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Life/work planning is my beat. And there are a thousand stories in the naked city. Oops, wrong column. Let's start again.
She was 22, and as bright as they come. But she had just been through an experience which she felt she had not handled very well.
"Guess I'm not as bright as I thought I was," she said.
I argued, "Of course you are. You just haven't had enough 'life experience' yet." She stared at me, quizzically. So, I told her the following story.
I once found myself on an airplane, sitting by the window. No one was in the middle seat. But on the aisle was a woman in her early forties, reading a manuscript of some sort. What drew my attention to her was a nervous habit she had, of which she seemed oblivious: she was constantly moving her right hand and wrist in circles in the air. I felt sorry for her. "I'll bet she doesn't even know she has this nervous mannerism," I thought to myself. We didn't speak to each other. We just devoted ourselves to our work. And to our thoughts.
But when lunch appeared, she was apparently in the mood to chat, so she sweetly turned to me and said, "You know, I never would have believed how long it would take to get strength back— after your arm has been in a cast for six weeks. The doctor makes me do these exercises endlessly." I slunk down in my seat, feeling like a complete idiot. I had completely misread the situation. But later, as I thought about it, I realized she had given me a beautiful metaphor for what happens to all of us in life.
From the time we are little, our ability to make decisions is put into a kind of 'decision-cast.' The grownups make all our major decisions for us in our first years. "Do as I say." "Be home by 10." "Don't do that." "Don't play with that." "Eat your food."
And then suddenly we are told, "Okay, now you're old enough. Go, and make a lot of decisions. What to do with your life. What school to attend. What place to live. What field to major in. Who to fall in love with. What to do about drugs. Whether or not to smoke. Go into the military. Or not."
But we just sit there, figuratively messaging our decision-making arm, trying to get some strength back into this ability which has been in a kind of emotional cast for years.
It's not surprising that many of us have trouble. Trouble deciding what college to go to, or whether to go to college at all. Trouble deciding what our major should be. And trouble deciding what occupation to pursue after graduation, from high school or college.
We're not dumb. We just haven't had enough 'life experience' at that point. So, we may choose the wrong occupation in life, the wrong life-partner, the wrong habits, the wrong diet, the wrong value system, and the wrong addictions - often turning our back on spiritual strengthening and opting instead, for 'better living through chemistry,' as the criminologist Dr. Joel Fort used to put it.
Sometimes we cause great hurt to others, by these wrong decisions, and wake up one morning to find ourselves living on a street littered with regrets. Ah, what to do then? Well, "Life/work planning" teaches us three important steps toward making our peace with those regrets.
It's relatively – I said 'relatively – easy to ask God to forgive us, harder to ask others to forgive us, but hardest of all to learn to forgive ourselves. It perhaps helps to understand what that means. "To forgive yourself," someone has said, "means giving up once and for all, all hope of ever having a better past." We have the past we have; we must understand it made us stronger.
Many, many times I heard Buckminster Fuller emphasize this: "Man is a creature intended by His creator to learn primarily through making mistakes." And - he would add mischievously - in school we should give an A to the students who have made the most mistakes, for they are the ones who have learned the most. It helps to think that life too gives an A to those of us who have made the most mistakes, if indeed we learned from them - mostly not to repeat them. As the old saying has it, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." By mistakes, we acquire wisdom.
The Old Testament has this exactly right. "You shall not oppress a stranger, you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Every experience we have in life must be remembered, for this is the source of our compassion toward those we encounter later on, who are now in the same fix we once were.
'Life experience' – it is to be valued, even the times we made mistakes, for, wisely used, it becomes the source of our wisdom, our forgiveness and compassion. In other words, the things that make us valuable human beings on this planet Earth.