Imagine running down a narrow path in a dark forest. Moonlight straggling down through the ceiling of leaves offers the only light. Twigs snap under your feet. The ocean calls in the distance. You accelerate, but the sounds of the sea drift farther and farther away.
Dew dropping from the leaves chills your skin. Your pace quickens. Your breathing becomes heavier. Your heart feels like it will burst through your chest. But you’re still not getting closer. The synchronized pounding of your heart and feet and the faint call of waves are the only audible sounds.
You arrive at a fork in the path. The soothing murmurs of the sea fade. Noises from the surrounding woods scream out. Probing stares from invisible specters penetrate. You spin around, desperately searching for a sign of which way to go. Nothing.
When this happens in life, what do we do? In the absence of instinct, when we lose sight of the signs we have been following and are at a crossroads–completely forked up, which way do we go?
Robert Frost recommended taking “the road less traveled by”. But what if we can’t tell? Do we just pick a direction and go? Do we turn around and go back? Do we follow Thoreau’s advice and “Dare to strike out and find new ground” by blazing a new trail through the forest?
Life is easier and much more invigorating when a vision guides our actions; when we have experienced a “Wow!” or “Aha!” and scrape and struggle to reach the goal. But unfortunately we don’t always have that clarity. As energizing as pursuing a dream can be, the disappearance of that guiding force is equally as terrifying.
Whereas I have always advocated a plan of action – do something even if it is wrong – I am questioning whether any move initiated without full commitment and instinctive drive is merely a response to the fear of not knowing. If we are not running toward something, are we not avoiding something else?
Sometimes advice hangs with us because it resonates so clearly and others because we have no clue what the person is talking about, but for whatever reason, we can’t seem to let it go. One such statement has hung with me for many years: Have enough sense to do nothing when nothing is exactly what needs to be done.
It came from a principal at a junior-senior high school in St. Louis where I taught in my previous life as a math teacher. I was at the beginning of my working life and he was at the end. He had a large family with only daughters; I didn’t even have a plant.
When we conversed, I wondered whether he was really just happy to have another male to talk to or whether he felt obligated to share the abundance of wisdom that only a life surrounded by women provides. From southern Missouri he had the slow, drawn-out delivery that you would frequently seek out and gulp down like an iced tea from a rocking chair on his front porch on a warm August evening, but it was also one you sometimes avoided because you didn’t always have the time to listen.
When he uttered those words I remember thinking: The old man has lost it. What does he mean, Do nothing? Doing is being. If you want something out of life, you have to act. Sitting around and waiting is for the old and weak.
And so for many years I charged on. Sometimes when I came to the fork in the road and wasn’t sure which way to go, I went right and sometimes left; sometimes I went back and retraced my steps, wondering if I missed something along the way; other times I just set off blindly in a new direction. Regardless I was always moving.
But maybe when at a crossroads with no clue which way to go, the best move is to simply do nothing. When the sound of the sea has faded, and the probing stares and chilling screams radiate from the surrounding woods, just stare back into the darkness and smile. Abide with the uncertainty. Do nothing. Let the penetrating glances pass through. Allow the frightening cries to wash over. When the time is right, the path will reveal itself.