The weekend before my fortieth birthday – as a kind of present to myself – I spent several days at a workshop with a group of women: sharing personal stories, listening deeply, tracking our patterns, talking about fears and shame, releasing things that were no longer working. At the end of the weekend, we were asked to set goals to create a new habit around something we had worked on over the weekend. I, mind racing, thought of All the Things I Need to Work On.
When my turn came around the circle, I tried to cram half a dozen of these into one small timely measurable goal to accomplish the following week. And failed miserably. The facilitators gently prodded me on my intentions and tried to pare down the whole mess into something more specific. I said I would pass until the rest of the circle was done. By the time it came around to me again, I was weeping: “I’m so overwhelmed.”
I blurted out a couple of very small goals, as I should have done in the first place: to sit on my back steps for a few moments each day in quiet and awareness, and to create a moment of ceremony each morning to offer some gratitude and prayers and set intentions for the day. Then proceeded to cry through all of the closing. The weekend was almost done. There wasn’t much time left to dig any deeper.
I certainly wasn’t the first to break down that weekend. In many ways, that’s the point: to let down those defenses of the tender places in your heart, and let people in, knowing that your story is always in some way their story too, sinking into the trust that’s been built through talking in a circle. Through carefully and lovingly watching the faces around you, through honouring confidences, through watching each person struggling to express vulnerable truths about themselves.
In the hour before we packed up, someone hugged me and told me I didn’t need to push myself so hard. “What does that even mean?” I wondered, as I always do, because it’s not the first time I’d heard it.
I cried again when I got home; I cried again when I woke up the next morning, my birthday. A week before I had been almost smug with confidence about moving into a new decade of my life. I tried to pull apart the overwhelm of that moment: too many commitments, too many expectations of myself? That wasn’t quite it.
But then I saw that the question that had flooded me was this: “Will I ever be the person I want to be?”
Once I could hear this clearly, something inside me was still. And another voice, a curious and quiet one, responded:
“What if you were willing to believe that you are that person already?”
“No, I’m not. I can’t be. Someday. There’s still so much to do. So much to work on. Once I learn this and this and change that and that other thing about myself…. maybe then.”
Right, I get it. It’s a moving target. Something to aspire to and never reach. Something to motivate me to keep moving.
“But let’s just say,” the calm watcher part of my brain pressed on, “let’s just say you had to be that person right now. What would that mean?”
It was a scary thought. I watched myself recoil from it.
What would it mean? It would mean that I need to be accountable. That I can’t sulk. That I need to respond instead of reacting. That I need to say what has to be said, instead of withdrawing. That I need to stay open. That if I make a mistake, if I fall into an old pattern – as I surely will – I need to go back and own it. That I need to be aware of the impact of each word and action. That if I see that something needs to be done, I need to step forward and do it. That in every moment, I need to draw on my best self.
It feels so much easier to keep putting it off.
Maybe growth comes not of looking to the elusive self-improvements of the future, but of intentionally tending the seeds of each moment now and slowly unfurling our leaves and buds out of them until we burst into flower. Maybe. I might be willing to believe it.
The frustrating but beautiful thing about truisms, I’ve found, is that I can fight against them for years until one day a voice inside me offers me the same advice: you can only live in the present moment. It takes me a long time to get the message. It’s hard to learn things like that from the outside.
Can I move through each moment as if I’m already the person I wish I was?
There is a tightrope, I think, that we need to walk on as our best selves, while compassionately picking ourselves up again when we stumble and fall, because even our best selves will always be imperfect.
Can you live as the person you wish you were? Not as a mandate, but as an experiment: a thought experiment, an experiment of intention, an experiment of action?