My friend has chosen a fast food restaurant to host our discussion on life’s many paths. We order, find a booth and wait for our food. Small talk. Then our exchange becomes a discussion in the truest sense: a philosophical investigation to discover a way forward. We are both pragmatists, and so our language isn’t charged with judgment or presumption. We lay these aside to get to an answer.
He’s making some big decisions right now. And I want to navigate this discussion with the care it deserves—with the care my friend deserves.
I’d say he’s at a crossroads right now, but crossroads gives the impression of a hard turn to the left or right—approaching a T-intersection. Where he’s at is another subtle fork in the road—a nearly imperceptible divergence. We rarely see the crossroads until we look back. Only then do we recognize the aggregate of numerous subtle forks. Only then do they appear as a single, monumental crossroads.
We eat lunch slowly; we’re not in a hurry. We talk a little, then sit quietly, eating. I appreciate these long silences. They leave open a door for thought and reflection to enter, for introspection. The silence creates a place for answers to land.
My friend senses that he’s been arriving at various forks in the road for the last few years, and has been making decisions at each one along the way. His current fork in the road (or crossroads, if we must call it that) seems to be a culmination of many former decisions, of barely-perceptible course corrections that have brought him here.
I anticipate the impossibly difficult question he is about to ask, and so I create a metaphor to help us move across unsteady ground. This doesn’t make the asking any easier for him—that’s not my intent—but it helps me define how I’ll answer the question, how I’ll traverse my own soul-baring answer.
When a navigator plots a course—I tell my friend—the plane or ship may diverge from that course, from the intended course. The space or gap that arises between where the ship is actually going and where the navigator intended it to go is called the cross-track error. It’s a measure of divergence from the intended course.
My friend sits quietly for a few moments, looking around the restaurant, grasping the metaphor. He nods, and I know I’ve guessed correctly. I’ve anticipated his question. Now I brace myself.
“What’s in that space for you?” he asks. “That gap. What happens in that gap?”
He’s asked me a nearly impossible question, very difficult at least.
I look at him and then out the windows, into the parking lot. Very long silence. I want to have a place for the answer to land. We are both suddenly vulnerable—he has just implied a divergence from his intended path, and I’m formulating a response that must reveal a similar divergence—and I want us to survive the passage over this tenuous ledge.
I could take an easier route here—of the politician or the radio evangelist or the college professor or any number of would-be paragons that might condescend to their constituents and acolytes. I could play the card of experience, of a generation between us, and tell him that today’s problems are different, that his problems are foreign to me, and that I really can’t relate to his circumstances. I could feign concern for him, while inventing a story of my own perfection. I could tell him there is no gap for me, no cross-track error, that my intended path and my current path are collinear, perfectly aligned.
But none of this is true. And more than that, this response wouldn’t help him.
I resolve to answer the question he’s spoken aloud.
I tell him that I stumble and fall sometimes, that I say and do and think things that take me off course. I tell him what has filled that space—and what fills it now—between my intended course and my actual course. That gap. The navigator’s cross-track error.
I answer his question.
That was easier than I expected.
But I haven’t answered the question he wants to ask—the one he knows, but hasn’t articulated.
I’ve given him an honest answer. But he’s taken a risk in broaching this topic, and he deserves a complete answer, though he may not know how to find it. So I suggest what he might be asking is how does a person return to the intended course?
He nods again.
I’m not interested in leading him—as a defense attorney might lead a witness down a carefully prepared path—with rhetorical questions. I want him to leave today completely satisfied with an answer, with a solution. So I’m careful to verify his intended question, to assure him that I don’t know exactly what he’s looking for, but that I have an idea of what he wants to find.
I return to his original question for a moment: What’s in that space—for me—between this intended course and the actual course? I need to build an armature on which to lay the answer to his bigger question: how does a person return to the intended course?
He sits quietly now, hearing of problems that are common to everyone, and how I resolve to do better, to say better, to think better. I share my own struggles with him. My own problems.
And I explain to him that I use the word problem the way a mountain climber characterizes a difficult place on the route. To say challenge is cliché. Challenge gives the impression that I can succeed through sheer strength and brute force. A problem, on the other hand, requires delicate movement and subtle choice, thought and feeling. It may demand that I ponder a solution for a long time.
I’m quiet again. He’s comfortable with the silence; he knows the implications of the question I’ve suggested—that it might reveal even further the most personal aspects of a life. Of my life. But I trust he won’t judge what I share.
“How do I return to the intended course?” I ask him, again verifying that this is indeed his question.
When we get off course, I tell him, we’ve probably let a part of our self make that decision to leave our intended path. We’ve fragmented our self and then allowed only a part to decide for the whole. We’ve let that fragment of our self make the decision.
