An exercise in aimlessness
When I was in my early twenties, a mentor friend of mine challenged me to spend a couple of hours walking without a destination.“ Just put a foot in front of the other,” he said “Don’t pick a direction or a goal; the point is to walk aimlessly,” he said.
This thought exercise proved to be much more difficult than I anticipated, which was the whole point. It made me realize: our natural tendency is to move in a particular direction or towards a certain goal.
For people living with trauma, or struggling with difficult patterns and addictions, feelings of aimlessness and directionlessness can become a part of daily life. While having a goal can be a helpful way to get out of this sort of funk, goal-setting is not always something that feels within reach, especially during times of uncertainty or during difficult life transitions.
Looking to the present for guidance
In Dr. Stephen R. Covey’s world-famous self-help book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the author advocates for beginning with the end in mind. In other words, in order to work towards the life we want to be living, we need to first visualize what that life will look like. However, looking into the future can be a challenging endeavour for people who are struggling in the present.
But even if we have a hard time looking to the future for goals, we can still sometimes find direction for ourselves by looking into our present and taking inventory of our many roles.
What roles do you play in your life?
Whether we are conscious of it or not, all of us play many different roles in our lives.
In our families, we may be someone’s child, someone’s parent, sibling, spouse, in-law, or whatever else. Our unique roles may involve nurturing, caretaking, supporting, challenging, and otherwise engaging with the individuals in your life in a variety of ways. We may also have roles in relation to our pets, and even to our houseplants.
In our workplace, we may be an employer, employee, co-worker, manager, and so on. Our roles may be legally defined under contracts, but we also play unofficial roles that we may or may not be consciously choosing.
In our community, we may have roles as customers and patrons, as volunteers, board members, as friends, as citizens, as residents, as visitors, as homeowners or tenants, as neighbours, motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, and so on.
In our own lives, we play various roles that keep our own world in order… We are stewards of our health and hygiene, caretakers of our living spaces, masters of our words and actions, keepers of our relationships, and directors of our learning and professional development.
Take inventory… write it all down!
Take an opportunity to write your roles down without judgment, whether or not the roles are big ones or small ones, and whether or not the roles are important to you or not.
Some roles will be very important to you, and others will be fairly inconsequential. But still, these are the roles that you play, and by looking at them all in one place, you may find yourself surprised at the diversity and sheer number of roles you play, as well as how they tie in to so many other lives around you.
Defining excellence in your roles
When we reflect on the many roles we play, it’s natural for all sorts of feelings to come to the surface… pride, satisfaction, shame, regret, curiosity… any feelings you may have around your roles are natural, and part of the process of growing in our roles.
There isn’t a single human, alive or dead, who has always done perfectly in all of their roles, this exercise is not about showing off a perfect report card.
Instead, this exercise is about asking yourself: what would excellence look like in each of these roles?
For example, excellence in your role as the caretaker of a houseplant may look like:
- Being familiar with how much water your plant needs
- Never overwatering or underwatering your plant
- Always keeping your plant in favourable environmental conditions
- Ensuring you’ve got someone to water your plant when you’re away
- Monitoring for pests and disease
- Admiring and loving your plant
In contrast, excellence in your role as a parent may look like:
- Supporting and loving your child; cultivating trust and respect
Definitions of excellence can be long, short, detailed, vague, complete, incomplete… it doesn’t really matter, and you don’t even need to write them down if you would rather not.
Instead, use your list of roles and your visualizations of excellence to make a few goals for the present, and to help foster some direction, even at times of uncertainty or great difficulty.
How you move forward with this exercise is up to you… you may wish to keep a list of your roles for reference, or to pick a handful of roles that are important to you and develop them further, or even to make some tangible goals that will move you closer to excellence in one or various of your roles. Getting feedback on your roles can also be helpful, and can be a good opportunity to practice soliciting and receiving feedback, which is a skill in itself.
In closing: visualizing the future can be challenging at different times in our lives… thinking about the past can also bring about a lot of strong feelings. But by thinking about our present, and the roles we play in it, we can find direction in our lives and build a momentum that will carry us forward.
Ionatan Waisgluss is a writer, educator and web developer. He is the founder of SquareByte.ca, and lives in Powell River, British Columbia.