I took some time off this past week for reading, writing, thinking, and sleeping, each of which was very much needed. I went to a decent-sized town, a college town, that I had passed through while traveling on the train a few times, but had never had time to explore. I looked forward to the idea of getting out and doing a bit of wandering.
So, fighting 30 mile per hour winds, I drove three hours across the Midwest plains to a place called Normal, checked into my hotel, and began to settle in. The room was nice even if the view out the window was that of the hotel roof. I took a nice nap and when I woke up, I decided that I should probably start the process of deciding where to eat.
I have a rule when traveling that I don’t eat at chains or fast-food restaurants. Part of the joys of being someplace new is trying out the local cuisine, preferably mom-and-pop type places where the flavor of the food reflects the flavor of the people who live there. I typically rely on Yelp or some other review-based system to help me find which places are most popular and then match the reviews with my interests and dietary limitations.
Looking at the reviews, there were a number of restaurants that looked interesting and when I glanced over at the adjacent map, it looked as though several of them were relatively close to the hotel, which I always appreciate. I chose one, a barbecue place with rave reviews, put the address into my phone, and leave. I didn’t really bother looking at how far it was, or the fact that the GPS said it was going to take 15 minutes to get there.
Obviously, the trip was longer than I anticipated, augmented by the fact that the number of one-way streets down purely residential neighborhoods had me convinced that I had to have either missed the restaurant or was going in the wrong direction. I doubled back on an adjacent street, tried again, and only became more confused the longer I drove. When I finally gave in and listened to the directions being given to me, I made it to the restaurant in a matter of minutes and went on to enjoy a thoroughly delicious meal.
This type of thing happens to me far more often than I like to admit. I’m not good at following directions. I want to follow my instinct, instead, and my instinct does not have a good track record. In fact, my instinct is so bad that Kat frequently tells people that if there is a difficult way to do something, I’ll find it. She’s not wrong.
There are long-standing jokes, to the point of stereotyping, about men not stopping to ask for directions. Those jokes are older than the invention of the automobile. Foldable maps or digital GPS are both things intended to make the process of finding a place easier, but when we ignore the directions given, we often find ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time with nothing to eat. We do the same thing in other areas of our lives as well. We always have. So much so, that we’ve built points of religious commemoration around some of them.
Humanity, both corporately and individually, frequently finds itself at decision points where we’ve accomplished something of great significance but then have no idea what to do afterward. How do we find ways to build off the emotional high and keep moving forward? What do we do if what brought us to this point is incapable of taking us forward? How do we respond when what worked last week doesn’t work today? Finding those answers is often not as easy as listening to the directions on an app. If only life worked that way.
Is There A Ralph’s Around Here?
Both our Jewish friends and our Christian friends had significant holidays this past week. For Jews, it was the celebration of Passover. For Christians, it was Holy Week culminating in the celebration of Easter. Both commemorate pivotal moments of change in their respective histories, events that shape the very foundation of their belief systems.
What’s interesting, when we take a closer look, is what happened immediately after those events. There were decisions to be made and, in both cases, one can argue that the decisions made were not the best ones. In fact, the decisions may have brought about a tremendous amount of pain and suffering that might not have been necessary had the people involved been paying a little more attention to the directions.
Take the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, for example. The generally accepted version of the story is that once the refugees were safe across the water and the Egyptian army was drowned, there were many among them who began to question Moses’ leadership. Sure, he had managed to get them out of slavery, but to what end? Where were they now? Where were they supposed to go? Maybe Moses wasn’t the best choice to lead them forward.
So, when Moses’ back was turned, they rebelled. They ditched the deity that had insisted they leave and began worshipping an Egyptian entity. There were some who even talked about going back to Egypt, where life was cruel but predictable. You know, turn around and go “home.”
As a direct result of those actions, they spent the next 40 years wandering aimlessly through the desert, always close, but never quite ready to find their ultimate home until every last one of the people who left originally left Egypt was dead. Seems like a rather harsh consequence for not following directions, doesn’t it? Apparently, Yahweh doesn’t mess around.
Jesus’ disciples were left after the resurrection and ascension with even fewer instructions. Jesus left telling them that his spirit would be with them always, but he chose no clear leader, only an instruction to spread his message and care for people. The ambiguity became too much and the next three hundred years would see incredible discord throughout the disciples and the young church. Some began writing down their versions of what happened, what we now consider the gospels. But even the gospels were too vague, so as scrolls were passed around, others added things to them, some of which, it turns out, was completely apocryphal.
As a direct result of those actions, confusion, division, and moments of incredible cruelty have been spread across the entire world. From the Great Inquisition, which no one ever expects, to labels of heresy and the burning of people at the stake, to this day there remains little unification on what the Bible means, which verses actually reflect what Jesus did or did not say, or how anything is supposed to be organized. Christianity has been used as an excuse for everything from imperialism to racism and governments denying both civil and human rights and it all stems from this lack of specific instruction.
