, and my colleagues and I recently witnessed a colleague in another school practicing her craft and were stunned and inspired by the effectiveness of her instructional philosophy and methodology. We left that observation and debriefing session feeling both inspired and daunted. We couldn’t wait to start talking and planning how we would adapt her program to fit our own department (and hopefully one day our school), but we simultaneously realized how daunting the work would be. We are talking about the complete re-invention of the wheel for us. It will be extremely challenging, but also revivifying. We needed that missing philosophical link to bring us all together under a common set of philosophies and procedures. That dichotomy of excitement and trepidation is staring us in the face, daring us to transform it into the effective and dynamic program we all believe it can be.
While I am preparing for that work, I have been reminded of my own mortality by the death of a younger family member who succumbed to breast cancer one year after her diagnosis. I lost my sister-in-law to lung cancer (she was a non-smoker) only a few years before that. We never know when life will throw us the final curve ball. We need to take care of our health and not assume that we have an infinite amount of time ahead of us. I have made more than my share of excuses over the years to talk myself out of exercising or to justify eating either more than I needed to or food that isn’t the healthiest. Enough. Although I am quite certain that there are fewer years ahead of me than there are behind, I want to ensure that I am healthy enough to weather whatever physical challenges are coming so that I can make the most of however many years (or hours—who can tell?) are left to me. So, as the saying goes, maybe I can’t do everything, but I won’t let that stop me from doing the things I can. This is no clichéd New Year’s resolution that will last three weeks and lose momentum; this is a wholesale philosophical shift, driven by an awakened sense of urgency.
The final challenge with which I have been wrestling is even more personal; an intellectual and spiritual upheaval that has left me wondering what to believe, who to listen to, and what to read as I continue the life-long search for truth, meaning, and fulfilling engagement. Just when I think I have heard the argument that convinces me to feel a certain way about a certain issue or philosophy, along comes a counter-position that sends me back into a state of vacillating indecision. Who, or what, am I to trust today? The only answer I really have at the moment is…myself (and all of you at the SNS, too). I hold the beliefs that make the most sense to be in the moment, yet I am ready to discard them when superior ones present themselves. I won’t do that easily, but I am at least willing to do it when I listen to intelligent people speak and debate; I read voraciously, and I keep my mind open to what makes the most sense and proves itself the most valuable in terms of effectiveness.
Is this what people refer to when they say they are having a “mid-life crisis”? I have no urge to buy a red sports car or anything. I am however facing the three tornadoes previously described that will, within a year, have torn me apart on many levels and re-assembled me into someone completely unrecognizable to my current self. This transformation is daunting and exhilarating at the same time. Change is a fundamental truth of human existence, and though it can be frightening to face at times due to its pulling us out of our comfort zones, we need to embrace its opportunities and see in it the potential for growth and personal improvement. So, if you find that your life seems to have stagnated and the road ahead looks too dreary and repetitive to endure, go out and find—or make—your tornadoes; leap into them, and take pride in whatever comes out.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.