When It’s Time to Burn Your Map

When It’s Time to Burn Your Map

Because everyone’s life journey eventually arrives at a precipice or fork in the road

Red Skies at Night, Sailor's Delight by Sarah Clement

At some point we will come to the end of a path and no longer know our way. Hard as this is, this is where the inner journey begins, when all we’ve carried has served its purpose and now we must burn our expectations to light our way. This is when we assume our full stature in order to see what’s ahead. This is when the soul shows itself, if we pay attention.

My group and I were discussing this when I asked them to describe a time when their hard work led to an unexpected outcome and what that experience taught them. Mark spoke first. He told us that, from an early age, he had an uncanny ability to hit the center of a target with a gun. His father was an avid hunter and competitive marksman. Delighted to discover his son’s gift of accuracy, he steered him and trained him to excel at target shooting. Mark was a prodigy. His young life revolved around marksman competitions and his father’s approval. For more than 10 years, Mark set records in competitions. His father was pleased and had him train harder. Mark was even invited to join the Olympic team.

When he was 28, Mark was at a competition, waiting his turn. He was videotaping the others when a missed shot ricocheted into his right wrist, his trigger hand. As Mark was telling this, he began to well up. I was surprised by what he shared next. Mark said that the injury prevented him from competing any further. And while his father was devastated and everyone thought the whole episode was a tragedy, he secretly felt relieved to be free of his father’s dream. He felt liberated to have an unknown path laid out freshly before him, and grateful that he could walk away from his life of shooting without having to disappoint his father. Quite unexpectedly, beyond all his years of work to find the center of the target, it was an errant shot that let him fly like a tiny bird through the hole in the target into the rest of his life.

Patty spoke next. An executive working in a man’s world, she had earned a black belt in karate and became obsessed with the art of breaking boards. Once she was breaking two boards, she immediately began training to break three. She kept training harder and harder, out of a fear of failing. She felt a momentary satisfaction in breaking the boards, but her fear of failing made her keep going. Finally, she reached the board that couldn’t be broken, no matter how she tried. In fact, that final board broke her hand. The pain of the final board also broke her trance of ignoring limits. It was as if she were running in a tunnel and couldn’t stop, though it wasn’t clear what she was running from or running to. She’d come to know she was alive by the sound of her steps in the tunnel, but the pain of the final board shattered the tunnel. She realized that, while she needed to inhabit her strength to be treated fairly in an unfair world, she’d become a prisoner of her own strength training.

Like Mark, all her effort had led her, unexpectedly, to an unknown path that was the rest of her life. Effort itself is a blessing, but when effort races ahead of our love for what we’re doing it becomes destructive.

Each of us is called by others to work our way to the center of the target. Each of us is challenged by circumstance to break the next board. But sometimes it’s the gift of limitations that returns us to the pace of what we love. It’s the gift of limitations that frees us to find our own dream. It’s the pain of the final board that breaks the trance of protecting ourselves from life with the armor of accomplishment.

There’s nothing wrong with mastering any skill or accomplishing any task, as long as that mastery or accomplishment is born of our love, as long as we can remember it is we who are being created and shaped by our immense effort. What we often perceive as failure is an unexpected opening in our lives. Nothing is wasted. Sometimes the map we work so hard to chart and follow needs to be burned in order for us to live our own life.

Seeds to Water

In your journal, describe an inheritance of values or goals that no longer works for you. Describe your history with this inheritance: how it came to you, how it worked for you, and when it stopped being relevant. Describe how you’re finding your way beyond what others dreamed for you. In conversation with a friend or loved one, describe an expectation you had for yourself that didn’t come true. What happened when you reached the end of your expectation? What did you discover at the end of your pre-imagined path? How do you hold this unfolding?

The One Life We’re Given: Finding the Wisdom That Waits in Your Heart, by Mark Nepo. Published this month by Atria Books

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