As a species, humans don’t tend to do well without some relatively specific guidance. We too easily fall for slick-talking charismatic speakers who tell us what we think we want to hear. The fact that large-scale cults exist throughout the world points to how vulnerable we are. We’ll believe just about anything, even if it makes absolutely no sense at all. In the past decade, we’ve seen a resurgence of people who think the earth is flat, that vaccines cause autism, and that conspiracy theories are real. Our corporate inability to follow directions is largely to blame for COVID-19 raging out of control to the point that it has. We’ve never been a species that cared to bother with anything that might inconvenience us in any way. Like the Jews who had just been freed from Egypt, we’re never satisfied. We need a way to help us find a positive direction forward, preferably one that’s not going to require 40 years of wandering.
If he knows I’m a fuckup, then why does he still leave me in charge?
There’s a challenge here for those of us who are Dudeist in that way. Too many people running around society are all about ambitious goal setting. They’ll tell you ya’ gotta do this, then follow that with step B, and then there is this whole flow chart thing of what is supposed to happen next. I suppose that’s nice if that’s what you’re into. The problem is, such ambitious goal-setting doesn’t always work.
One example of this would be the way we attack household improvement projects. When everything shut down last year, Kat and I talked and decided we were going to make some changes around the house. There was horrid-looking paneling in the hallway we wanted gone, outdated wainscoting in the bathroom that needed to go, and Kat really wanted a safe place under the carport for the cats to get some fresh air.
We started in with all the energy and excitement of improving our small home. We ripped down the paneling, stripped off the wainscoting, and bought lumber for the catio. We were excited even if we didn’t have an exact plan for what we wanted to do.
Flash forward to today. The walls in the hallway and the bathroom are still rough drywall in desperate need of repair. There is a wood frame under the carport, but it’s far from being secure enough to let the cats out. We’ve talked occasionally about what we need to finish things up, but we’ve never made precise plans, never committed any time or money to the projects, and there they sit, still undone.
There is a quote attributed to Aristotle that says, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” When we are looking for direction, then, it makes sense to consider what it is we do best, most frequently, and with the most enjoyment. When we set goals that are far outside the boundaries of habit, we are less likely to achieve them. Not that we don’t want to achieve them, but if we have to strain to get them done, we’re more likely to give up the first time we run into an obstacle of any kind. Remember, as a species, our credo tends to be more in line with the Dude’s attitude: “Fuck it, let’s go bowling.”
What happens when we get overly ambitious is that our goals drive our most counter-productive behaviors, like focusing on short-term goals at the expense of long-term advancement. It’s like the person who so meticulously examines every possible route on the map in order to save a minute rather than getting in the car and driving and letting technology handle the navigation. Imagine if Moses had been carrying a GPS! They could have saved years of wandering!
There’s also this concept floating around a lot of corporations that by setting dramatically out-of-reach goals, people work harder and while failing to meet their goals, they achieve more than they would otherwise. Yeah, that’s a ridiculous idea. IBM has proven for many years that when they set lower goals for their sales staff, not only are they more likely to surpass those goals, but they’re happier doing their work, and their overall productivity increases. Asking for less generates more.
I know, this sounds incredibly counter-intuitive and for those odd people who are aggressively self-driven and pushed to constantly achieve something, it might not work. Those Type-A people have difficulty taking time for lunch, much less a real vacation. I’ve met plenty of people whose blood pressure would go up if they were trying to sit still and listen to someone else talk. They can’t do it and we have to be okay with that. However, just because they live their lives on the run doesn’t mean that’s what’s best for the rest of us. When we think we have to constantly be doing something is when we are more likely to take direction from people who send us down the wrong path.
One example might be the “life coach” who comes in and dramatically changes up your daily routine, adding three extra hours for exercise, trading casual meals you enjoy for a liquid diet you drink on the run, and setting time limits for everything from reading email to going to the bathroom. Such programs take us down paths that run counter to the essence of our identity and may ultimately be unhealthy for us. We fall for the slick talk and, let’s admit it, the attractive bodies, and often wake up one morning to find we’re no longer enjoying life and feel all the more like a failure.
So, how do we find direction, set goals, move forward, without going nuts with the spreadsheets, flow charts, and persistent disappointment? The answer is ridiculously simple: chill.
I’ve Slowed Down A Bit Here Lately
If there’s a benefit to the challenges of the past year, one may be that it has forced us to take another look at the whole life/work balance. What many people have realized is that they’re working too much and don’t know how to slow down. Others have had an opportunity to observe the challenges faced by other people in their lives, such as children having to learn from home, or spouses and partners dealing with difficult employers and schedules. What we’ve learned is that many of the goals we set in the past, the directions we thought were best for us, were being destructive and taking us places we neither wanted nor needed to go.
