In Flux

Embracing transitions and change

Creating a Road Map for Your Life

How to see where you're going—and how to get there

The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination. —Carl Rogers

You wouldn’t think about starting out on a trip without having some idea where you’re going and how to get there. There are specific directions you have to follow. These days, with detailed maps and GPS helping us navigate, that’s made all too easy. Of course, if you really don’t care where you’re going maybe it doesn’t really matter where you end up. And in that case, you can just get into your car, point it in any direction, and hope for the best. Who knows—you might just luck out.

I think you’re getting my point. Your life is a journey with lots of stops along the way and if you could have some idea what to expect, at least some of the time, you might feel a lot better about the whole thing. The image of the journey is so much a part of our language that I don’t think we even stop to think anymore about what we’re actually saying. There are crossroads, back roads, peak experiences, mountains to climb, valleys of despair, deserts and oases, wildernesses and wastelands, rivers to cross, forks in the road, detours, dead ends, and the open road. They’re all descriptive of places we’ve been. Wouldn’t it be nice to know beforehand what lies ahead in order to avoid an unpleasant, or difficult, or seemingly insurmountable obstacle on our path?

I find it nothing short of amazing that before we buy the car, or the computer, or any other sought after device, we consult with experts, friends, consumer reports to get all the information we will need to make an informed decision. Not always so when it comes to taking responsibility for ourselves and making healthy decisions for our own well-being and happiness.

What’s also amazing is that several years of our early education is spent learning multiplication tables and long division when, at the very least, some of that time could be spent learning necessary life skills such as how to be a responsible person, not only for our own good, but for that of society as well. Or decision-making. Many adults still find it hard to make basic and essential decisions for their life.

If what I’m suggesting is offensive to you or deemed to be a private matter and none of my business or that of anyone teaching our kids, then at the very least, let me suggest that we need to find the means to teach the lessons by reframing history or mythology, or any subject for that matter, in such a way that the stories that are told carry a deeper message. It’s not about learning the details and the facts but about understanding the underlying meaning.

For example, The Odyssey is not just about the travels and adventures of the Greek hero, Odysseus. It is a story about life unfolding, about transitions. It’s a great example of one huge rite of passage, or if you choose, several consecutive passage rites that encompass all of the adventures and tasks of the journey for the hero. But in actuality, the events are as dependent, if not more so, on the choices made by the people left behind, namely the women and the common folk, as on the actions of the heroes. Interestingly, the original poem was composed in the oral tradition and was originally more sung by a poet/singer than read.

I’ll assume that many of you have done a fair amount of reading in order to understand yourself better. Or maybe have spent some time writing or journaling in order to express feelings and make sense of what has happened to you. Now I want you to try something different. I want you to envision things, not in words but in images. Create a road map that shows the course of your life thus far. On a blank piece of paper create a map of your life complete with physical landmarks to depict places you’ve been. Include mountains, valleys, rivers, deserts, back roads, and detours. Make sure the paper is large enough to allow you to spread out. Notice directions and change of directions. How many of the directional changes were initiated by you and how many directional changes and course corrections were imposed upon you? Notice how often you returned to the same old places. Did you return due to habit or necessity? Were difficult passages overcome? Did fear or indecisiveness keep you from traveling too far from home base?

Your personal road map depicts your journey so far. It shows you where you’ve been and where you’ve come from to arrive at this moment. YOU ARE HERE.

The road map for the next leg of your journey starts HERE. Understanding the nature of change in the broadest sense (that there is a rhythm, a predictability about the way change unfolds) rather than from the narrower perspective of our own private experience, helps create a feeling of familiarity and a sense of some control. No more shock or surprise or chaos when change comes; you now have some idea about what to expect and perhaps, a better idea about what to do moving forward.

Abigail Brenner, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice. She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life and other books.

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