Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” This question appears at the end of Mary Oliver’s poem “Summer Day.” [House of Light, Mary Oliver] When I last checked, that phrase produced more than two million Google results, with links to websites and blogs, all of which referenced that “one wild and precious life.” Clearly, the phrase has tapped into something universal.
Whether or not we’re part of a couple, we come into the world alone, we leave alone, and we make many of our most important decisions after we’ve done our own private soul-searching. We and we alone are responsible for our behavior; we create our own lives. It behooves us, then, to build within ourselves a foundation that does honor to our life, which indeed is wild, precious, and unlike any other.
Let’s examine how we might nourish this priceless natural resource.
Three Essential Questions
In my work with couples over the years, I’ve found that exploring three essential questions enables us to master the art of differentiation. Our answers change as the seasons of our lives change, so we will ask them more than once. The core questions are these:
Where have I been?
Where am I now?
Where am I going?
Each question naturally flows from the other: (1) exploring where we’ve been should give us enough self-awareness and information to (2) assess where we are now and to see how much, or how little, progress we’ve made toward our ideas of fulfillment. When we ask this second question, it’s time to consider whether or not our ideas of success still make sense to us.
The monk and mystic Thomas Merton was thought to have said, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” Many of the first big decisions we make in life arise either out of opposition to or in compliance with our caretakers and authority figures. Some of us reach the top of Merton’s ladder before we realize it isn’t really where we want to be.
Once we’ve taken stock, we’re ready to (3) consider where we’re going next. As we ponder this issue, we might consider: What is my gift to contribute? What is my heart’s desire? If we do decide to head in a new direction, we need to be intentional, determined, and prepared to succeed.
Let’s look at each of these fundamental questions in more detail.
Where Have I Been?
To understand ourselves and our place in the world, we need to become aware of the influence of family members, including ones we’ve never met.
Home is where we first learn about relationships: how people care and repair, get their needs met, deal with disappointment and trouble, and find — or don’t find — support. Within the family circle, some individuals influence us more than others. Most people assume that we’re most deeply influenced by our parents, but some of us are more affected by relationships with other family members, such as siblings or grandparents.
Family is also where we learn about emotions. Our early experiences shape our sense of self-worth and our feelings about our competence and lovability. We’re taught values and receive messages (many of them unspoken) about sexuality, money, support, conflict, differences of opinion, and what it takes to be safe and loved. It’s in those early years that many of us are introduced to the demon of shame, which can impair our well-being and sense of possibility.
It’s also during childhood that we discover our affinity to certain frames of mind. Some of us are born dreamers, drawn to possibilities, while others like to organize and systemize what is already here. We discover our own special joys, whether they lie in the natural wonders of clouds and trees, in music and drawing, or in the mathematical beauty of building and engineering. If we’re lucky, these early affinities develop into adult passions and/or professions.
For many of us, however, the “right wall” isn’t clear. We can’t remember what filled our hearts with desire as children, and we stumble in search of a meaningful life and vocation. To regain our sense of where we’ve been, and of what sparks our joy, we might try to determine when we stopped feeling engaged in life.
Cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien reminds us that wise humans have long recognized the revelations to be had in the recovery of such moments, which lie lodged in our memories:
“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a shaman or medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask you one of four questions: When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop finding comfort in the sweet territory of silence?” [from the foreword of Maps to Ecstacy, by Gabrielle Roth]
We are shaped by both the light and the dark. As children we experienced and remember certain things that heartened us: our friends, say, or a loving pet, or a special teacher. Other things may have harmed us: bullying, lack of connection with one parent or both, or other trauma. Teasing may have stopped us from dancing and singing and caused us to lose our sense of enchantment. At other times, whole new possibilities may have arisen, perhaps allowing us to blossom for the first time.
Some of our formative events may have happened long ago to our ancestors, not to us personally. Immigration, financial upheaval, religious persecution, and wartime hardships are but a few of the circumstances whose profound effects are passed on from one generation to the next. Eva Fogelman, a clinical psychologist, believes that even third-generation Holocaust survivors experience some of the effects of that trauma, including low self-esteem, difficulty with trust, and a need for financial security that cannot be fulfilled. Of course, the upside of survival may also be passed on through generations, including resilience and determination to make the most of one’s life.
For better and for worse, then, our family experience has a powerful impact on our personalities, sensitivities, strengths, and weaknesses. Yet we needn’t remain at the mercy of our history. As we grow older, our answers to the question, “Where have I been?” can liberate us, especially since the clues we need to resolve current problems often point backward.
Although discovering the root of the problem does not make it go away, the awareness of it gives us new choices. We all have triggers. Some of these triggers lie below our consciousness, just waiting to be set off by our partner’s inadvertent words or behavior. If we can dig beneath the layers of our histories, however, and listen openly and compassionately to each other, we can begin to live in “real time,” both with our partners and with ourselves.
Where Am I Now?
Who hasn’t awakened in the middle of the night, wondering, “What am I doing with my life?” Who hasn’t had doubts about their line of work and wondered what it would’ve been like to have followed the “road not taken”? Being in tune with ourselves is a prerequisite to being in harmony with another. Even as we work on our relationship, each of us needs to make the time to reflect on the deep questions that human beings have asked for centuries: Who am I? What is my life about? How do I express my core values? Where do I put my time, energy, and money — and what do I get back in return? Does my work make sense to me? Where does my passion lie? What am I building? What will I leave behind after I die?
Where Am I Going?
We all need to look ahead. To the best of our ability, we need first to imagine, and then to plot, our course for the future. Of course, there are no guarantees that we’ll get to where we’re headed. As the filmmaker Woody Allen has said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”
Still, it is useful to ask ourselves: What is it time to let go of? What is it time to begin to build? Reflecting on these questions will help us find the path that will take us forward.
Why the Three Questions Are Essential
Where have I been? Where am I now? Where am I going? What makes these questions so crucial?
To ask the question, “Where have I been?” grounds us in place and time and allows us to understand our nature and psyche. To ask, “Where I am now?” allows us to assess where we are in our journey of self-discovery, which is the primary work of our lives. “Where am I going?” speaks to change, which is a constant and reflects the human search for meaning.
As stated above, part of the significance of these three questions is how each one leads naturally to the next. If we can understand where we’ve come from, including the dreams we may have put away and the roads we may not have taken, then we can begin to look at where we are now.
Once we reflect on and understand what does and doesn’t work in our present lives, we can begin to get a fair idea of what’s next for us. Gradually, we will expand and develop into the whole, self-actualizing person we’re meant to be, someone who is prepared to be a mature, openhearted partner to another human being.
©2014 by Linda Carroll. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
www.newworldlibrary.com or 800-972-6657 ext. 52.
Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love
by Linda Carroll.
About the Author
Linda Carroll, MS, has worked as a couple’s therapist for more than thirty years. In addition to being a licensed therapist, she is certified in Transpersonal Psychology and Imago Therapy, the highly successful form of couple’s therapy developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, and is a master teacher in the PAIRS Psychoeducation Process. She has studied many modalities of psychological and spiritual work, including Voice Dialogue, Holotropic Breathwork with Dr. Stan Grof, the Four-Fold Way with Angeles Arrien, the Diamond Heart Work of A. H. Almaas, and training with the Couples Institute of Ellyn Bader and Dr. Peter Pearson. She is also certified in the Hot Monogamy program, which helps couples create (or re-create) the passion that makes relationships thrive. Visit her website at http://www.lindaacarroll.com/
Watch a video: Linda Carroll speaks about relationship and other topics.