Books in which the characters set out on a one-way journey leave me with a distinctive sense of unease. The worst books are the ones where that's apparent from the very beginning.
Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy deeply bothered me as a kid. Even some tales in the Redwall universe of Brian Jacques disturbed me because of this. In these stories, there were no breadcrumbs to follow if you changed your mind and decided to stay at home after all.
(Perhaps the reason I can still love the Lord of the Rings trilogy is because Tolkien kindly walked us all back to the Shire before revealing Frodo would leave Middle Earth forever, via a ship that could not chart a return course.)
The idea that once you step out, there is no going back, freaks me out.
And that's a large part of the reason I've struggled to map out what's next for me. I'm always thrilled to find a door of opportunity and happy to pass through them when I can, but I try very, very hard to make sure those doors don't shut behind me.
I always want the option to rocket back through them the way I came in.
Of course we want the ability to say, "oh, nevermind," and retrace our steps. Then we can start over and perhaps choose a better option next time.
But the real world doesn't work like that, and trying to hold all doors open at the same time is a good way to find yourself in limbo.
Sometimes, the path will fork and you'll have options. You can stay at home or you can go on an adventure. There are consequences to each choice. There are obstacles and challenges on each path -- but potential rewards in either direction, too.
The right decision won't necessarily feel obvious. We're always so down in the weeds of our own experience that it's nearly impossible to make a sound judgment call in the present. How easy life would be if we could all have crystal balls! (Or at least reliable magic 8 balls.)
Every decision feels hard because you can't see far enough down the path at this moment. You might fear by choosing one thing, you miss out on something else -- and if you're like me, you are scared to death that committing to one path means you just booked yourself a one-way ticket.
You're scared that you're writing a story in which you step out, and there is no going back.
In her TED Talk, philosopher Ruth Chang explains why hard choices feel hard. She also discusses the fact that these types of choices -- ones that require you to decide which diverging path to take -- provide us with a chance to write our own scripts.
Here's how she explains it:
People who don't exercise their powers in hard choices are drifters.... Drifters allow the world to write the story of their lives. They let mechanisms of reward and punishment to determine what they do. This is the lesson of hard choices: reflect on what you can put your agency behind, for what you can be for, and through hard choices, become that person.
So perhaps this is the actual problem I personally continue to circle back to, and why I feel so uncomfortable with marching boldly away from where I am to where I want to be.
I'm still not sure of what I can put my agency behind.
And I'm scared to put my agency behind something because I'm distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of slinging my pack over my shoulders and walking over the horizon, knowing I'll never return to this place again.
Fear leads to inaction, and inaction perpetuates that state of limbo you find yourself in when you don't want to let go of anything. When you don't want any door to shut because who knows when you'll decide you want to go back through one?
I know I'm struggling with this right now, but I don't want to be stuck forever.
Because here's the thing: if you let fear lead to inaction and then use that sense of being stuck as excuse for doing nothing at all, you risk something greater than the discomfort of knowing you might be leaving something behind that you can't return to later.
You risk being adrift, unmoored and without a way to make progress, experience growth, or create more.
I'm taking the time to evaluate what I want from my work and my life. I'm doing some soul-searching to discover what makes me truly happy. I'm identifying affirming and positive actions to bring me closer to that happiness -- and I'm deliberately shutting doors on anything that detracts from my time, energy, or wellbeing.
This means making hard choices. Reflecting on what I can put my agency behind. What I can be for. And how my choices can build me into the person I want to become.
It also means accepting a lesson that my fiction books have tried to share with me for a long, long time:
When you embark on a great adventure, it's unlikely that you'll return to the place you last felt safe and comfortable. Not because life is linear, but because great adventure changes who you are and shapes you into someone who doesn't want to turn back.
You chose to set out in search of something more and in doing so you put your agency behind progress, change, and growth. You won't return not because you can't, but because your world is a big place. And there is so much more of it you need to experience.
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