"I have all this success. What I don't have is a life!" The young executive sitting across the dinner table from me was the picture of prosperity. Youthful, handsome, in radiant health, he appeared to be enjoying the good life. No one among his closest friends or business associates would have dreamed of his uttering those words. To be sure, he was the envy of many of them. Yet there he was, candidly admitting that something very important was missing. What was missing, he was telling me, was his life.
As I listened to him, I knew what he meant. I have at times watched my own life spin away from me in a flurry of appointments, deadlines, trains to catch, programs to prepare, things to do. There have been times when, like my dinner companion that evening, I too have wondered, "Where is my life?"
When that question rears its ugly head, I often feel like I am caught in one of those nightmares where I try and try to get out of a burning room or to run away from a monster, but I cannot find the knob to open the door. The harder I try, the closer to danger I feel. I want desperately to get to safety, but the message of the dream haunts me "You can't get there from here."
How do we get to the place called soul when we feel trapped in our lives?
One of the most important discoveries of my adult life has been the discovery of my having options. I was in my thirties, I guess, before I began to become aware of that ongoing feeling of defeat that comes from a sense of being trapped. For a long time, I couldn't put it into words-it was just there. As time went on, I became angrier, more irritable, for no apparent reason. When I was finally able to find the words to express what I was feeling, I realized that I had spent my life doing what other people wanted me to do and not doing what I wanted. What did I want? I didn't know. I honestly didn't know. All I could tell you was that I wasn't happy.
Looking back on this experience from the vantage point of fifteen years, it is easy to see where it was leading. Now I know that I was being led out of dreams of academia, out of my life in the Jesuits, into the life of a parish priest in the Archdiocese of New York, into communications and radio and public speaking and writing, into a life of real freedom. But back then, I didn't have a clue about any of that.
In fact, had I, in my unfocused anger and dissatisfaction, up and changed my life to the one I have now, I still would not have found my soul. The real change had to be made within. And as I can see fifteen years later, it had to be made in a very special way, not by arbitrarily changing everything all at once.
At the time, however, I had no such clarity of vision. I felt that I was groping around in a peasoup fog. I felt like a failure, and I felt that others thought of me as a failure. Would I ever be able to get out? Would I ever amount to anything?
The key that opened the door to my soul for me was the realization that I could make choices and that I had options. Now, that sounds like the silliest thing in the world. Of course I had been making decisions all my life. No one had walked beside me through life holding a shotgun to my head. But telling myself that my feelings were silly did not make them go away. I had to take time and find out what they had to say.
As I listened to my feelings, I realized that over the years, I had developed a lack of confidence in my ability to make choices, and that more often than not I had learned to make decisions based on the strong beliefs of others as to what was right for me. Deep down, I had come to the point where I felt that I could not change my life, that I was stuck with it, that I had to suppress my own wishes. I did not know clearly what my own wishes were.
The most important learning for me was that in almost every situation in my life, I had a range of options I could consider. When I was asked to do particular things, there was a variety of ways for me to respond. I learned that in order not to feel trapped, I had to stop and ask myself, "What are my options here?" and look for two or three different ways to respond. Down the road, this helped me a great deal in making the important decision to leave the Jesuits and to become a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. Before, I might have sulked angrily and held on, or at some point thrown everything over in utter frustration. Now I could slow down, take my time, look at various ways of dealing with my situation, and decide calmly and serenely what to do.
The upshot was that I made better decisions. In the long run, something even more wonderful happened. Instead of being resentful and angry, I discovered a growing peace of soul.