08 November 2010

Purposeful thinking vs. listening

A friend has been working through some interesting books and such on how to make the most of your life. I truly think he’s doing something he needs to do – and I am all in favour of him considering every possible angle and finding the path to his personal best. However, some of the stuff he’s working with has really strong “positive thinking” overtones – and those always worry me. I am willing to accept that when you take the WHOLE book/story/whatever into account, they’re probably not saying what it sounds like they are saying – but ya know, Catholic theology doesn’t actually say what it sounds like it says about a lot of things either if you read the whole thing – but nobody recognizes that fact in general conversation, not even most practicing Catholics.

All of you who’ve read the entire Catechism of the Catholic Faith, raise your hands.*

Yeah, thought so.

So back to the positive thinking stuff. The problem with saying “envision where you want to go, and you will get there” is that it’s too simple – and it’s also false. I know it isn’t likely what the authors intend … but that’s the ‘sound byte’ that it all boils down to and people say “bah, nonsense”. And rightfully so. I’m sure there’s more to it, but whatever it is, I already know it doesn’t apply to me. Maybe it applies to some people, I don’t know – but for sure, it isn’t for me. Five year plans and mission statements have NO place in my life.

I’ll tell you why.

I truly, deeply, do NOT believe in planning. Really, who am I to plan my life? Who am I to say what I think OUGHT to happen? My track record proves I have no business planning my own life. Ugh.

I had a plan, oh yes I did. Everything was going great, dreams all more or less on schedule. Then my baby died, and my heart broke. I healed, mostly, had another baby who was (and still is, actually) everything I had dreamed of, and things were starting to look better … and then my husband turned into a stranger because a tumour took over his brain, and then chaos reigned in my life for several years (literally): getting through the days with the bills paid and my sanity mostly intact was more than I could manage without a lot of help. Knowing me now, you’d never guess what it was like – it was truly, truly awful. I was a mess.

Part of what made that time in my life so bad was that I was struggling with the loss of my plans. That hurt – giving up the old dreams. Plus, I kept trying to make new plans, to come up with a new vision, to find the positive – and all that happened is that I hit wall after wall.

It was only when, in absolute despair and frustration, I threw up my hands and shouted, “FINE, God, YOU handle it, I QUIT, just … fix it! I don’t care how!” … well, things seemed to go even worse for awhile … and then … somehow … slowly, and without me noticing, they turned around. And here I am – and I feel like I had absolutely nothing to do with it. I just went along with the Leadings that came to me so clearly there was no arguing with them.

I did have to participate, though. First of all, I *listened*. I shut up about what I wanted. I stopped demanding that things happen the way I dreamed they should be.

And once I did - dreams bigger and better than anything I could have come up with were given to me. Just … given. Out of a clear blue sky.

Of course, then I had to find the courage to accept the gifts. It wasn’t easy, as these new dreams were way different and big and scary and totally outside my comfort zone – but they would not leave me alone. That quiet, insistent voice said “you need to do this.” I learned what it is to truly hear the Inner Light.

But see, the key was that I had to STOP trying to plan my life. I had to STOP trying to control the outcome. I had to accept that I honestly haven’t got a freakin’ clue about what would be best for me – and to just wait and see what happens … and then, as the Quakers say, to “Proceed as Way opens”.

You can’t hear what God says to you if you won’t shut up long enough to listen. And given how noisy our world is, and how loud our minds are, it can take a long time of purposeful LISTENING to even begin to sense the Leadings that are calling to you.

Hearing that Leading and going through the long process of testing it for truth, then finally accepting it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. It was also the truest thing I’ve ever done, and has opened the door to a life richer and more wonderful than anything I could have planned for myself.

The dreams I could come up with were way smaller than what was actually out there waiting for me.

Don’t plan. Listen. Listen for as long as it takes – don’t rush into action. Stillness is powerful.

When the time is right, you will know what to do. If you don’t know what to do, the time to decide hasn’t come yet.


Proceed as Way Opens.


* Yes, actually, I have. Not in great detail, but I did read it. Comparative theology is a hobby of mine. I know, I’m weird.


  1. I think there's nothing wrong with dreaming about where you want to go, though obviously when life events happen beyond your control, you may have to change course. I think the value of “envision where you want to go" is that it prepares your subconcious mind to recognize opportunities that will lead you in that direction. In my experience, the "and you will get there” part is not automatic. You have to take action and you may not get all the way there. Also, when "there" turns out to be something other than what you wanted, you start again.

    But where does the dream come from to begin with? In the best case, the dream comes from LISTENING...

  2. Now that's something I hadn't considered - that dreaming opens your mind to recognize the opportunities when they present themselves.

    I do, wholeheartedly, believe in being prepared - and I suppose that this kind of thing counts as mental preparedness ... allowing your mind to investigate ideas and opportunities that you are interested in and that seem positive well before you ever take action. That way, when it's time to decide or act, you have the information already queued up having spent time pondering various (positive) possibilities.

    Way cool.

  3. I think the problems come from two things. 1. Having your plans and dreams so specific that you can't accept other things that seem to steer you away (like "I need to be married and have two kids by the time I'm 30" rather than "I want to be happy and at peace with God and the world around me") and 2. Thinking we have control over our lives. You can force your some dreams to happen (anyone can find someone to marry and have kids with, but they may not be someone right or good for you) but peace and happiness don't come from the fullfillment of a shallow dream that we made up for ourselves.

    We sang a song this Sunday at church.

    Be still and know that I am God.
    Be still and know that I am.
    Be still and know.
    Be still.

    It's hard to shut up be still. It's hard just to "be".

  4. Most insightful, Ev! Specificity in dreaming closes doors that may have taken us to better places than we could have imagined. And in my experience, believing we are in 'control' is a sure way to experience disappointment - sometimes overwhelming, painful disappointment.

    Being still is the essence of Quaker worship. I need to do more of it.

    Maybe I'll find the music for that song - it'd be a good reminder!

  5. Anonymous5:03 pm

    The idea of planning a life that will make you happy also assumes that you know and accept your own needs well enough to plan out a life that will meet those needs. Many, many queer people who grew up before Stonewall thought they could simply will themselves heterosexual. Some made the mistake of marrying under false pretenses, thinking that living straight would make them straight, and the bitterness of their spouses when the truth came out made for some particularly ugly divorces. To use a metaphor from software development, you have to have a good analysis before you can start the design phase or you could end up with a program that's not good for anything.

  6. You're absolutely right Joan - I think that self-knowledge is something many of us lack, or don't really develop until we grow up quite a lot more than one might suspect is necessary.

    Planning out a life for the person you THINK you are only works if you actually ARE that person. I had no idea I was a farmer on the inside until I got here ... and I still can't quite believe it. I suppose that's part of why I prefer 'open to possibility' to 'planning': every time I am called to walk through a new doorway, I discover new things about myself. But the discovery comes in the doing, not in the planning or preparation.


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