Desert or Joyride: Which Gear Are You In?

Whether you’re stuck in the desert or taking a joyride down the superhighway of life, it helps to know which gear will work best for you.

Now that my book “Fierce with Age” has a publication date (Mother’s Day) the rhythm of my days has made this shift, from desert to joy ride. I’m in a heady, fun patch of the journey, approving cover designs and soliciting author friends for book quotes. But I know myself well enough to take precautions lest I leave my spiritual life behind.

That’s why I’m starting today by journaling. I’ll read a few more pages of Thomas Merton. And later today, I’ll go to T’ai Chi, even though I’m sure that as I rip myself away from my desk, I’ll be concerned that I don’t really have the time, and that by doing so, I’m missing important opportunities.

I’ll go anyway, despite my internal protest, because at this age and stage of my life, I have come to recognize that there are five settings in our gearshift boxes: two of the gears help us advance through all manner of obstacles along the way. Two are accidents just waiting to happen. I’ll tell you about the fifth when we get there.
First, the two accidents waiting to happen:

Gear One: In the desert and forgetting to take time to nurture our spirits.
We’ve all been there. Somehow, we’ve fallen off the face of the known universe of our lives, so off-track, we’ve even forgotten to bother searching for meaning. Viewing ourselves as victims of circumstances, we vacillate between noisy whining and quiet desperation. What we don’t do is remember to pay quality attention to ourselves at the deepest levels, seeking to find the way out by going deeper. We could pray, we could journal, we could seek spiritual guidance, we could do contemplative reading, we could do spiritual exercise. But somehow or other, these things don’t occur to us. Thank heavens something can eventually come and lift us out of Gear One and get us back on-track, often transformed by the most difficult of patches on our journey through life. But Gear One is doing hard time, indeed.

Gear Two: On a joyride and forgetting to take time to nurture our spirits.
We’ve all been there, as well. There are those moments when we are on such an Adrenalin high, we believe we have been specially chosen to receive a reprieve from the need to pay heed to questions of ultimate concern . With circumstances going our way, we pump ourselves up with the illusion that the joyride will last forever. What we don’t do is remember to pay quality attention to ourselves at the deepest levels, seeking to invest the time and energy to maintain balance and perspective. We could pray, we could journal, we could seek spiritual guidance, we could do contemplative reading, we could do spiritual exercise. But somehow or other, these things don’t occur to us. When the joyride ends, which inevitably it does, it usually does so with a crash that could have been so readily avoided simply by having shifted to a higher gear.

Gear Three: In the desert and taking the time to nurture our spirits.
Building in a spiritual practice that you attend to with discipline and commitment, even when you least feel like it: this can make all the difference between being a victim of circumstances, and becoming transformed by them. Mystics from virtually all spiritual and religious traditions have discovered the same thing: that it is times like these that strip away the illusions and release us from the status quo in order for us to have the opportunity to go deeper. In the desert, we have the opportunity to transform and transcend, addressing the larger questions of life, about meaning and purpose, as we go. There are those who become so acutely aware of the spiritual gifts that the desert has to offer, they pull off the main road on purpose and take up permanent residence. But for those of us who hope to make a return, we can always have the choice of doing so, enriched by our time off the track.

Gear Four: On a joyride and taking time to nurture our spirits.
Building in a spiritual practice that you attend to with discipline and commitment, even when you feel you can least afford the time. Even while on a joyride, we have the opportunity to pay heed to our spirits on the deepest levels, by remembering how urgent it is that we take the space to address the larger questions of life, about meaning and purpose, as we go. When the joyride ends, we avoid the crash because we have invested the time and energy to ensure that we have invested vital energy into that which endures not only through the downsides but also the upsides of life.

The Fifth Gear: Aspiring to four-wheel drive.
I envision a life of balanced enthusiasm, deeply engaged with a sense of meaning and purpose which is neither desert nor joyride. In fact, I aspire to live my life in an eternal flow, all four wheels of my all-purpose vehicle gripping whatever the terrain true and sure, confident that I am as humanly equipped as possible to handle whatever obstacles the road ahead may bring.
Happily, I have taken a few test-drives in such a vehicle. But the fact is, at this age and stage of my life, my garage is filled with an odd assortment of vehicles, indeed. There are race cars, dune buggies, some junkers and at least one clown car. Sometimes, I get them mixed up. My race car ends up stuck in the sand; the dune buggy ends up on the shoulder of the super highway, with a ticket on the windshield. But I’m learning. And I’m hoping.

And here’s my take-away for today, something I hope to keep front of mind when 2 o’clock comes this afternoon and I’m tempted to put out just a few more emails rather than going to T’ai Chi. Whether I’m picking my way along off-road and lost in sand boulders or zooming along on cruise control over ribbons of concrete, the challenge is the same. To do whatever it takes not to forget who I really am, and what matters most.

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