You wouldn't ask a cheetah how to go fast.
On clarity, purpose, and the how to get in touch with the things we automatically know.
Hey! It’s been awhile. I was traveling, and unraveling, and dealing with a flooded kitchen, and celebrating the sacred bonds of love. I’ve brought you something long but thoughtful to make up for my absence.
Last month, I delivered a talk about clarity. I felt like just about the last person on earth qualified to speak on the topic, because I have had to fight for every moment of clarity I’ve ever experienced.
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Allow me to illustrate. I remember attending a career seminar for recent graduates at some fancy consulting firm my mom worked with. When I checked in, the receptionist handed me a name tag and invited me to write my desired job on the tag in Sharpie so the facilitators could offer me advice that was tailored to my career goals.
The other (polished, prepared) attendees wrote legitimate professions - Actuary, Litigator, Entrepreneur. In my own clever, coping way, I wrote “Employed,” and hoped that the seminar would guide me toward knowing how I was supposed to figure out how to spend the rest of my life.
I gained powerful tools to take me from career idea to execution. As for ways to navigate from confusion to clarity? Not so much.
That’s why my early career looked like a goofy movie montage. Hairnets and steel-toed boots in the Stouffer's Lasagna Factory. Shilling organic dog food to rich hippies. Processing utility payments on foreclosed property from a cubicle in Colorado. The obligatory Christmas-season stint at Victoria’s Secret.
It’s not that I’m not motivated.
But with an active addiction to information and a penchant for overthinking, I get mired in analysis paralysis that prevents me from taking meaningful steps forward. I spin in ruminating circles.
It’s tricky because overthinking feels like you’re doing something, but when I’m exhausted from all the information-gathering and brainstorming and option weighing, I’m somehow still empty-handed and no closer to the end result.
So the person who assigned me this topic of “Finding Your Clarity” must have a sense of humor, right?
Actually, it was a brilliant move. My publisher and owner of Hearts Unleashed House Publishing, Abigail Gazda, knows that someone who has always had perfect clarity is not who you want to ask about finding clarity. They won’t know because they’ve always had it. They haven’t had to fight and figure and forfeit their way to their clarity.
In the same way, you wouldn’t ask a cheetah how to go fast (because its just their nature to go fast) and you wouldn’t ask someone who is naturally athletic how to be good at sports because they won’t be able to tell you. They’ll say, oh, just “hold the ball like this and run,” as if that offers any value whatsoever to someone who gets winded during warm-ups.
Life or death decisions
In my experience, analysis paralysis and lack of clarity stem from all-or-nothing thinking. It’s easy to get stuck when you believe that there is a right answer and a wrong answer. (The school system bakes this into us, as does the traditional belief in a punitive God.) Right and wrong thinking creates the feeling of walking a tightrope: there is a right decision which will lead us to fame and fortune (or whatever the “good thing” that we want is). The “wrong” choice will leave us dead in a ditch, exiled, humiliated, destroyed.
This all-or-nothing thinking is, like so many accepted behavioral aspects of our society, a trauma response.
Dr. Gabor Maté is on the podcast circuit right now promoting a new book about addiction and trauma. Trauma, he posits, creates an environment where addiction easily takes hold, so his antidote for addictive behavior begins with addressing and healing trauma. His idea of trauma breaks from the widely-held idea of big, violent, one-off experiences. He asserts - and I agree - that the day-to-day world is traumatizing enough to destabilize us and push us grasping for something outside of ourselves to fill our respective voids.
I was standing in the security line at the Nashville airport. We were packed into rows like unloved cattle and being blasted with fluorescent lights and the loud voices of stern security guards. It was just a normal Tuesday for the TSA and we accept this dehumanization as part of normal life.
Even I, a seasoned traveler, felt my pulse quicken when it was my turn to shed my jacket and position my things correctly on the conveyor belt. If I were to do this process “wrong,” I would incur the wrath of my fellow passengers and invoke suspicious glances from the federales in their TSA blues. In our public spaces, there is little trace of the community and shared purpose that humans need to thrive. The world feels predatory and competitive.
Living here can feel like trying to order from the menu at the Cheesecake Factory. There are a hundred pages of too many choices and most of them are trying to kill you.
Despite what your life coach may have told you, there is very little room in the TSA line, job interview, or rush hour traffic to contemplate, “Is this experience truly serving my best and highest good?” We are required to put ourselves into the box of expectation and proceed quietly. Maté asserts that trauma like that gentle agony of the TSA line continually separates us from ourselves. It disconnects us from our inner compass with wave after wave of “information” and disempowering obligations. We lose touch with our inner voice, which would probably be shouting something about getting the heck out of the airport and renting a sexy convertible for the trip instead.
Clarity is an inside job.
I lost my inner compass pretty early on. Moving around as much as we did, I traded personal will for adaptability. As a kid, it didn’t matter if I wanted to stay in one place. It was best for the family to move on, so I put my wants in a moving box, taped it shut, and forgot about them.
By the time I was an adult, I had no framework for knowing what I wanted or how to go about getting it. I was ill-equipped to navigate my life because I had never been allowed to. Instead, I learned to outsource my decisions based on what I thought the world wanted for me. I chose a college that looked like college movies I had seen (and because the mascot was cool). I switched majors three times because I just kept taking classes that sounded interesting instead of propelling myself forward toward any tangible goal. I was not that sleek pre-professional with his actuary name tag, I was a dabbler and a chaser of shiny objects.
