The Fallacy of the Smooth Path
I was asked the other day whether my path to where I am today was smooth. I laughed aloud. A smooth path? What would it mean to have a smooth path? I, for one, have no idea.
A smooth path, I suppose, would be one in one success simply breed more success. It would be a ladder-type upward movement that requires that our energy and focus never gets distracted by shiny objects. One on which we never sabotage ourselves. One on which we can see behind, around, and ahead.
Based on these descriptions, I doubt any of us have walked a smooth path in life. Moreover, I wouldn’t think we’d want to, either.
If our path is smooth, that would mean we never fell down. That would mean we never had to start over. And if we never had to start over, then we would never have had the opportunity to reinvent ourselves from scratch. For me, one of the greatest gifts of my life has been the many opportunities for reinvention, opportunities that revealed themselves only after hitting particularly hard bumps in the road. These are the times when, either by force or by choice, I tossed out all I thought I was, and much of what I thought mattered most to me. Not necessarily because they weren’t working anymore, but because it was time for them to go, and me to move on. Everything, even our built up identities and roles, comes to an end at some point. Why wait until the final end to practice letting go?
Life is meant to be lived circularly, not linearly. It’s not about “upward and onward.” It’s about learning lessons, falling down, getting back up, reinventing ourselves, and starting all over again. It means going through cycles that include the following stages: Life, death, and rebirth.
Unlike adults, children readily accept and move through the cycles of life. They shake off one role to try something new as easily as they change in and out of their play costumes. As we get older, however, we become more invested in our identities and roles, often to the point that we fuse with them. We lose sight of the fact that we’ve always been free to let something go—not only in situations where it was failing or unsatisfying—but anytime we’ve outgrown or outlasted a role.
But only death pays for new life.
Death is Not a Failure
The reason we think of death as a failure is that we misunderstand the nature of death. Death is not “the end.” Death never means finality. Again, life is not a straight line. Every ending feeds a new beginning.
“When my body dies, my soul will still be yours. Nothing is lost, Sassenach. Only changed.”
– Jamie Fraser, Outlander
In fairy tales and mythology, it is understood that death pays for life—whether that death be metaphorical or literal. The characters in these stories do not learn what they need to learn by continuing to do things as they always have. No, they must lose everything, such as their home, their comfort, their way of life, or their identity, and only from those places of unknown can they be reborn. They aren’t seeking improvements and upgrades. They are seeking transformation.
Reflect on the many small deaths in your life. You’ve already lived and died many times, have you not? The question is—did you resist and fight the darkness? Or did you draw it near, like an old friend?
The Gift of the Bumpy Path
A smooth path gives us no option other than to harden more completely into our beliefs and our identities. We ought not wish a smooth path on anyone. Instead, may we all be given a bumpy road, with bumps sometimes large enough to knock us off the path entirely. Only once off the path can we gain perspective about whether we’re on the best path for us, or if we are simply settling for something known and predictable.
If there are no bumps currently, maybe it’s time to go off-roading! Try something new, scary, or entirely foreign. Become a beginner again. Find ways and people and places that challenge your beliefs and ideas in a way that finds you pondering life’s mysteries, and your role in revealing those mysteries.
You are not here to “perfect” you. You are not on a forward and upward continuum of improvements. You’re not a mobile phone. You’re part of nature, a human being, and you’re here to undergo lifecycles that undo you and twist you up and suck you dry before they push you back to the surface yet again. You’re here to experience both fullness and emptiness, abundance and lack, notoriety and obscurity, confidence and naivete.
You’re here to live not one but many lifecycles and become many different things within the container of your one life. You are always becoming; but you should never aim to become. We are here to reinvent ourselves time and again. To let go of old identities and ways of life as the costumes they are, lest they become too enmeshed with our truest selves.
So, when you feel the tug to withdraw from some title or role you’ve been playing that no longer fits you—it could be in your family, or place of work—don’t resist. Trust that there is always something new to be born out of every death. Fingertip by fingertip, let go and surrender yourself to the changing flow and cycle of life.
Someday soon, you will walk out of the tomb of the unborn you. You will blink into the blazing sun, not unlike you did as an infant entering this world. And you will, probably faster than you realize, begin to accumulate roles and titles again. But this time, hopefully, you will remember that it’s all a children’s game of dress-up. And then you’ll be even more prepared for the cycle, and the one after that, and the one after that…
And so, while you continue to walk your path, I wish you a bumpy road and many, many reinventions.