I grew up in a small town not exactly known for excitement. Our newspaper sometimes scrambled a bit to come up with enough local news to fill each day's pages. This was evident in the obituary column. In Chicago you're lucky if you get a line or two; in my hometown an obituary often ran to four or five paragraphs.
I kind of liked that. You could see where people accomplished things. You became aware that their lives had direction. You didn't have be to rich and powerful to have had a meaningful life: "raised a family of five children," "built some of the nicest homes in town," "a life‑long member of the Red Cross," "taught for 48 years."
I gradually became aware that you could set out to do things in life. You could establish specific goals for yourself and work toward them. You could learn from your mistakes and feel good about your accomplishments.
After growing up in such an environment, I was surprised to discover that, in fact, a good many people don't take time to think about what they want to do with their lives. They seem to drift through life like a ship without a rudder. And, as you might expect, such a drifting vessel more often than not winds up on the rocks, shipwrecked.
Now, there are reasons many of us don't make the effort to chart a course for our life. For example, some people are certain they will fail at anything they try. If failure is preordained, why plan anything?
Others of us expect the normal mix of successes and failures in reaching the goals we set for ourselves. Even one failure, however, may be more than our fragile sense of self-worth can handle. We avoid planning for life, or we set unambitious goals that we are certain we will reach. We may not accomplish much, but we won't fail.
Still other people are most concerned about the opinion of those around them. Somebody may not approve of the direction we have set for our lives, or they may focus on the failures we will sometimes have. We fail to set goals for living, then, to avoid any criticism from family, friends, employers, etc.
Ironically, some of us avoid setting goals because we fear success. We are comfortable thinking of ourselves as failures and want to avoid challenging that self-concept.
Or we are certain success will be short-lived. Or perhaps we have set up our relationships on the assumption we are dependent, irresponsible people and success, we assume, will threaten the stability of these relationships.
As part of getting to know my counseling clients, I usually ask, "Where are you going with your life?" or "What do you want to accomplish?" Frequently people have no answer to these questions. They haven't given them much thought, often for one or more of the reasons I've suggested above.
To help my clients focus on these questions, I usually suggest a fantasy exercise called "Write Your Own Obituary." You might want to try it.
Take pen and paper. Imagine a newspaper reporter writing an obituary -- for you. Assume you've lived a long life (70 or 80 or 90 years) and accomplished all sorts of things you felt good about. Then, pretending you are the reporter, write your own obituary.
Using such an exercise, we usually discover there are, in fact, directions and goals we have for ourselves. It's not always easy to spell them out, but they are there. And we will find that once we have become more aware of what we want out of life, we can start to work more intentionally on such goals.
Oh, yes, we can get too goal directed. Life seldom follows any detailed script we might write for it. We will always be confronted with the unexpected -- illness, job loss, family failure, etc. We have to be flexible. Sometimes we need to just "go with the flow," or "let go and let God." That's just as important as having goals for our lives.
Where to go from here? That's a difficult, yet important, question for all of us. If there's no place in our lives for dreams, directions or plans, that's probably just where we will wind up -- no place. And that's not a good feeling.
With the proper balance of optimistic goals and flexible "letting go," we can give our lives meaning and satisfaction. We have a choice.