I want to please other people. I want to do whatever will make them happy. You want 100 photocopies in 3 minutes? Done. You want a strategic plan for the future of an organization at this college? Done. You want me to be there, run this errand, listen to this problem? I would love to. But then I run headlong into this wall. I really want to be a writer. I really want to be a counselor, of some kind. I really want to put writing and counseling together in some strange beautiful combination, and I don’t want to lose threads of theology, or of my love of French, or my love of theater… When I ask people what I should do, they tell me that I would be a great PhD student, of history or political science or philosophy. They tell me I could run an organization, a school even. I want to please them, and I don’t want to disappoint anyone’s dreams. Help?
Afraid to Disappoint
Dear Afraid to Disappoint,
Our piano is out of tune at home. The keys clink strange half-tones, and I swear I can hear it groaning when someone asks it to sing one more rendition of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” Have you ever watched someone tune an instrument? They take that strange fork instrument and hit it against something – your knee, or a piece of plastic or wood, the door frame, or something. And then they hold it up to their ear to hear it ringing. The air moves between the two tines of the fork and the note – a middle C, or an A – becomes the foundation for the rest.
I have been thinking in these last few months that certain loves in our lives are like a tuning fork. They give us the foundation for the rest, a measure against which we can understand how other things might fit into our lives.
Sometimes it’s terrifyingly clear that they don’t sound the same. I do not love everything in the magnitude that I love writing. I do not breathe, and ache and live in biology; I do not yearn for one more hour with a potter’s wheel or a linoleum block printing press. And why should we be afraid of this? We will never be able to do everything, anyway. In the small amount of time we are gifted, why shouldn’t our hearts be caught up in the work we love most?
I think you ache to write. I think your body physically feels the need to put words on paper. Why else would you write? I think you are beginning to tune the piano of your life by the writing tuning fork. So strike it and listen. Does counseling sound like that? Does teaching? Does directing plays or traveling to France? Does politics, or philosophy, or history?
You write to me that you don’t want to disappoint others in their ideas of what you should do. I can understand that. You don’t want to say no to a career in history or political science or philosophy, partly because you love these professors and mentors. You want to honor their work, affirm the value of their field. That’s admirable. But, Afraid to Disappoint, I have to tell you that the only sure disappointment in this life is living less of you. You are the unlikely combination of counseling, writing, French, history, politics, philosophy, and faith. You are the unlikely wedding planner meets chemical engineer. You are the unlike-everything-else musician turned playwright turned nanny turned environmental advocate…
Being that, that strange impossible combination, takes everything you’ve got. It will cost you the security of pleasing others. It will cost you the comfort of a plan. It will cost you a life characterized by steps and guidelines and directions and each thing done right.
It will pay you back with a heart that hurts so much sometimes you think that the person just stabbed you. It will give you back failed attempts to plan weddings and failed attempts to get a second interview and failed attempts to move to France. It will give you back uncertainty and breakups at two in the morning when it isn’t said but unsaid, and you leave and lie on your bed thinking that for sure you are dead and there is no more and what else could there be, and you’ll play country music and read Dear Sugar and throw the book across the room because this life will be so damn mysterious.
But isn’t that what you really want? To throw books across the room because of the damn mystery of it all, the deep love that roars, the brilliant failure, the moment of singular compassion, the breakup at 2am and the return flight from France and everything it teaches you?
Strike the tuning fork. There isn’t anything to be afraid of.