So, how do we move forward without completely fucking things up in the process? How do we get things done in one place without breaking them somewhere else? Can we find direction without first completely losing our way?
I’ve had the chance to do a lot of reading this week and in considering a number of different pieces of well-meaning advice, I’ve come up with a shortlist of things we can do to make progress, see the improvement we desire, without freaking ourselves out in the process.
- Determine where you really want to go. Set goals that are overwhelmingly achievable and then, if you can make them more simple do it. When I was younger and traveling often, I would set goals of trying to drive 10-12 hours a day. That was aggressive and damaging. I couldn’t enjoy the trip because I was in too much of a hurry to get to the end. Set smaller goals that allow you to breathe, eat, and take a nap. You don’t have to do everything in one day.
- Get directions and maybe follow them. No matter where it is you’re going, chances are pretty good that someone else has already made the trip and left directions. Somewhere. They may be in a map, or a book, or a poem, or a song. Don’t think that you have to chart the great unknown for yourself. Let someone else be your GPS and avoid all that time wandering.
- Travel at your own speed. I’m one of those people who likes to get in the car and drive without stopping. Use the restroom before we leave and don’t drink a lot. Other people prefer to stop often, see all the roadside attractions, and experience local flavor. Neither approach is right or wrong. They probably shouldn’t travel in the same car, though.
- Beware of detours. I don’t care where you’re going, there is going to be heavy traffic somewhere, and probably a lot of road construction. Something will slow you down and when that happens we’re often tempted to look for a detour rather than slowing down. Be careful. What looks like an easy way around a problem may have dire consequences, like running out of gas in a town where all the gas stations are closed. Only take detours that have a clear route back to your original path.
- Build-in some flexibility. Speaking of things that slow you down, since you know it’s going to happen somewhere along the way, build enough room in your expectations for delays. Maybe you have a day where the road is just exhausting and you can’t drive as long. That’s okay. Get a room, spend the night, the road will be there tomorrow, right where you left it.
- Celebrate arriving. Not everyone arrives at their destination. Some are interrupted and are unable to complete the trip. Some fail to prepare and have to return home. Others experience acts of nature or violence over which they have no control. If you get where you’re going, you’re one of the lucky ones. Enjoy.
That’s not to say that you have to go anywhere. Maybe you’ve already made the journey and are happy where you are. You’re not being lazy if you’ve already achieved what you set out to do. If that’s the case, enjoy where you are, raise a glass, and enjoy the rest of the game.
What Did You Think This Was All About?
All this talk avoids the question of whether it’s better to not have any direction and just go with what the world throws at you. Certainly, that seems to be the Dude’s general approach to life. If he has an overarching ambition he’s keeping it well hidden. At the same time, though, when it matters to him, when his rug has been soiled and he needs a new one, and when he thinks Bunny’s life may be in danger, he proves himself to be rather focused on resolving both problems. It’s not that the Dude doesn’t have any direction, he just doesn’t waste it on things that don’t matter to him.
My father used to like getting in the car on Sunday afternoons and driving. I think that was a generational thing that largely died out when the price of gas started costing more than a meal for four. When we would go on these drives, there didn’t seem to be a specific destination. We’d drive out on country roads, look at the fields, the cattle, and the scenery. Sometimes we’d stop and wade in a shallow creek, or perhaps visit with friends whose home we happened to be passing. As a child, the whole event, more often boring than not, seemed entirely random.
What I learned much later is that those trips always had a purpose: to satisfy my father’s desire to explore. His work never gave him much opportunity to travel and when he did he rarely had time to do the things a normal tourist might like to do. Sunday afternoon drives were the closest remedy he could find and still be back home in time for the evening’s worship service. There is intentional wandering, and then, there’s getting lost. They’re not the same.
This brings me back to my original question: Where do we go from here? As the pandemic seems to be winding down, do we charge aggressively for a return to what we considered normal, or do we form a more moderated and considerate society? Do we jump back into social gatherings with dozens of people, or do we hold onto those limited pods of four or five that we’ve come to trust? Are we more sensitive to matters of race and gender, or do we revert to being assholes?
We do best when we have a plan, when we know where we want to go and have directions for how to get there, even if the path we choose to take meanders and stops often for snacks and bathroom breaks. To some degree, we’re all charting new territory and the GPS on our phones may not be the tool we need to keep us out of trouble.
So, as we close, let me leave you with these final thoughts:
As you choose a path,
And traverse this life,
May you find blessings
For the earth beneath your feet,
For the path whereon you go;
For the things of your desire;
Bless to you your rest.
Bless to you the thing
Whereon is set your mind
Bless to you the thing
Whereon is set your love;
Bless to you the thing
Whereon is set your hope;
May you always travel safe,
May you forever travel well.