I Already Have What I'm Looking For
For much of my life, I’ve longed to find “my thing,” that perfect activity or hobby or practice that would fulfill me and make me happy. Even throughout a 40-year career in higher education, an almost equally long side hustle as a writer, and more than 40 years of fairly regular running, I have found myself thinking, “I wish I could find my real calling and true interests.” That desire has been lit up recently as I get ready to retire for the second time. Then, out of the blue last week, a new idea occurred to me—one so simple that I couldn’t quite believe I hadn’t thought of it before. Rather than looking for the thing I really love, or the activity that will fully engage me, my attention needs to be on loving and engaging in what I already have and what I regularly do.
This doesn’t mean I won’t learn to play golf or take up rowing, but it does mean that I have had a somewhat skewed view of things. It turns out I have spent many years imagining that there is something out in the world that will be fun, easy, and engaging, and that I will participate in it with none of the anxiety and trepidation with which I have often met activities in my "real" life. In this life-long dream, that lack of my regular angst is how I will know that I’ve found “my thing.” I’m sure that somewhere in the back of my mind, I could see the fallacies in this reasoning, but I held on to it in the blind hope that it might just work out.
Managing our feelings and still being in the world as fully possible is the key to life.
Now I realize that I was clearly living in some parallel universe in which I am not the person I actually am. I think I felt for a long time that I would know when I’d found my true interests because they would be easy, require little effort, and I would meet them with grace and openness instead of my normal worry and caution. This is what I was thinking about when I had this recent insight. The things I already do in my life are mostly what I like doing. They're what I work hard at, what I think about, and what I do to feel good about myself in my life. But, because they haven't come easy to me like things do in my fantasy about the perfect life, I just couldn’t imagine that these are “my things.” It sounds silly when I recount it here, but it simply never occurred to me that I've already found a lot of what gives meaning to my life.
Even when I look at my three big examples, I see that there are many layers to the work I’ve done, the things I’ve written, and the miles I’ve run. My engagement in these has been incremental, but I’ve moved to new levels and found so, so many new paths that I didn’t even know existed. The truth is, that's simply how life works. I can’t imagine any new thing that I could engage in that wouldn’t initially challenge my sense of security and skills. So, during all those years in which I would make lists of the potential activities I might do that would give my life meaning and purpose, my initial reaction to each idea was frequently, “Oh, that won’t work because I’m not very good at that.”
I think throughout our lives we are drawn to what interests us and, if we’re lucky, we get a chance to explore our skills, ask for help, and try some things that don’t work. If we keep doing that particular activity, it probably is our thing—or one of many. The fact that something is challenging and changing, and sometimes boring and tedious, means only that it keeps us alert and aware and intentional about changing things up to stay engaged. Even as I leave education, I know that my real strengths in these college jobs have been directly connected to communication, empathy, and the ability to support other people. I can say with certainty that I will be using those same skills frequently in my retirement, in a variety of ways. I'll also be writing about new topics and, though I won't be running any marathons, I'm still happily plodding along the path in my neighborhood—mostly so I can enjoy eating what I feel like eating.
I’m not surprised that I hadn’t thought of looking inside myself instead of outside for how I want to engage with the world going forward. We all have so much inside of us—and some of that is scary and anxiety-producing. But managing our feelings and still being in the world as fully possible is the key to life, if you ask me. I'm not through searching, or learning, or discovering, but the road ahead feels more familiar and intuitive now than I once imagined it would feel.