I often read Glennon Doyle Melton’s blog Momastery, and have a deep appreciation for her generous honesty and down-to-earth humanity. She helps us claim permission to be, to feel, and to hope. She walks beside her readers, lightening the load on the journey as only a true friend can do.
Recently I read her post “5 things I know about the path.” I reacted with an unexpected mix of feelings. Much of it resonated with me, especially the parts about having exactly what you need each day on the trek, and about crawling and flailing, and about teaching through loving (I can’t see any way to separate teaching and love, maybe that comes from being a grateful child of two devoted and caring teachers).
But the version of the path portrayed in the post brought feelings of shame and failure. I needed to figure out why, so I stared for a while at the drawing she had made. The detours she identifies make complete sense to me, especially perfectionism, busy-ness, and fear, which take over my life more frequently than I care to admit. But the word “detour” stuck out and jabbed at me.
In my mind, detours are things I should be able to avoid, if I work hard enough. As Glennon says: “If you take these detours you are not bad, but you are wasting your time and energy.” To be honest, I agree – and that’s where the problem lies for me. Anything I do that wastes time and energy in a way I consider avoidable dumps me right into a disabling pit of self-judgment. I can avoid the pit only if a situation is completely out of my control. For example, if a tree were to fall on my parked car resulting in an expensive repair, there’s no judgment – not my fault. But if the same expense comes from my neglecting to change the oil on time – I blame myself, and shame myself. No, the self-judgment pit doesn’t serve me, but it’s where I go.
At the end of the post, Glennon says: “You are exactly where you are supposed to be, always, and so is everyone else… You are just a traveler. You just keep moving.” I totally agree. But I can’t reconcile this with the idea of the detour and dead end. If I’ve gone somewhere that demands crawling back from, I feel I’ve failed. Crawling is not the issue – I won’t judge a good crawl, in fact I’m frequently nose-to-the-ground myself. The issue is the feeling that I’ve screwed up, which inevitably leads to self-blaming questions (“How did I let this happen? I worked so hard to make progress, how did I get so weak as to backslide?”) and unproductive comparisons with others (“Everyone else has it all under control, everyone is moving ahead, I’m falling behind.”). You see where this can go, don’t you? If I envision the path with dead-end detours veering off it, and believe that I could get stuck in a dark dead end place, I just might.
For me to have any hope of functioning, here's how I have to see it (and draw it):
We are always on the path, a path made up of every step we take. Each twisting and unpredictable path is unique and unfolds in one direction – forward. We are always moving ahead, because each moment of time changes us, and change is motion.
Not one step of this path is ever tread twice. Even if I come upon familiar feelings and circumstances, I have changed since I last encountered them; no moment can be lived again. In other words, the path does not double back but may cross itself, going over a previous point like a bridge or under it like a tunnel, moving you within viewing distance of a past moment that bears a resemblance to the present. It gives you an opportunity to remember and think: What did I do then? Did it work, or not? What did I learn? What can I do now that might help more?
Some places on the path are so thick with mud that motion becomes labored and confusing. My path has led to the mud of Stage II breast cancer and the mud of my brother’s sudden death at the hands of a drunk driver. I haven’t found a way around these areas of muck, and in fact I’m not quite sure where they end, or if I will ever emerge from them completely. So in I go, and I root around with my hands as I make my way, pulling out what gifts I can. Often I carry them for a while without having any clue what they are. It takes time, and maybe a rinsing off in a stream, for a mud-born gift to make itself known.
When we encounter challenges on the path, it can be scary to ask hard questions and answer honestly, and so we often anesthetize ourselves. We drink and take drugs, we overeat and overexercise, we self-medicate with social media and texting and entertainment. Bu even then we are moving somewhere. If somewhere doesn’t feel like where we want to be, we can try our best to put down the phone and the bottle and the dozen donuts and the judgment, and take a moment to SEE and then to QUESTION. What is happening? What are we feeling? Where do we want to go? Which steps in which directions feel right, or at least better?
This is HARD. It can be unbelievably hard to ask what needs to change – and come up with ideas – and decide which idea to try – and try it. But if we can trust that we are moving toward something even in the darkest muckiest parts of the path, if we can see and question and choose, then we might take something useful away from our choices. If you hold visions in your mind of where you want to go, maybe you’ll make decisions that point you in those directions bit by bit. It’s not magic, it’s hard work and persistence and trust and self-respect. It’s taking whatever small amount of energy you can actually control, and being as deliberate as you can about what you do with it.
When you look over your shoulder at the path you’ve traveled so far – as nearly all of us do – try to set judgment aside. When I tell myself “I never should have gone there, I wasted valuable time and energy,” it drains the energy and inspiration out of me, and I can’t do without those things. So I work to accept the path. I take step after step after step as best I can.
With each step I am moving ahead. And so are you, Glennon. Even if you step into an area that brings shame, or leads you to judge yourself by impossible standards, or bogs you down in any sort of challenging mud, you are on the path. The muddy stretches must be navigated like everything else. Look at the extraordinary gifts you’ve pulled out of them! You hold these gifts out to us every day, and they comfort and strengthen us, and we are grateful.