“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” – E. M. Forster
At this point in our lives – these roaring 20s – this kind of lesson packs a powerful, and often contradictory, punch. Our days have become more ambiguous, our choices more volatile, and the predictable fold of our lives has shifted to include much more chaos than most of us had ever allowed in before or during college. For most of us, even those like myself who have experienced several large and consequential changes in their short lifespans, our day-to-day and our year-to-year has always seemed stable in a way that, put simply, has run the hell away. In some ways, a switch seems to have been turned on and now we have many decisions to make and have a a multitude of timelines and options (exponendial, really) within which we coud technically make them. Our possibilities have exploded and, in a typical twist of psychological irony, so has our discontent, our worry, our anxiety.
Presented with this reality, most of cling to carefully laid out plans for security, out of habit, out of earnest belief in their superiority to other available options, out of fear, out of comfort, out of optimism. I, being a highly organized and methodical person, have done just the same and as a result, have left myself exposed to a great big weakness – surprise! – in discovering that my structured plan is not always feasible, reasonable, practical, or even sane. Personally, I learned this recently when I had to adjust my graduate school entrance by moving it forward a year and starting my MA this upcoming September instead of in 2011. The plans that I had arduously believed in (and worked towards) for the interim had simply, well, (prepare for a scary word) failed.
They didn’t fail completely and this was not as dramatic as one might assume judging by my word-choice, but to someone who is not particularly accustomed to failure (in that way that the innate belief of young people to see themselves as slightly invincible exceptions to ordinary rules is enhanced by having been lucky enough to partake in a series of incredible and actually exceptional opportunities and experiences, including the whole of college), this was a larger blow than it should have been. I perceived this as a trauma instead of a normal shift in the course of my life and that is when I realized something was wrong in my own perception of the damned thing.
The quote with which I began this post is not about settling for options we don’t really want or changing the original vision we had of our lives to a less complicated or more attainable one, but it is about learning to be flexible with the (figurative) roads we take. I still believe in working hard for what you want and not expecting it to magically fall upon your lap. I still believe in setting high goals and reaching for them. I still “plan” my life because I really do love color-coordinated lists and folders (yay!). But I had forgotten that flexibility is not a character flaw; it is, if anything, a rare gift: to be flexible with our lives (and more importantly, with the vision that we have of our lives), means to be strong enough to let go of some of our cherished control and have the inner fortitude to think with optimism about the unknown.