On Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Insight

The wisdom of shared stories

On Forcing Things

When it's best not to do something, and just lie there

I am quite certain I alienated most of my peers in graduate school. They had good reason to distance themselves from me. Being intolerably, gratingly competitive, I elbowed my way into receiving a full fellowship in a field of study, clinical psychology, that provides fellowships with reluctance; working as an apartment manager for the housing department for which I was compensated with a free apartment and a living stipend in New York City for 5 years; and various T.A. positions; all of which were highly coveted in the leaner years of the late 1990s.

No, I don’t blame you if you find yourself recoiling from me, and clicking the “x” icon up top. But my observations, self-congratulatory as they may seem patient, forgiving reader do bear relevance on how I have grown.

Reader, can you tell I just read Jane Eyre?

But, as usual, I digress.

I didn’t know then, being a fledgling Jedi, what Joseph Campbell did, “Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid. If you do, you put yourself on a…track that has been there…waiting for you…and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be…and wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.”

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“What would happen,” my psychologist in NYC at the time had suggested, “if you let things happen, rather than feeling you had to be at the helm of them, directing them, compelling them?”

I found myself conveying a similar idea to my patient Eric, after he received a rejection letter from Stanford law, the only school he wanted to attend. “I really blew it. I sacrificed everything, day and night, to get in. All for nothing.”

“That must feel awful. I know how hard you worked on your LSAT and application. I’m reminded of the lyrics from the song, Can’t Stop Lovin’ You, by Van Halen.” Nineteen years my junior I found him staring at me blankly, but I continued anyway, “Good band. Well before your time. They say, ‘There’s a time and place for everything. For everyone. We can push with all our might, but nothings gonna come.’”

To further underscore my point, I had gotten up from my chair and tried to push the wall down with my hands, replete with grunting sound effects. After several unsuccessful attempts to move it I sat down.

I think I found it funnier than he did.

Composing myself I added, “The Indian poet Tagore said, ‘The burden of the self is lightened when I laugh at myself.’ I was attempting to demonstrate there are things in life we can’t force, whether it is a score on a test, getting into the law school we want, or even that wall. No matter how hard I work out it is unlikely that I will ever be able to move that wall.”

His eyes darted around the room until they settled on my computer. “You know I had a fortune from a fortune cookie taped onto the keyboard of my laptop that said, ‘Your hard work is about to pay off.’ What a joke.” Looking down at his hands he added, “I ripped it off when I got that letter from Stanford. What are you supposed to do when you do your best, but it isn’t good enough? When your best doesn’t get you the results you need to get you where you want to go in life?”

“I can see why you might be feeling frustrated Eric. But is that really what you want to pursue? You’ve told me you wish you had studied English, not International Relations in college. I’ve learned what’s important in life is for us to follow our heart, put in the effort, and realize when we find ourselves in the right place, in the place we need to be, all the doors and windows will fly open to encourage us, to help us become who we are meant to be. It’s frustrating, but maybe hard work alone isn’t the determinant of success. Maybe there are other forces at work.”

I was thinking about myself at his age as I spoke. About how I had inadvertently pushed my peers out of the way to get where I wanted to go. But that path was already my path. I didn’t have to force things. I had to do the work to earn it, but when I found that path, life rolled out the red carpet to guide me to the career for which I was intended.

Reader, in reflecting on my journey and my patient’s who is now working for a publishing company, it occurs to me that sometimes being alive, being human, feels like we’re driving on the freeway of life without any marked signs to tell us we’re headed in the right direction. Imagine driving from San Diego to Bakersfield without a sign to direct us on the freeway. It’s no wonder we find ourselves feeling so lost sometimes!

Maybe in life the signs we receive, the signs that guide us to where we need to be, are not only the doors that are open, but also the ones that are closed, which tell us we’re in the wrong place, that we’ve taken a wrong turn, and to find another route because that one isn’t ours. And after we have done all that we can do, instead of continuing to pry that closed-door open, instead of lamenting our fate, instead of forcing things, maybe we just have to lie there knowing life is trying to redirect us, and do nothing.

I might have more colleagues in NYC if I had.

Being a persistent person, though, I have gently tried over the years to reach out to them. Facebook noticed my failed attempts at reconciliation and not so gently sent me a message warning me that my account might be in jeopardy if I continue to try to “friend people who say they don’t know [me].”

I know. I’ve stopped trying to force their friendship, and I am laying off. But truthfully, I can’t help but hope, someday, I’ll be able to blog: Reader, I befriended them.1

 

1 In case you haven’t read or have forgotten Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë addresses the reader directly throughout the novel. Given that Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester’s love undergoes lots, and lots, and lots of trials, and separations, the most famous line of the book, in my humble opinion, is: Reader, I married him.

 

Copyright Dana Iyer, PhD

Dana S. Iyer, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Laguna Hills, California.

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