“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” Yogi Berra
FYI: This post is not really about the book.
I read it, though. I even saw the movie. I acted all impressed, and I suppose I thought I was. Despite all the raving, however, and despite Milan Kundera’s remarkable portrait of Czech society during a Seminal Historical Period, the story I read was about one man’s shameless infidelity and his meek and accommodating wife.
What I love is the title. Whatever the author meant by it, those five words distill the magic and misery of being a grown up: the unbearable lightness of being.
Every time that phrase surfaces, I imagine shifting, amorphous shapes, rendered almost completely unintelligible due to some blinding backlighting. It’s as if I am emerging from Plato’s cave for the very first time, or–rather less grandly–as if I am staring into the setting sun through a filthy windshield. No matter how hard I try to focus or shield my eyes, I cannot make out what I am hurtling toward.
No one says it out loud, but everyone seems to believe that eventually we’ll know what we’re doing, where we’re going, and what it all means. We’ll feel Grown Up, and life will feel defined. It’s a grand fallacy we buy, and oh, how alluring.
By my early twenties, I was already itching to feel grown, to know who and what I was becoming. I needed to figure it all out, because I wasn’t handling the gray area very well.
Here’s the problem: it’s all gray area. It’s all undefined, and not just when we’re 23.
When things seem to be black and white, it’s a cognitive short cut, a decision to see the world that way. While we may not determine our material circumstances, we do create our interpretations of them, and forge theories about ourselves and our lives. We need to believe things are clearly defined now and then in order to plow ahead with enthusiasm.
I once had a long talk with my sister about marriage. I wanted to know how she knew it was the right decision; how she knew that this was the right guy. She admitted that there was no such thing as 100% certainty, but once you married, you no longer had to continually ask yourself: is this the right person? You started from the idea that it was, and figured out how to handle whatever was coming your way from that vantage point.
Of course perspectives evolve and change, but if we don’t adopt one, we can’t focus in any direction. We lose traction and go nowhere at all. Contrary to how it may appear, choosing a direction isn’t limiting, it’s what makes movement possible. When I allow myself to wallow in the gray area, I limit myself. When I wonder, “Am I really a writer?” I waste a lot of time and energy on this question, instead of simply saying, “I am writing. How can I continue in this direction?”
In the interest of full disclosure, my sister got a divorce. Still, I don’t think that negates the power of what she was saying. Picking a direction only means that we are more likely to get somewhere, it doesn’t guarantee that we will.
September 11, 2001 is an extreme example. It was a clear, beautiful day, and the collective mood had adjusted accordingly. Moments later, when the sky was engulfed in a fog, when it was raining detritus, and fear swallowed the streets, people could not process what was happening. Part of the shock was having to acknowledge the gray area, the great unknown that is life. On that deceptively sunny day, people thought they could see where they were going; they believed that they were headed to work, when actually they were passing through a portal to hell.
This is not a message of doom and gloom, however. Thankfully, we are not always teetering on the brink of an abyss. We just don’t know exactly where we are going. We can’t control other people and events. To be honest, we can’t even control our own actions sometimes. The best we can do is to figure out what and who give us joy, what values and issues are important to us, and how we can contribute to make the world a better place. Then, we can surround ourselves with those people, work on those projects, and head in that direction. But we need to do this while being open to uncertainty. We need to be flexible enough to learn from our mistakes and the changing world around us.
The good news is, when the cracks become visible, when our current perspective is shattered, we can sift through the pieces to make a new place from which to stand, a new perspective that is just as true. It just takes a while to make a new map and start to trust the road.
A friend called me one night not long ago, completely agitated, to ask me, “Who are all those people, smiling and walking down the street like they know what they’re doing?”
Those people are you and I, my friend, on a day when things seem clear.