Needless to say, getting diagnosed with cancer and a growing sense of career sleepwalking put me into a bit of a tailspin in terms of what to do with my life. Strike that…I was scared to death of dying and missing out on life. The feeling rushed over me as I tried to go about my daily life. As morning commuters rushed past me to the subway, I disappeared into fear, loneliness and a suffocating sense of abandonment. First my body was abandoning me and now I couldn’t help stop the ache and feeling of being left on the subway platform while the world whizzed by.
I was afraid of missing out on everything, from the people in my life and the interesting people I’d yet to meet, to the countries, places, museums and restaurants I’d yet to enjoy; the books I hadn’t read; a new TV show called “Empire” I wanted to watch; all the stuff on Pinterest I’d yet to cook, do, or make; the projects I swore I’d hire someone from TaskRabbit to complete (like digitize my ol’ photos and music CDs); and redeem those damn Groupons that looked like a great idea at the time.
Sprinkled into the fear was an untethered sense of not knowing what brought me joy and what my life’s purpose was. I scribbled down a few things I’d done (good and bad) and a few things I’d accomplished, but it was pretty “meh”. Thus began my “listening journey” to discover what would bring me joy.
I had a rocky start. I got little sympathy from folks when I asked for advice.
Scene: Coffeehouse in midtown. Annoying coffeehouse jazz playing too loudly in the background. Dirty chai teas turning lukewarm.
Me: Blah, blah, blah, so what do you guys think?
Friend 1: Listen, you’ve got a great gig. I would love to get paid to give money to non-profits.
Friend 2: I get it… Maybe you just need a new project to work on. Anything new you could ask to be put on.
Friend 1: Guurl, you’re good. If this was serious I’d tell you. It’s just a phase. Hang in there.
Friend 1: She’s right and think of the people you are helping. You can’t leave now.
2 weeks later, both had sent me their resume and asked if I could introduce them to my manager.
I now get it: having a career where I’m responsible for advocating and investing in nonprofits and social change, while whining to people that I needed to find my joy, was a little bit like that size 2 friend who ALWAYS asks if she looks fat in this or that outfit. I get it. I get it now.
Thankfully, I changed my approach, stopped asking and just started listening and observing. Not easy for a chatterbox like me.
I learned a couple of things along the way.
● It’s really hard to look people in the eye, but so worth it.
○ I don’t have to get caught up in people’s words or attempts to express themselves. I can look in their eyes and better understand their intent.
○ When you really look at a person you can really see them. You can see their fears, happiness, humanity, their inner 12-year old self and the universal need we all have to connect to one other, be heard and be loved.
○ People are so beautiful and unique. God made no mistakes. I saw things I never noticed or really saw before: laugh lines, cute freckles, a hundred different shades of brown eyes, smiles that light up a room, crooked teeth that add character, and wisps of hair some grey, some not.
● People reveal themselves.
○ Boy, oh boy, do they. I should just carry wine and popcorn around with me and never talk again, because it’s so fascinating what and how people reveal who they are.
● Joy and excitement is contagious.
○ I just love seeing how people light up when they talked about things they’re excited about. When someone is happy and excited, it’s hard not to be happy and excited for him or her.
○ I can remember vividly a quiet, kind of shy “low talker”. You know the type. Kind of annoying because they talk so low that you are forced to lean in and really concentrate. And you’re stuck next to them for what feels like a 12 course meal and you can only look on in envy at the other side of the table that looks like some scene out of a hipster, nightlife liquor commercial. Anywhoo… I digress. I remember it vividly because he became sooo animated and energized talking about his hometown soccer team that I became excited for him and the team. Now I sometimes check the internet for their game scores just to see how they are doing.
● Joy and purpose is a combination of all that makes you, YOU.
○ It’s not about a new job or acquiring a skill, moving to a new city or a new (or better) lover (all are important!). It’s YOU and what you’re going to do with all the many gifts, talents and skills you already have. It’s how you wake up each day and choose to show up in the world—who you greet, smile at, listen to, or offer assistance to. It’s within you.
A wise and kind friend once said to me during the beginning of my joy journey, “You have ALL the TOOLS you need.” I truly believe that YOU too have all the tools to be your best, happiest, joyful self. And it starts by being a better listener to yourself and to those you interact with each day. EVERYONE you interact with not just family, friends and co-workers.
I won’t pretend to be some well balanced, meditating, yoga, kale, green smoothie person who returns every call and email promptly, has a green thumb and black belt in flower arranging, knows 3 languages and bakes pies and casseroles on the weekend. I’m flawed, damaged, and just trying to be my best self too. Some days I look in the mirror, get on the scale or review my barely completed “To Do” list and I don’t like what I see or like myself very much, but everyday I find myself smiling and laughing at dumb shit, funny shit, and more times than not my own shit.
So I’ll end this week by encouraging you to let people in and let them see your joy (or search for joy)...It will serve you and the rest of us well.
Your homework this week (if I may be so bold as to assign you some) -- SHUT UP and really listen to someone a) young, b) old, c) a new or casual acquaintance (i.e. taxi driver, cashier, guy at the gas station), and d) from a different political party. Use two simple questions – How are you? What’s new in your world?