Before I sought enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers.
While I sought enlightenment, the mountains were not mountains and the rivers were not rivers.
After I attained enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers.
– Zen Proverb
The other night I was relishing the achievement of a goal. I was in my home in Seattle, after a triumphantly successful series of evening events, watching the sun set over the mountains while I smoked a cigar that had been sent to me to review (that made it work, y’know) with someone who I’d been hoping to share exactly that experience with for several months now.
Seriously, that evening was pretty much the result of months and months of planning, reshaping my life, putting plans in motion and developing them just so I could have a lazy cigar-smoking sunset-watching wine-drinking evening in conversation with someone I love.
So, what were we talking about? Why, the things we needed to do to reach our goals, of course.
A Mountain Ain’t Nuthin’ But a Rock
Specifically, we were chatting about my own frustrations at not being able to write the kinds of things I would like to. No worries, I do love writing this blog, and I churn out the occasional essay or short story here and there. I can craft a mean tweet, too, and will cross sharpened syllables with the flamiest trolls on some discussion groups. I’ve written two novels under a pen name, and have the manuscript of a third just sitting around waiting to be edited.
But that’s not what I want to do. I want to write a Great Work. I want to write something worthy of Pat Conroy, William Goldman, Maya Angelou, Octavia Butler, Sheri Tepper, Jeannette Winterson. I want to write something that is serious – not that it can’t be funny, humor is deadly serious – but I’ve written according to formulas so much that it has become tiresome.
There was a time when I thought I’d never get a story published – that if I did, if I could just get one published, then from there on out it would be “Gray Miller, professional writer!” all the way to the bank. Then I got the article published in a paper – about a preschool where I was working – and guess what? They framed it, hung it in their office, and I went back to work.
So I set my eye on getting published in a “slick” – a magazine with glossy paper. Less than a year later, my profile on Cheney & Mills appeared in Juggler’s World Magazine, and I got a check for $40! That was it, I was going to be a writer!
The money bought my family dinner. Then it was gone, and life wasn’t actually all that different. Just like it wasn’t that different when I finished my first National Novel Writing Month, sold my first story to an e-book collection, got an agent, wrote a sequel, wrote a third novel, published essays, or even got such positive reviews for my short stories that I got asked to write the foreword to others (No, I’m not going to mention what books these are; I write under a pen name for a reason, and it’s unrelated to this blog.)
I’m approaching a year of writing this blog, about to head back to Amsterdam in a few weeks to spend time with my friend Erik who first inspired it. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be able to write about 3000 words a week, on a regular schedule on specific topics, I’d have said that it was an unlikely goal. In fact, I did say that. And yet, here we are, another entry, another day, another thought.
And you know what? Life is still there. Bills, body functions, frustrating miscommunications and ending relationships and car repairs and the like. I’ve climbed these mountains, achieved these goals, and yet the world doesn’t seem all that different than it was before, at least not in the ways I expected.
That’s the point of this post: goals are great, but often we have a lot of expectations of what the reality of the goal will be. It’s at the root of consumerism: If I buy this, my life will be like what that advertisement shows me. But the obsession with goalsetting, with finding some new thing to try, is simply another form of the same obsession with acquisition.
Of course, it’s not true that things are just the same. If nothing else, the process of achieving the goal has changed me, just by the doing. This can be a huge change – such as the Marine who emerged from three months of Boot Camp – or a subtle one, such as the freelancer who sits on his lawn and writes the blog post quietly before doing any other work for the day. Either way, I’m not the same person I was when I started.
Neither is the world around me the same. That’s the price you pay when you set and achieve a goal: you are making it your purpose to end the person you are, the world you are in, in favor of a changed version. You are hoping that the changes will be what you want, and in the best of circumstances they will be – but the odds are that those will not be the only changes that occur. It’s entirely possible to reach the summit of your goal only to look back on the shattered ruins of the world you dismantled to get there.
Have I Scared You?
Frankly, this is not the point I thought I was trying to make when I started the entry (don’t worry, the point that I’d intended to make will appear in a later post). It’s almost a perfect illustration of the point: the goal was to write a blog post about goals, and I’ve just about done that – but the process of accomplishing the goal is nothing like what I expected.
With all that doom and gloom and Dire Warnings of Impending Danger, it may seem that the only solution is not to set any goals – to do your best to maintain the status quo. That’s basically the heart of the conservative movement, in principle. The problem with that is that change happens anyway. The bills and body functions and car repairs and mountains and rivers are all going to be there whether you go for some goal or not.
If life is going to happen regardless, it may be worth it to make the best of it by setting a goal. I would simply caution you from setting a goal because it’s something that you’re hoping will change your life. I would even caution that old “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey” attitude. Because frankly, some of the journeys really suck, even if the goal is worthwhile.
No, go ahead and set the goals, but do it for the right reason: because of the change it will make in you. Anything external will be entirely a random and coincidental outcome – if you get to be like Hannibal in the A-Team, smoking a cigar while you gloat how you “love it when a plan comes together!“, good for you. You got lucky.
For the rest of us, the achieving of a goal can be a really bewildering thing…because the mountains are still mountains, the rivers are still rivers.
Damn, though. Those are some pretty mountains…