“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” —Parker Palmer “Destiny became like an opaque, demanding, poorly communicative parent, and I was its child, ever trying to please it, to figure out what it wanted from me.” —Sheila Heti
How much power do we really have to author our own lives?
It’s a question that has interested, and sometimes haunted me, since I was a teenager in Colorado Springs, painting quotations from Lauryn Hill and Jack Kerouac on the back of my closet doors and pining for a bigger, more anonymous city, a significant destiny of some kind.
I wanted to be a writer. All the books I read had little bios of the authors and I studied them. A pattern emerged. They all lived in this place called New York City. So I went there for college and lived there for 15 years after that. And I did it. I became a writer. (Often, even to this day, to my own surprise.)
If I blur my eyes and look at just the broadest outlines of my life, I can feel like a self-made woman. The truth is far more complicated. I wanted to be a writer and I am a writer, but the journey getting there, the truth of what it feels like — day in and day out — to be this, a person who looks for patterns, stays curious, feels things, asks questions, puts it into words, is nothing like I thought it would be.
Even as an author, I don’t always feel like the author. I often feel like there is some other force pulsing under the surface of my life, of my work, of my words. I sit down at the blank screen and hope that this thing that has consistently happened will happen again, that all the strange fragments that make their way into my brain and heart, will coalesce into something worth saying. It’s a sort of magic, a mystery for sure, and it propels me onto different places and into different relationships than I ever could have chosen.
So on the one hand, I get my butt in the chair; on the other, I don’t feel fully in control of what emerges after that. Just like I got myself to New York City, but what shook out of my time there was part the result of my white-knuckled pursuit of a literary dream and part, well, something else.
The something else? White and middle-class privilege, for sure. I was able to afford to go to an Ivy League school and benefit from all the cultural capital that results from an experience and affiliation like that — but also a surprising and fecund alchemy: serendipity and synchronicity, heartbreak and lucky breaks, destiny and sliding doors.
I know some people call this God. They imagine his all-knowing hand on a button opening those doors at just the right moments. That doesn’t work for me. I believe there are forces far beyond my control, much less comprehension, that influence the opening and closing of those doors. I just don’t know how invested they are in the outcomes. Was there a benevolent force that made sure that I rode the train home to New York City from Washington D.C. next to AIDS activist Marvelyn Brown, a woman that I would go on to write a book about? Or was it just a neutral force that put us together and we generated the benevolence?
It’s tempting to fall in love with the idea of destiny. It’s both comforting and humbling… I can’t screw it up, because I’m actually not in control. It makes this one precious life feel even more precious — like it was carefully made, down to the smallest details, just for you. Like your profession, your partner, your child, was meant for you and you were meant for them.
This is even truer in a time of such overwhelming choice. It takes a bit of the burden off the grasping, fumbling human and foists it onto the broad, strong backs of the gods — whoever, wherever they may be, whatever you call them.
For me, it’s an open question. I don’t know if fate really exists. I know I’m at my best when I hold the paradox, riddled with unknowns, lightly. I am both in charge in many important ways of how my life unfolds and also totally at the mercy of forces larger and wiser than me, forces I, for one, haven’t figured out how to name or describe. I am the author and the character. The puppeteer and the marionette. The master and the fool.
I am so often wrong about what I think my life is supposed to be, who I think I am supposed to be with, what I think I am supposed to create. Thank God for that. The surprise is often painful in process, but one of the greatest pleasures I’ve ever known on the other side. After falling down on my face, brushing off, and looking up, I realize there is an elegant life taking shape that I never could have created all on my own.