Consider the work of God; who can make straight what he has made crooked? Ecclesiastes 7:14
(In the Lenten devotional I put together--look to the right of this post for a link--I snipped out a piece from my book Say Yes to No. Below is the entire except. Let me know how you respond when Life says No.)
What happens when you say Yes to pursuing a dream, but life says No, right back in your face? Maybe it’s important to remind ourselves that we don’t control all the dials. Often the circumstances of life take over, and so we have to admit we no longer maintain control of our lives’ directions and the means of reaching our goals. Still what we can direct is not those circumstances, but our response. More importantly, I’ve found that these Nos can present an exciting option: Are you ready for something you hadn’t planned?
I begin with an inspiring example of using life’s No to bring about a new, totally serendipitous direction.
It’s 1990. Joanne, age twenty-five, is commuting by train between Manchester and London, England. She’s held various secretarial positions for the past six years, but secretly dreams of working as a novelist. Constantly imagining these stories does not help her job performance. In fact, in her own words, she’s one of the most pathetic secretaries imaginable. Later she offered reasons why:
Whatever job I had, I was always writing like crazy. All I ever liked about offices was being able to type up stories on the computer when no one was looking. I was never paying much attention in meetings because I was usually scribbling bits of my latest stories in the margins of the pad or thinking up names for my characters. This is a problem when you’re supposed to be taking the minutes of a meeting.
During today’s long railway commute, characteristically she’s reading, and encounters her first problem: The train experiences a mechanical failure, and Joanne hears the announcement that it’ll require four hours to fix. Problem B: Today she doesn’t feel like reading. What should she do? She looks through the window and begins to focus on some cows grazing in a meadow in front of her. During those hours, the want-to-be author begins to imagine a whole new universe. Those bovine companions are the catalyst.
I was sitting on the train, just staring out the window at some cows. It was not the most inspiring subject. When all of a sudden the idea for Harry just appeared in my mind’s eye. I can’t you why or what triggered it. But I saw the idea of Harry and the wizard school very plainly. I suddenly had this basic idea of a boy who didn’t know what he was.
At that moment, Joanne wants a pen and paper to sketch out some notes. Problem C: she has neither. Right then she could have stopped and spent the afternoon in aggravation (which is what I would have done). Instead she finds the best solution. Using her only available tool, imagination, she sketches out the characters and plot of her novel in her mind. And, by the time the train stopped at Knight’s Cross Station in London, she’s conceived the basic premise for Harry Potter’s “Philosopher Stone.” By the way, it didn’t resemble the final product (or its actual title), but so what? She was on her way.
Nevertheless, Joanne’s dream took several more years to realize. Her first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, appeared in 1998. Joanne, aka J.K. Rowling, subsequently won the Hugo Award, the Bram Stoker Award, the Whitbread Award for Best Children's Book, a special commendation for the Anne Spencer Lindbergh Prize, and a special certificate for being a three-year winner of the Smarties Prize. (I’m not even sure what that is). The Harry Potter series has sold over 100 million copies and have been translated into over fifty languages. Wow. All from four extra hours on a stinky train and a few stupid cows in a field.
This story leads to a what if. What if J.K. Rowling had decided that her life’s No was the word of defeat. What if she heard those cows murmuring, “Forget about your fantasy. Forget about writing. Just sit in this train and wait… frustrated.” (Actually, if she heard the cows speaking, that would have been a different kind of problem.) Nevertheless, what if her life’s No had presented an unanswerable dead-end?
Or to phrase this concern differently: “Great, Greg, you’ve told me all about No and how it leads to a truly successful life, one filled with integrity, with health. It sounds to me like blah, blah, blah. You’ve got to realize that it’s not always possible to say No to the demands of life. Sometimes life says No to you.”
I know. In my life, I slowly realized that I couldn’t triumph over the simple, daily demands of caring for small children in No-resistant New York City with a pressure-cooked job. Sometimes life engulfs your Nos. For you it may be illness, someone else’s decision (as in unrequited love), physical limitations, and other commitments, to name a few. But my discovery is life’s Nos led me to reflect on this topic and change my life. Thus I wrote this book, which I hope will help others in realizing the kind of life they truly desire.
Thinking about Nos that way does in fact change these mere problems into something more. I’ve gradually realized that just beyond life’s Nos, there often lies some new path. Now don’t get me wrong. I hate when life says No. I’ve read my self-help books. I’ve learned to “seek my dreams” and “never give up.” I’ve learned to have faith that life Nos are often better than what I would choose. Nevertheless, there’s nothing I can do about the roadblocks in these situations, and so I’ve learned to take these experiences as a call to stop and reorient.
So life has limitations, but even within those bounds, we can still experience dreams and the freedom to experience the fullness of life. Consider the sonnet. It’s a poem with one of two rhyming structures and only fourteen lines. No more, no less. Yet, as the masterful 18th century English poet, William Wordsworth once presented, the sonnet possesses unusual potential that he named “the paradoxically liberating power of restriction.” Wordsworth argued that, within those precious lines, we are offered an amazing power of freedom—freedom to tackle issues of life and death, of love and loss. Within those few lines, poets grapple with all the major issues of life. Those constraints provide channels for creativity and freedom to flow. And sometimes life is a sonnet. If offers far fewer hours, skills, and dollars than we had expected. But within those precious few resources, we can still grasp what’s truly important.