We can’t solve a problem with a fragment of our self, I tell him. We have to bring our whole self to it. We have to let the thinking and experience of an integral self come to bear on the problem.
I’m wandering into abstractions, and my friend brings me back with a more useful question: what is the whole self?
We’re eating lunch, so I use food and appetite as an example. This is easy, since appetite for food is a good metaphor for any other appetite or emotion or sentiment we may experience—and these are the very things that may lead us off our intended course.
I begin with the example of person who wants to build muscle or lose weight. If I want to do one or both of these things, I tell him, I have to exercise and eat certain foods and avoid others. I have to restrict my diet and expand my activity.
We both chuckle at the irony of my example—while we’re both eating breaded chicken sandwiches, sugary sodas and French fries. I tell him that I am, in this very moment, diverging from my intended path.
I think this might work.
I continue with the example. I tell him that if I’m exercising regularly, eating healthy foods, avoiding unhealthy foods, and moderating my meal portions, then I’ll have the results I want. I’ll remain on my intended path.
But what happens when I see a table of desserts? I ask him.
He shrugs. But I think he begins to see where I’m going. And a table of desserts, it turns out, is an apt example—because he knows I have a weakness for sweets. He has seen me finish off three servings of pecan pie à la mode in one sitting.
My appetite for sweets is only part of who I am, I tell him. Only a fragment. But I am also made of other things, including an intention to build muscle and lose weight. And so I have to bring these other things to the table of sweets, as it were. I have to bring my whole self to the table, not just my appetite for sweets.
We finish our lunch, and I remind him of his original questions: What’s in that space for me? What happens in that gap?
I tell him that if I have three servings of dessert, I’ve just increased that gap, extended that cross-track error. I have diverged from my intended course. When I make that choice—to have three desserts—I have only brought a part of myself to the decision. I have fragmented myself in order to justify the decision. I have fragmented my self.
But what if I bring my whole self? I ask him. What if I bring my appetite for sweets and all of my other desires and intents to the dessert table? What if I bring an integral self to the decision? What if I bring with me my decision to build muscle and lose weight?
I tell him that I’ll still struggle, because I really enjoy desserts. But I explain that by bringing all my faculties to the table, I’ll be able to make a decision with more that just a fragment of myself.
There’s no doubt I’ll stumble and fall sometimes, I tell him. Maybe many times. I may not be able to close that gap between what I am and what I want to be. But I tell him that I keep trying, that I keep working to return to the intended course.
I ask him again if this is his real question: how does a person return to the intended course?
But I’ve wandered into abstractions again. Desserts and muscle and weight loss are not consequential. He wants something he can carry out the door when we leave the restaurant. He wants the answer to the rhetorical questions every philosopher and prophet has ever asked: What separates you from who you are and who you want to be? And how do you eliminate that separation?
I panic for a moment. Lunch is over. We’re going to go our separate ways soon.
What if an abstraction is the only way to answer this question? What if the answer is so personal and individual, that I simply cannot provide an answer for anyone but myself? Maybe the answer is intertwined so deeply with conscience and will and desire, that one person can never really know how another person deals with such a big problem. Not a challenge. A problem—something that requires delicate movement and subtle choice, thought and feeling. All very individual things.
I think no one can know for another.
I resort to an abstraction again. It’s the only way out now. If I can’t provide the answer, at least I’ll equip him with the tools to find it.
I was a passenger on a 747 airliner, I tell him, flying into the Los Angeles International Airport. The pilot was trying to land during a powerful thunderstorm. I had a window seat right on the port wing. As the plane approached the runway, I could observe all the wing elements used to control our course—the spoilers, flaps and ailerons. Every few moments a vertical wind shear would hit the plane, and the pilot would adjust the wing elements to keep us on track. The pilot made adjustments many times each second. At one point I thought the tip of the wing would catch the ground and we would cartwheel in a ball of flames toward the terminal. But the pilot kept making adjustments, kept returning us to the intended course.
Lightening struck all around us. Large hailstones hammered on the wings and fuselage. The pilot had one goal—to land the airplane safely. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of adjustments in that final minute, up to the very moment we landed. Our pilot didn’t stop until we were safely on the ground.
Our lunch had gone long, and it was time to go.
I told my friend that we’ll get knocked off course our whole lives—I will, he will—and we have to just keep making adjustments and course corrections in the middle of the storm. We have to bring our whole self to the problem. We have to have our whole self at the helm. An integral self. Not just a fragment. We have to do this all the time, at every moment. Thousands of times. Tens of thousands of times. Maybe more. Over an entire lifetime.
I told him we can never stop. Not until we’ve landed.