On not getting what we want

Had things worked out exactly the way I initially wanted, I’d now be living in a small hut amid a sumptuous villa by Mexico’s Pacific shore feeding myself from the ocean and writing stories.

Providence would have it otherwise.

Instead, for two years now, I’ve been temporarily anchored on sixteen acres of Northeast wilderness, still trying to find the charm of its harsh winters watching my skin turn ashen and my toes black and blue.

Oh, how I’ve railed against my fortune! Cursed my unlucky stars! Struggled fruitlessly to pull anchor and sail away. 

Vividly, I still recall the serendipitous messages flashing before me – on bridges and walls - as I explored the area in Mexico which would’ve been my new home:

“Don’t give up. Every step brings you closer to your dreams.”

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.”

“Hope your dreams don’t fall asleep.”

I mistook those signs for geography - “This is it! This is the right place for me!” - rather than orientation. Those messages were not pinpointing a place on a map but tracing a route for a journey that has no endpoint.

I know this now.

There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. – Oscar Wilde

Had I insisted, I would’ve been blind from one eye (long story), been forced to halt my writing while bussing tables, and not had the time to chisel-off the barnacles encrusted on the hull of my ship – the wounds and burdens which weigh us down making any quest or spiritual journey futile and meaningless.

In her Memoir, Marion Miller said she did not know she could only get the most out of life by giving herself up to it. 

Men have a hard time with this. Giving-up control, surrendering, letting go. We’re taught to ram our way through every obstacle and fight until death. It’s the way of the Warrior, surely, but often not the way of the Sage.

Instead of bucking your head against a stone wall (why do we get headaches so often?), sit quietly with hands folded and wait for the wall to crumble. Don’t sit and pray that it will happen! Just sit and watch it happen. Sit thus, indifferent to everything that has been said and taught about walls. You will awaken to the fact that what you regarded as a wall is not a wall at all, but a bridge possibly, or a ladder of fire. – Henry Miller

Sometimes, surrendering is the only way to get anywhere.

In 2003, a Swedish company created ‘Mindball,’ a game consisting of a physical table where players sit opposite each other wearing wired headbands with sensors that picks up their brain signals. The motive force is the combination of alpha and theta waves produced by the brain when it’s relaxed. The player who is most relaxed will have their ball score and win. You win, only if you try not to win, so to speak. The same works for insomnia. Force yourself to fall asleep and you’re in for a rough night.

If you surrender to the wind, you can ride it – Toni Morrison

Surrendering doesn’t mean giving up and doing nothing. There is a fine distinction between paralysis and rightful action, between swimming against the current and swimming with it, accepting that the Universe might have other plans for us which we ignore at our peril.

I have found no better metaphor for this than Victor Hugo’s ‘Apologue’:

The other evening, I was a little late going down to dinner, and this was the reason: I noticed a number of dead bees lying on the floor of the lookout where I am accustomed to work. The poor things had come in through the open window. When the windows were closed, they found themselves prisoners. Unable to see the transparent obstacle, they had hurled themselves against the glass planes until they fell to the floor and died.

But yesterday, I noticed among the bees a great drone, much stronger than the bees, who was far from being dead and was dashing himself against the panes with all his might like the great beast that he was. 

I threw open the window, and by means of a napkin, began chasing the insect toward it, but the drone persisted in flying in the opposite direction. I then tried to capture it by throwing the napkin over it. When the drone saw that I wished to capture it, it lost its head completely; it bounded furiously against the panes as though it could smash them, took a fresh start, and dashed itself again and again against the glass.

After trying very hard, I brought it down and, in seizing it with the napkin, I involuntarily hurt it. Oh, how it tried to avenge itself! It darted out its sting; its little nervous body, contracted by my fingers, strained itself with all its strength in an attempt to sting me. But I ignored its protestations, and stretching my hand out the window, opened the napkin. For a moment, the drone seemed stunned, astonished; then it calmly took flight into the infinite.

Well, you see how I saved the drone. It was its Providence.

Do we not, stupid drones that we are, conduct ourselves in the same manner? We have our absurd projects, our small and narrow views, our rash designs, whose accomplishment is either impossible or injurious to ourselves. Seeing no farther than our noses and with our eyes fixed on our immediate aim, we plunge ahead in our blind infatuation, like madmen. We would succeed, we would triumph; that is to say, we would break our heads against an invisible obstacle. And when the Universe upsets our designs, we stupidly complain against it. We do not comprehend that in overturning our plans it is doing it to deliver us; to open the Infinite to us.

Like Hugo’s drone, I was stunned when my Mexico plans were thwarted. I felt shipwrecked, lost in a desolate, forbidding sea. A few months went by in total paralysis until I was thrown a lifesaver by poet Juan Ramón Jiménez:

I have a feeling that my boat

has struck, down there in the depths,

against a great thing.

             And nothing

happens! Nothing... Silence... Waves...

             –Nothing happens? Or has everything happened,

and are we standing now, quietly, in the new life?

I finally understood that everything that had happened was necessary for me to stand in the new life, which for me meant I first needed to repair my ship before venturing back out again. That’s when I took time to chisel the barnacles, heaving out all the stories and paradigms I had unwittingly allowed to rule my life and wrote my own, creating, if you will, my own passport and flag emblazoned with my own values.

Once finished, I still felt adrift, until this second lifesaver:

Always begin where you are

and work out from there:

if adrift, feel the feel of

the oar in the oarlock first. – Thomas Hornsby

So I slipped my oars into the oarlocks and began to row, still unsure where I was headed. 

But it doesn’t matter anymore. 

No fixed destination is needed for me to enjoy the salt spray on my face and the wind tousling my hair. I have never rowed with such vigor, and, strangely, I never tire. I have even given myself a new name: Flying Fish.

The seas are still rough; the headwinds strong. I still question whether I’ve made the right choice to surrender to providence… whether the wall will finally crumble or turn into a ladder of fire. Perhaps a new current will sneak up on me and toss me in a different direction. Doesn’t matter either.

I suppose I’ll know it’s time to give up rowing once it becomes a burden. For now, I’m sailing the Infinite with more joy than I deserve, contemplating every silver fringe lining the clouds, and knowing exactly what I must do with my one, wild and precious life.

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