Last week as I was rifling through an old handbag, I came across a tiny yellow plastic giraffe. I smiled, as this giraffe immediately transported me back to a conversation I had with my friend, Roland, several years ago, when I was still commuting to my corporate job in downtown Toronto.
Roland and I had agreed to meet after work and when we ordered drinks, they both came with a small, plastic giraffe on the edge of the glass. My giraffe was pink and it was cracked, almost broken in half, barely hanging on, much like myself at that time. His was yellow and whole, and seeing that mine was broken he gave me his, stating “I think this one is meant for you.”
When I look back on this period in my life, I can see that I was deeply unhappy.
For whatever reason, I felt trapped in a job that was not satisfying, and I was commuting three hours everyday to get to and from that unsatisfying job. The work and the commute were taking their toll on me and on my family. I had so little time to spend with my young daughters. I had no time or energy left for my husband, who was facing his own challenges that I wasn’t even aware of. Our marriage was in trouble. I was in despair.
This wasn’t the life I had wanted.
I kept asking myself “how did I get here?” and “how do I get out of here?” I didn’t know how or where to begin to move towards something better, or even what “better” might look like. It was as if I had closed my eyes, or put blinders on, and had no vision for my life other than getting through the next commute, work week or month until my next vacation.
Although Roland knew only a fraction of what was going on in my life, he must have seen my misery, for he shared with me, with a kind of divine clarity, two very important things.
The Importance of Accepting What Is
First, in what initially seemed like a random conversation, he told me what his daily morning ritual was. That when he wakes up every morning, he sits still and looks around and acknowledges everything he can see in his room or apartment.
He told me “I acknowledge everything I have and everything I get to do in my work and personal life. And I acknowledge everything I am feeling, from gratitude to frustration, all of it. Because I am responsible for all of it – good and bad. These things are in my life because of decisions I have made. I am grateful for all that I have and I accept responsibility for my life, everyday. And if there is something happening in my life that I don’t like, then I begin by accepting that it’s there, that it’s in my life just as it is. And only then, when I have accepted it completely, can I begin to change it.”
I was immediately captivated by what he was telling me. I am sure I sat open mouthed as he went on, feeling like a stone had been thrown into the deep well of my psyche, an inner knowing inside me rippling out to greet the truth of his words. Roland had just handed me a gift, not just a plastic giraffe but a truth I had not thought to seek in a rooftop Milestones in Toronto.
Knowing You’re in the Driver’s Seat
And there was more. Next, he looked into my eyes and said: You are in the driver’s seat of your life, Shona. Or if you prefer a different analogy, you are writing your own story. If you can accept that the situation you are in is of your own making (based on conscious and unconscious decisions with both intended and clearly unintended outcomes) then you can accept that only YOU can find a way out of it…by making different choices. Only you can determine what road you’re going to travel down from here. You are driving this bus. You can write a new story. One where you are happy.
And so, clutching my untouched drink with it’s broken pink giraffe, I had an epiphany. And nothing was the same for me after that moment.
I opened my eyes.
I began to wake up and see that only by accepting the predicament I was in, and my role in creating it, could I claw my way out of it.
As it turned out, there was a lot of work ahead of me, clarifying what mattered, and what I was willing to give up in order to have what mattered. And even though some decisions were very, very hard, I reveled in the fact that they were my decisions to make.
I put my hands on the wheel, threw the bus into drive, and took an exit for a road I hadn’t traveled down before.
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”
I slowly made choices that were better for me and my family. Although I took a massive pay cut, I found a job closer to home. In fact, I was able to walk my girls down our street and put them on the school bus and then continue walking to work! For the first few months, I felt like I was on vacation, so much time had opened up in my life.
I won’t lie and tell you that adjusting to a reduced income was easy because often it was very challenging, partly because I didn’t really know how to prepare for it. What always brought me back from the brink of taking my hands off the wheel was remembering that now I had what mattered: time and energy for my children, time to talk with my husband, time to clean my own home and really appreciate it (now that the cleaning lady was gone) and time to think and dream and find myself again. Time to have a vision for my life that was more than just surviving it.
I showed up for my drink with Roland all those years ago feeling buffeted by life’s circumstances, that life was happening to me and that I was at the mercy of forces beyond my control. But the reverse is true. We are only trapped if we say we are.
Every day we can choose to create a different life.
We have the power, we really do. I am not naïve, I know that dark times come to us all, and that hard, unwanted circumstances arrive on our door, sometimes without warning. What you do in those moments though, what you choose to do in all the moments, is what matters. And while the reality of knowing you are in the driver’s seat is sometimes terrifying it is ultimately liberating.
I have carefully placed the yellow plastic giraffe on a shelf above the desk in my home office. Giraffes, with their long necks, are creatures of remarkable vision who can see far, who can see all the paths across the savannahs. That giraffe marked the beginning of my awakening, when a wise friend planted in my heart a hope and in my mind a seed of possibility. He knew that the whole, yellow giraffe was for me, as a symbol of what my life could be if I had the courage to put myself in the driver’s seat and follow my vision of a better life.
“You are one decision away from a totally different life.”
— Mark Batterson