Before I made it into tech, I applied for every job on Craiglist. I sold art, folded panties, worked the assembly line, and managed utility payments for foreclosed properties. I collected interesting experiences but didn’t move towards anything.
Check yourself or check a box?
When I landed the tech job, I was happy that one aspect of my life checked a respectable box. It looked good and I could brag about it, even when the work itself felt hollow and disconnected.
Meanwhile, I experienced intense waves of anxiety that convinced me I was out of place and in danger in even the most basic situations. Instead of examining those situations and whether or not I was in my agency, I assumed I was anxious because there was something wrong with me. My inner voice screamed for my attention, but I silenced it with alcohol and distractions, only to have it come roaring back, loud as ever, the next morning.
I did the investigative work to figure out what triggered my panic and discovered that it was always about losing control. The irony!
I was so bothered by the prospect of losing control that my body would shake and my vision would blur, yet I was terrified of losing something that I never really had.
For years, the only thing I cared about was making the anxiety stop. That desire inspired a journey of discovery to figure out what I actually wanted. I became aware of how often I dissociated, outsourced choices, and followed (or shunned) others in an effort to keep myself safe and accepted by the pack.
That anxiety was a blessing in disguise. It forced me to examine all of the ways where I enabled chaos and traumatized myself. (Hello, alcohol.) Eventually, I quit drinking to mitigate that chaos and see if life would magically figure itself out. And all my anxiety magically went away overnight. Right?
I turned down the chaos dial only to reveal a life that I had built for other people. I was living outside of alignment with my values.
At 100 days sober, I gifted myself a membership to the Wild Animal Sanctuary outside of Denver. It’s a magical place on thousands of acres of high desert that offers a forever home to wild animals like grizzlies, lions, and wolves. There are jaguars that were chained up as roadside attractions at a gas station in South America. Black bears from the Russian circus that are still addicted to cigarettes. Tigers that people tried to keep as bets before they got too big to handle.
On Sunday mornings, I would go to this sanctuary and walk for hours. The coolest part is that the animals have huge territory to claim and it’s built so that they don’t even notice humans are there. (It’s a far cry from the exploitative experience of the zoo.) These animals are as close to home as they can ever be under their circumstances.
I felt freedom in that windy expanse, plus appreciation for nature and the good deeds of humans at their best. My inner compass began to come back to life.
Hitting the road and finding the way
I practiced using that inner compass while I traveled and noticed a significant difference of outcomes. When I made a choice of destination from a place of fear or intellectualization, I navigated using worldly tools like reading hundreds of Google reviews and ended up with an experience that felt cold and wrapped in the “safety” of predictability.
When I felt my way and shushed the voice that told me I needed to be alone to be safe, I ended up with memorable and life-affirming moments of connection with other humans.
Through trial and error, I began to understand what I wanted, which more than anything was to find my own wild animal sanctuary. I was ready to ground down and settle into a community with others like me. It went against everything I thought I knew about myself, but it was finally my own, homegrown clarity, born from experience and feeling.
The hard truth was that traveling as much as I was was also chaos-inducing. I could feel how I was inviting chaos into my life, because it gave me purpose.
I never had to rise above and achieve my big dreams because I was always busily wrapped up in the chaos of coming and going.
I was recreating the chaos cycle from my childhood, operating under the assumption that I could go anywhere, do anything, and be okay if I just “adapted.” It took me 30+ years to realize that not everything is for me, and that I can choose to choose without alienating myself or my loved ones.
God’s sense of humor
By 2020, I realized that what I wanted was community, healthy habits, and an opportunity to stay put. And God answered my prayers with a global pandemic that literally forced me to stop. Once that happened, and I embraced the exact opposite lifestyle of what I was used to, my clarity opened up even more.
I found a community. I met a man. I bought a house. I wrote a book.
Clarity is a byproduct of alignment. When you’re in alignment with your values, clarity happens naturally. When you’re lying to yourself and letting the world tell you what you want, you’re naturally out of alignment with that inner compass. You won’t be able to hear your inner guidance over the sound of self-inflicted chaos, and it will be forced to contact you through uncomfortable means, like rampant anxiety (or worse).
I guess I could consider myself lucky that my wake-up call was “just” violent panic attacks. Some people live their whole lives and never wake up until a tumor or a heart attack shakes them out of their stupor. Maybe, in that way, or choices are life-or-death. We can choose to empower ourselves and live from a place of purpose, or let life choose for us and end up eating from the worldly buffet of disease, depression, and disconnection.
The earlier we learn to stop re-traumatizing ourselves with self-inflicted chaos, living lives that aren’t ours, the sooner we can step into our gifts and live our purpose.
In my twenties, I liked to think that I had no feelings. It was a lie that made me feel impervious to the chaotic ups and downs and emotion. I suppressed my true feelings and allowed my head to run the show. After my body shook me back to life, I discovered how my emotions are dynamic and beautiful signposts on my path to clarity.
Unlike someone who has always had great clarity, I had to learn to turn off the chaos, get quiet, and feel my way through.
Ultimately, clarity was closer than I thought.
My anxiety was my clarity, trying as hard as it possibly could to get my attention. My senses were my clarity. My head didn’t think it was “right” to feel uncomfortable in loud bars, but I did. It didn’t seem “right” to be excited by getting laid off from my job, but I was.
Clarity is intensely personal. I can’t use your clarity, and you cant use mine. But maybe to get in touch with your clarity, you just need some inspiration, some practice, and a mirror.
If that’s the case, I think you’ll love HALF WILD.
HALF WILD is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.