Humans are saddled from birth with the double-edged sword of writing our own stories. From the first sparkling moments of awareness we are faced with a paralyzing morass of choice. We find ourselves bolted in for the performance of our lives, often moving at speeds too fast to consider the gravity of the sharp turns the road may take.
The pauses we take in life not only help identify the potentials of transitions as we live them, but also serve to frame the story. Each pause represents a moment of transition, and these are the hashmarks on the yardsticks of our lives. Our lives assume dimensions as complex and diverse as the choices we have paused to make.
Pauses allow for more control, and the more points of control, the more varied a path you can take. Those who blindly subscribe to the cultural and societal norms do so at their own peril. Taking accountability for only a few large choices in life will quickly shunt you down a prescribed path.
Fresh out of high school, many young adults soon find themselves in much the same setting they just left, albeit residing in shoddy dormitories and paying tens of thousands of dollars a year for the privilege to be told what to read and write. Liberal arts colleges the world over offer the illusion of choice from a catalog meant to supplement a core curriculum, creating well-rounded and productive members of society, bound for impressive careers.
However, many college graduates will tell you what’s ahead, regardless of choices made. Surrendering to the charge of the salmon upstream, as so many of their parents did before them, the career spawning grounds they had been promised are dry and unfulfilling creek beds. The funnel of higher education only presents so many options. Without taking pause to consider the impacts of their choices or lack thereof, graduates may quickly find themselves the most educated person working at their local TGIFridays.
Many young people increasingly choose to take a year or two off to pause and consider life before they plunge into higher education. Known as a gap year, the experience of stepping away from the traditional life path can have a number of benefits. Experiences may range from stints with AmeriCorps or international travel, but the theme of finding perspective remains constant. Gap years aren’t only a game for the young. Senior gap years can help redefine a life or salve the sting of loss.
Stepping away from the wheel of life might seem like an invitation for disruption. However, by definition, a transition is a disruption. Disruption, as many in the business world will tell you, represents opportunity. The shortest distance between any two points is a short line, but not every choice can be made as quickly as whether or not to indulge in Taco Tuesday. Often, our goals seem unreachable not for lack of ability, but for lack of perspective. When you attack life from a singular angle, your scope of options is severely limited. Taking time to fully appreciate transitions for the necessary disruption that they are can open the world of possibilities to you.
Herman Hesse summed this idea up beautifully in his seminal work, Siddhartha:
“When someone is seeking,” said Siddartha. “It happens quite easily that he only sees the thing that he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal. You, O worthy one, are perhaps indeed a seeker, for in striving towards your goal, you do not see many things that are under your nose.”
While humanity has been able to ask many great questions about the nature of life, the universe and everything, we haven’t found many of the answers. Scientists all tend to agree, however, that we are born, we live, and then we eventually expire. Knowing the origin and terminus of our journey gives a certain freedom. Within those two points, we can do absolutely anything we desire, provided we are willing and able to own the risk as well as the reward.
Rube Goldberg was an engineer, writer, cartoonist, and humorist, a man best known for creating complex solutions to simple problems. If you’ve ever played the game Mousetrap, or watched a series of marbles roll down ramps to eventually turn on a light, you’re familiar with this celebrated inventor’s satirical metaphors for life.
A Rube Goldberg contraption has a beginning and an end, just as we do. Within those two points, the course can be as colorful or seemingly pointless as a hand-operated system of pulleys to shave your face. Yes, a simple razor might be easier, but nowhere near as much fun. The power of Rube Goldberg contraptions is in exploding the steps of a simple act into dozens of smaller ones. It’s taking advantage of the vast free space we have between life and death.
The biographies of humanity’s heroes and villains are never a straight and simple line; those are what you wait in for your driver’s license or diploma. A life well-lived is full of twists and turns, often making little sense at the time. The shapes of our lives meander and warp according to the choices we make, sometimes deviating wildly from the traditional course of school, work and death.
You cannot stand in the same river twice, as life rushes past and through us. Life moves at a constant march and has little regard for your desire to linger in the gardens of singular experience. In the frantic pace of modern life, we find ourselves stealing time back from the decisions we’ve made. Because we often do not take pause to consider the pivotal nature of a transition, we rush blindly in, with regret close at our heels.
The extraordinary machine of our lives instead becomes a series of simple chutes, depositing us neatly into our final resting place. It is only when we take pause that we can truly appreciate the scope of the playing field, the fabulous corkscrews and gravity-defying loops our lives can take. Our lives have a pre-determined end. Those that appreciate the power of transitions will have filled the space between birth and death with the wonderful engines of a life well-lived.
Artwork by Travis Somerville.