When you’re holding a freshly cooked waffle dripping with Nutella and you remark, “my day has been as sweet as this dessert,” you know you’ve had a good one! Everything about our journey in Normandy, from the landscapes to our conversations, was sensationally delicious.
One of the most interesting insights came when, from a grassy perch atop a chalky cliff, we looked down at the ocean washing onto a pebbly beach.
If we focused on the waves one at a time, we could see that each had its own unique rhythm that carried it to its own demise. Expanding our perspective outward to the beach as a whole, we could see that the entire coast also danced: the dozens of waves breaking along the shore created the impression of a sinuous line, like the impression you get while moving a pencil up and down very quickly. In front of us grew multicolored wildflowers, who tenaciously clung to the earth as the constant gale battered them.
In such a scene, I remarked to Giulia something I learned about my father’s decision as a young man to study law (and consequently marry my mother and start a family) instead of pursuing theology. A few weeks back in Colorado, he told me about the deep satisfaction he had after leading a weeklong seminar on Thomas Merton. He had even (unexpectedly) been paid and praised by the retreat’s director. When I learned this, my first reaction was, “how could he have not followed his bliss?” Following your bliss (a phrase that Joseph Campbell used to share with his students to describe how they should pursue anything that gives them a sense of meaning and purpose) has been the guiding philosophy in my life. As Campbell describes, when you “follow your bliss,” invisible hands will help you achieve your dream (Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchimist also advocates this way of life). My father’s unexpected windfall of being paid to do something he loved seemed to me a clear case of the universe opening a door to help him: how could he not have walked through it?
As I sat there watching the ocean, however, I realized that I should actually be very grateful for my father’s decision: after all, I wouldn’t exist to be there watching the ocean if he hadn’t! It got me thinking that perhaps I am too rigid and categorical in my insistence that we all should have the discernment to see and the courage to follow the little signs that life gives to encourage us to do what we really love. Looking at my life, I see the tremendous bounty this attitude has brought me, with all the incredible experiences that have come my way as a result of “being open” and taking risks. (The latest example being the current India trip: Giulia and I decided to go before we knew how we were going to pay for it. Lucky for us, a few guiding hands came down to support us). Naturally, since I’ve seen it work out so well in my circumstance, I’d like others to experience it too, and to recognize that these blessings actually come from a source infinitely more powerful and knowing than our little selves.
But just because it’s worked out for me doesn’t me it’s the right path for everyone. I can only see how things have unfolded in my little corner of the universe, so how can I possibly make any grand pronouncements about how it works everywhere else? Sometimes, for reasons beyond my understanding, it might be better for someone to “stick to the plan” and deny the little spark of joy that comes from doing what they love. After all, following bliss can be a tough way to live—one whose challenges are as great as the potential rewards. I often ask myself whether it’s worth it, or whether I’d be better off living a “normal life.”
Having listened intently to this point-counterpoint, Giulia then pointed out that, even though it is important to realize that there is no one-size-fits-all life philosophy, all my talk about “better,” “should,” and “working out” is actually just an attempt to be a little more comfortable in a world whose workings and intricacies are actually impossible for the mind to grasp. Looking at the struggling flowers in front of us, she reminded me that lived experience is so far beyond any attempt to categorize and understand it. As my former philosophy teacher put it: don’t try to rationalize the un-rationalizable!
I understood that any attitude we take toward life is just one interpretation amongst many. Maybe I see that frustrations can actually become doors of opportunity and obstacles are channels to direct me onto a better path because I want them to be that way, and I thus see everything through that lens. I wondered if any story you tell yourself about life becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; maybe it’s all just a way of trying to feel more comfortable in the endless series of meaningless events that happen to us.
But I feel that, even though our perspectives are profoundly limited, they are still important. Seeing invisible hands opening doors for me and following my bliss may be just a story I like to tell myself, but it’s one that works better for me than seeing myself as a victim of circumstance, or at the whim of a capricious and absurd universe. Ultimately, what I like about the idea of “following your bliss” is that it’s a story that empowers me, since it makes me more aware and alert of the world around me, and even gives me a bit more patience when things don’t seem to be working out (it might be the prelude to something amazing, after all!). It’s a story that requires me to work with the world, to be a wiling dance partner in a choreography I don’t know, but one that brings out tremendous beauty if I allow myself to be flexible and follow its leads.
And as I continued walking down the hill, hand in hand with the woman I love (who I met on an Indian beach after a half dozen things “not working out”), I felt that no matter the “ultimate nature of reality” and story I choose to tell myself about it, I feel incredibly blessed to be part of this universe’s unfolding waltz.