No matter how many months and years go by, it is impossible for me to ever escape my own personal history. The story of my own life has had, like most of us, many unique twists and turns; some happy, some very challenging, and others that may have been forgotten in the moment, but whose effects live in me to this day. A quotation that I originally heard on an episode of CSI New York has stuck with me this week:
“We are shaped by our experiences, but DEFINED by our choices”.
Maybe it is just one of my quirks, but I could listen to stories of how people came to be where they are in life all day long. The vast number experiences that we all collect through life slowly build us into who we become, much like a building being created brick by brick into something much larger and grand than any individual brick. Similarly, each of us has made an important choice, whether we realize it or not: either we have chosen to see our own past as a story of limitation, or as a story of building strength, wisdom and purpose. Whatever one’s own story is, regardless of its content, I bet it would fit well into one of these two categories. It is this choice that is an excellent predictor of our own choices that in turn create our future.
Let me give you a fast example of a story – my own – and demonstrate how powerful this choice can be. I had been a classroom teacher for almost 10 years, and had known for several years that being a teacher was not my lifelong calling. Though there were important elements of it that I enjoyed and found purpose in, creating assignments, lectures, and marking papers was draining me of energy and enthusiasm not just for work, but for life. It was time for an exit strategy, or so I thought. Here was the problem: I had a wife and two young children who were relying on me to provide a dependable income, and she was not interested in returning to her own career as a teacher – she’d had enough, and wanted the experience of raising the children at home until they were old enough to attend school.
The choice in front of me was clear, though I didn’t fully grasp what was at stake at the time. I could have decided that my duty was to stay employed as a teacher for any foreseeable future, and that creating anything different vocationally would have to wait until my children had finished school, in roughly 15 more years. It would have meant choosing a path that would almost certainly lead to boredom at work, frustration and a lack of patience at home, and a sense that my life was unfair. My “lot in life” would have appeared futile, at least to me: earn money, aim to survive rather than thrive, and dream of those elusive days when I could finally honour myself by doing something I loved, and predictably be a much better husband and friend to those around me! All the university degrees, happy experiences growing up, and tough challenges I had grown from would have seemed less full of purpose and more a collection of events that raised my hopes, only to have them dashed years later.
Parents, youth and children today are all writing their own life stories, right to this very day. They are also all in various stages of building evidence to support one of the two paths that one can view life with: that of limitation, or of being full of purpose and opportunity. Many of the people I have worked with over time struggled with the anger and despair that seemed far too common in their lives. For youth and young adults, it has often been caused by a sense that they cannot pursue goals and aspirations that truly resonate with them, whether from current lack of resources, lack of support from parents or other people close to them, or some other reason. Parents’ voices are just as important to hear however, and it is not uncommon to discover adults who do not feel invited to find their true purpose either, one that gives them an energy and joy they can share with their families, and that they have not experienced in a long time.
The biggest challenge comes not from deciding to create something different for themselves. Taking action, and following through with that action, without allowing fear to prevent us from moving forward, provides the obstacle that many have difficulty with. That doesn’t mean taking action recklessly, by walking away from a job tomorrow without a realistic plan, and creating an incredibly stressful situation, for example! It may mean taking some concrete steps toward a new and unknown future, however, and acknowledging that the road to a new destination may not have a clear, predictable roadmap to guide us there. Such was certainly the case in my own challenge to move away from a life I was not happy with, and I will continue that story next week.