A concentrated mind…

mapThe plans we map out for ourselves rarely follow their set course without detours.

The exploring post i wrote earlier this year commended the courage of those that set out to sea, into the perilous unknown.

Some of us who do not see ourselves as brave, though, are thrust out to sea against our will. And all we can do is make our way to some sort of shore, on an adventure we didn’t choose. In the process (to paraphrase the old saying), facing one’s impending demise wonderfully concentrates the mind.

This is the central idea of a recent article which reviews three books by authors who were navigating their own terminal illnesses (The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs).

In her thought-provoking review, writer Laura Miller notes the differences in tone between the three books — one a pep talk, one a frank testimonial, and one a slice-of-life offered with melancholy humor:

“Pausch and Kalanithi inform us that impending death whets their appreciation of everyday life, but Riggs shows us what that life is, bathed in the incandescence of anticipated loss.”

This brought to mind differences among various bloggers who write about their health challenges. Some focus on the inspirational, others are more plainly narrative, and some highlight a dark humor.

Miller makes an interesting point about inspirational writing:

“Inspirational writing is, even at its best…a tactical lie. It’s made of the stuff we tell ourselves to help us keep going; whether it represents the whole truth matters less than how useful we find it.”

We do need inspiration. Not because every expression of “everything will be alright” or “you can achieve anything you want to” will turn out to be accurate — but because it comes from caring and encourages us to get the most from what we do have.

Most of us won’t “have [our] life knocked savagely off course” to the degree these authors have. But most of us can relate to unanticipated detours — a health setback, a relationship we thought would last and then didn’t, a friendship discarded too easily when differences arose, or suddenly needing to reorient to an entirely new career path.

A few seem to get by without much tumult. To them i paraphrase Cornell West: “If tragedy has not touched your life, it is on its way to you.”

Terrain that at first appears easily navigable may obscure disruptive obstacles. When our map becomes outdated, the most important resource for facing those obstacles is each other.

Here’s a kernel of inspiration: don’t draw back from others, and don’t give up.

Your inner explorer…


Exploration is exhausting, and discovery is demanding. Sure, serendipity happens — but more often than not, unearthing self-shaping insights requires dogged determination.

My previous post consists of the following quote by French author Andre Gide:  “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” I’ve seen it translated from the French with two different wordings. The other version uses “courage” rather than “consent,” an intriguing difference.

I’ve often pondered the courage of the famous world explorers who placed themselves at the mercy of the seas without certainty of what they would find or of how long it would take to find it — unable to imagine myself capable of or interested in such risks. After all, one person’s courage is another’s utter lunacy.

Their eager consent to the perils of the unknown must have been driven by a conviction that the prize they sought would prove the undertaking worthwhile. That principle presents an obvious analogy to the creative process, or to any process of self-discovery.

We write to discover. A writer’s blank page is her wide open ocean.

A writer or other artist explores some inner experience in order to interpret it and then convey it openly. We hope not only to gain our own insights but also to open up trade routes with our readers and fellow writers, exchanging further treasures of realization.

The artistic endeavor is contemplation twice rewarded.

When i write, i find i often arrive (a la Columbus) somewhere other than where i’d thought i was aiming. How often has it happened to you that you set fingers to keyboard with one idea only to uncover a different and unexpected one? There’s your serendipity, by the way, your accidental bounty — but it doesn’t come without resolve and perseverance.

At times, our expeditions away from the the firmness of the shore are thrust upon us unsought, imposed on us outside of our choosing. A job loss, a dire diagnosis, a personal tragedy confronts us with a maelstrom of confusion and uncertainty. The disrupting circumstance happens outside of our control, but how we navigate through it is up to us.

When the waves are crashing over the bow, we can strive to keep our hands on the ship’s wheel or give in to the winds and be blown overboard. What keeps us holding on is the dual hope that there is land out there somewhere and that the winds will eventually die down.

Any survivor will tell you that such storms teach you more about who you are than times of tranquility do. Indeed, torrent-taught people seem to find a deeper tranquility than is otherwise accessible to the untossed.

In calmer times, when all you want is to fill that blank page with something artistic that your reader will relate to, it still takes persistence to sort the cross-currents of your mind and to resist that sinking feeling that maybe the voyage wasn’t worth it after all.

It’s all part of the swirl. Your inner Magellan — your hopeful human heart — knows better.