Updated: Jun 5, 2021
“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” ~Nelson Mandela
How many of us can relate to the subtle, nagging fear that this quote invokes? And if it doesn’t produce any fear, I would wager that at minimum, it inspires some honest introspection. The idea of settling, which in this context essentially means not pursuing our purpose on this plane, is simultaneously disturbing and overwhelming. The first word that comes to mind for me is resignation, or the notion of accepting people or circumstances in my life less ideal than what I truly desire. Yet answering the question of what it is that I really want and assessing the effort involved in journeying that path is no easy undertaking. I believe that for most, it requires an awareness and complete responsibility for the decisions that are creating one’s current circumstances, as well as a compassionate self-forgiveness, humility and the resolve to make an entirely different decision regardless of the physical and emotional cost.
In contrast, another connotation of settling is one of calming, grounding and/or maturation. The prophetic poet Rumi beautifully wrote, “let the waters settle and you will see the moon and the stars mirrored in your own being.” In other words, it is only in the stillness that we can truly connect with our existence, and thus our true purpose. As someone who has suffered intermittently throughout her life with anxiety, the prospect of a settled soul is both inspirational and aspirational for me. After years of what has felt like constant upheaval in my life – spanning from moving and adapting to multiple countries, to marriage, to divorce, to job loss, to family and friends experiencing disease and untimely death – the prospect of internal peace seems like a dream. By no means do I consider myself exceptional; as humans we are all living our own stories comprised of magic, tragedy and everything in between. Arguably, it follows that the most important journey any of us can undertake throughout it all is one of returning home to our center – the infinite source of calm and stability that will always be our loving support and compass as long as we remember our power within.
I wonder then, when it comes to living a purposeful life, what lies between the stifled passion that Mandela describes and the peaceful knowing that Rumi portrays? As I contemplate this question in the context of my own experiences, I observe someone who has been attempting to resist the former, while constantly seeking the latter. I’ve deliberately avoided a life of resignation even when the ensuing decisions tested my resolve, which run the gamut from imploding my marriage to endeavoring to preserve my fertility…and that is just in my personal life. In the professional domain, I yearn for new challenges as I instinctively know that I am capable of giving more and in turn, growing more. Nevertheless, the temptation to remain where I am in order to avoid navigating the turbulence of the unknown is a powerful one. In a recent conversation with a friend, I was anguishing about my professional crossroads and seeking confirmation of choosing the “right” career path. A preoccupation about making the wrong choice filled me with doubt; specifically, I worried that changing jobs would distract or even prevent me from finding and fulfilling my true purpose. My friend listened intently and then wisely reminded me that although the path will never be a straight line, it will be the right one because it is the one I am choosing right now. There are infinite possible avenues and stops along the way, but regardless of the direction, we need to pay the toll: passing through the unsettling zone of discomfort in order to transform and ultimately to realize our greatest potential.
As my friend’s words and encouragement marinate, I also look to nature’s intelligence for reassurance. I consider the element of water a particularly wise one, modeling freedom is in its fluidity. Water innately moves into new, open spaces; it mirrors the environment’s choppiness through the storms, and when the chaos subsides, it returns to a state of stillness, reflecting the surrounding beauty with utmost clarity. Looking back at my initial question, maybe there is not a contradiction or even a duality in these two concepts of settling. In fact, they are exquisitely complimentary. I assert that the opposite of settling as Mandela referenced is truly living. This means pushing the boundaries of what is comfortable and conditioned, asking the difficult questions and then embracing the apprehension that comes with traversing unfamiliar terrain. Instead of passively allowing the status quo to remain as such, we must exercise our agency in this wild, scary, beautiful chaos that is the human condition. I interpret the settling that Rumi observed in the water, then, as a quelling of the anxiety required to make space for the lucidity and courage to truly see and chase our dreams. When I ask myself what I want to see mirrored in my own being when the waters are still, it is undoubtedly someone who seeks passion and purpose despite the discomfort, settling down only long enough hear the voice within guiding me from the calm to weather the next storm.