We Can’t Know

This morning I stood in the backyard and watched as jets sketched their flight path across the sky, reversing what I normally see at night as the illuminated flights arrive from the west. Day time flight patterns don’t usually catch my attention; with no lights to track they are less obvious, and I’m often too busy to stare at the horizon.  But this morning as I tended to the outdoor critters, I noticed an ascending jet in the north sky. Looking eastward, I saw another on a steeper climb heading south. I watched as it turned westward to reverse the PM flight path. Staring into the sun, I moved into the shade of the lemon tree to watch it pass directly overhead.  I thought about how many times I’d been in a plane on that trajectory. Then I imagined someone, maybe a kid in the nearby neighborhood laying in the park staring at the sky, or someone who hadn’t had a chance to travel standing in their own backyard watching the planes overhead, and thinking, “Someday I am going to be in that plane going somewhere. Someday that’s going to be me.” 

It struck me that we can’t know what is in store for us when we set our idealistic dreams into motion. For someone who has never flown, it’s impossible to know the harried feeling of travel, the push pull of travel crowds, the frustration of the TSA experience, the minutiae of packing and planning and bookings and transportation and money spent, the fatigue of delays, the onslaught of noises and smells and things that you can never unsee (and that’s just in the airport and the plane!). Likewise, it’s impossible to know the visceral joy of seeing things you’ve only dreamed about, the gastronomical delights to be experienced in out of the way cafes, the faces of people who are different from anyone you’ve ever met, the way the air feels in a new city, or the smell of the ocean at sunrise as you gather with friends to take it all in. You can’t know any of it until you get there.

And isn’t that true for all of life? Despite all of our planning, we can’t know how a situation will unfold until we are IN it, no matter how much we’ve observed and absorbed of other people’s experiences. It’s true for relationships (of all kinds) and jobs, projects and adventures, raising children and saying good-bye to aging parents. But how often do we give ourselves or each other the grace to let this unfold without judgement?

Taking the travel metaphor from the sky to the ground, beyond looking at satellite imagery and maps, at the outset of a journey it is impossible to know what the road will look like when you are X miles into it. You make preparations as best you can, and then you begin. Ideally, as the terrain and road conditions change, you respond in kind, following the road signs and heeding the warnings. Hopefully your skill and experience get you through. But we often make the mistake of holding ourselves to the same road signs that were visible in the beginning. Conditions demand a real time response as they present themselves — it is the only way to stay safe and enjoy the journey. 

How often do we approach our lives with a single-minded commitment to the original goal regardless of changing information? How often do we hold on to a decision that was made, say, when the weather was favorable and the road flat and dry, only to find ourselves years later on a curvy mountainous road in the rain? Does it warrant a different tact? Is it worth considering a different decision? Perhaps, if nothing else, pulling off at a rest stop until conditions improve, or taking a different route altogether? 

Give yourself permission to navigate your life in the moment with real time data instead of what you assumed to be true when you began. Beyond safety, the only real way to enjoy the journey is to be in the moment. Be honest with yourself and make decisions as information presents itself, and not with an eye on what once was or what you committed to in the past.

A note on the response of other people to our course corrections, or perhaps how you yourself have responded to others who are questioning their present course. Often the question is posed, “Well, didn’t you know (fill in the blank) before you (fill in the blank)?”  While this question is often reserved for relationship discussions, it can be dispatched for any decision.  When it comes to relationships, though, there is a social expectation, or maybe a fantasy, that one has considered all the possible insurmountable challenges in a relationship before it is in its current incarnation. Or, perhaps more unrealistic, that the strength of a person’s dedication and decision at the time is enough to withstand all manner of challenges. Actually, I don’t know if people really expect it, but it is socially acceptable to say it. In actuality, it’s often a form of judgment passed off as engagement in a conversation. Perhaps people mean to genuinely inquire “Did you see any signs of [insert challenge here] before you took it to the next level?” But even that smacks of veiled judgement, an implication that you were just not paying attention. In response to that, I return to our travel metaphor. GPS navigation systems aside (and even those can be unreliable), you can’t know what is happening in the mountains until you get into the damn mountains! Each curve reveals its own reality.

Life happens in real time and we must respond in kind. Give yourself and each other the gift of allowing this to happen.

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