You are sitting there wondering what to make of yourself, of your life, of maybe the next few minutes. Give those minutes to me. I want to show you something.
Hint: It’s all up to you.
We Americans of the twenty-first century like to take paths of least resistance. Favorite yoga position? Child pose (it’s restorative!). Favorite way to pass time? Looking at a cellphone (more than 12 billion times per day!). Favorite day? Friday. OK I don’t know your favorite anything (was I even close?).
But I know this: life is a series of efforts comprised of very small, sometimes seemingly unrelated labors. And they link together in a long chain that has a starting point and an end point. The chain is rigid — you cannot bend it to shortcut your way to the destination. You can progress along it, and you can fork from it. Moving along your personal chain straight ahead or along the forks takes effort. No one is going to burst into your room and discover you as a magical, complete, amazing human, a la the Kool Aid Man “Oh Yeah, we found him, boys!” You can, however, build yourself into being something greater than your present self.
Hint: Stop watching.
I walk down my street in the evening when the lights of other people’s homes are on and the curtains still drawn open. Every wall is glowing with a television. No judgement: I love watching television. But I have ask, what if all those people were sitting on their front porches, chatting with one another, looking at their lawns, engaging in an active hobby instead of a passive one like watching? What if one block of neighbors spent their evenings outside, on their porches for one month? Would it be boring? Would they miss the shows? Would they get to know someone across the street, or start picking at their flower beds? Or yell at their kid to go help Ms. McOldLady take her grocery bags in, or undertake that most ancient hobby, think deeply?
People in the United States seem to have a Rockwellian filter over their recall of the forties and fifties. While there is much to be said about what was clearly not so great about our nation then, two things that really were different was that people did not have air conditioning and many people did not have televisions. So they spent a lot of time out on their front porches. Think about this the next time you wonder why kids don’t run rampant on the block playing or why your neighbor scowls at you for taking his parking spot or where all the time went. We are opting to passively live in isolation. Contrast this with the effort to actively build the community you want to live in, or the life you want to lead.
Hint: Ordinary people are the extraordinary ones.
Have you ever listened to a politician tell his or her story about how they got started? There is a typical tale of what job their dad or grandfather had— however far back they have to reach to tap into that blue collar “I’m one of you” sentiment of genuineness. Then the story about wanting things to be different in Washington, or downtown or where ever their political office is. So one day they ran for an office and got elected. Snap of the fingers. And here they are today, a stuffed smile with a flag pin. Or how about famous authors — write, write, write, they say. Get a good agent. Follow your heart. Or upper managers —maybe they say they started in sales and were lucky enough to make it into management with the fancy gold bracelet or watch and then suddenly, unexpectedly, they were picked by the Board of Directors to lead the company. These people are extraordinary, right?
Behind each of those stories are hundreds or thousands of tiny labors. The budding politician walked hours each day, knocking on doors as an unknown candidate trying to get the 5,000 or however many signatures needed to get their name on the ballot. Asking people to volunteer to be on the team. Asking strangers for money to support the campaign. The writer deals with loneliness and wondering about her worth or even sanity, her writings spilling into a dark void into which she thinks no one will ever peer. Rejections on a regular basis from nameless publishers. Asking a friend to read a story one more time. That fear that the one thing that you dug from the deepest reaches of your soul that expresses your dreams and visions as your purest expression of raw, uninhibited self … are just not good enough for even the penny-per-word publications. And that manager — lordy who knows how those people get their jobs with six figure paychecks. But I imagine them waking at 5AM each day, running 6 miles, reviewing the day’s check list they prepared the evening before, and girding themselves for the fourteen hour day ahead of budgets, personnel, product lines, and public relations.
All of them are ordinary people who began to tackle their labors, to string them together one after the other until their chain rises up. Sure, maybe they had a head start somehow, or innate talent, or the right network. Or maybe they were just like you, right up until they weren’t. What labor will you undertake today to add one more link to your chain of life?
Sometimes you don’t know where your chain leads, what to do to build on the next link. In those times, just move. Get yourself up and go. Write for five minutes. Do ten push ups. Drink one glass of clear water. Hug someone who you know might need it. Or, go sit on the front stoop with nothing in your hands except the expectation of knowing that a world awaits, a world that needs one more person, someone who is present, someone who is eager, someone extraordinary. Rise with the expectation that you are the driver in your life, you have the capacity to undertake one small labor, then one more and then another, to build the you that will make other people ask, How did she get there?