The Most Important Things...

The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them--words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to where your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller, but for want of an understanding ear.

~Stephen King~

Off Course, but not Lost

I hate getting lost, and as a goofy male with an even goofier male ego, I usually refuse to admit that a mistake has taken place and stop and ask for directions. I usually try to convince myself, and anyone else within earshot, that I meant to go this way and would rather take the scenic route anyway.

My job requires that I drive quite a bit searching for addresses that sometimes are very difficult to locate. I have at my disposal a global positioning satellite (GPS) system on my computer, and have used a dash mounted system as well. Wonderful tools to have, but it’s very easy to get off course a little, make a wrong turn here, miss a turn there, and then to try to get back on course can become somewhat of a challenge.

For example, I was deeply engrossed in the conversation taking place on The Dan Patrick Show one morning this last week when I noticed I had missed a turn. I didn’t know when or where I missed the turn until I was headed back in the opposite direction. The female voice of my GPS happily stated (with a touch of obnoxious sarcasm, I might add) that my next turn (where I should have turned in the first place) was just up the road a bit. Get ready now because it’s only ten and a half miles until I get there. Ten and a half miles! I have no idea what Dan and the boys were talking about now, but I sure do remember how I felt knowing I had blown the turn by ten plus miles.

Most of my missed turns aren’t so dramatic. Most of the time, I fly past a turn, catch it immediately, and make the corrections necessary to get myself back on course, usually irritating other nearby drivers in the process. I personally find it difficult to navigate with the aid of the ever-annoying Ms. GPS mocking my every little directional error, look up my next order on the computer which is conveniently situated within my line of vision, check the printout on my clipboard for other needed details, and drive at the same time. So all of this concurrent activity distracts me once in a great while and I find myself off course, sometimes a little and sometimes, as in the ten-and-a-half-miles incident, a lot. Man, did I feel like a goofball.

But it also got me thinking. It’s been said that people love to party when they succeed, but tend to ponder when they fail. I found myself in need of some serious pondering that day, and spending so much time alone in my car provides me with ample opportunity to do so. I can even turn down the nagging and mocking from the ever present Ms. GPS if I need to. Man, there have been times when I wished I could do that to real people. Not my Sheri of course… but other people for sure.

Continuing on with the navigation theme, I have used a certain analogy in the past, and I think it fits nicely here. It’s also about flight which will always get my attention. Hang in there, this won't take long.

Did you know that once a plane takes off from one place to fly to another place, (let’s say for the sake of argument that it’s taking off from Los Angeles, California and heading to Miami, Florida), that it’s off course most of the time? It’s true, and by “most of the time” I mean 90-95 percent of the time. With that kind of statistic, it seems a wonder that we can actually fly anywhere with any degree of confidence. But we almost always arrive where we set out for, thanks to the efforts and abilities of a well trained flight crew. How does that happen when we’re off course for so much of the journey?

Well, several things need to happen for a successful flight of this nature. A flight plan must be made. The pilot needs to know what the intended target is. I think we can assume that the pilot already knows from where the departure will take place, but that might be an important piece of information to have as well.

So now that we know where we are and where we want to go, we can take the appropriate actions to get ourselves underway. Perform the preflight, start the engine, taxi out to the end of the runway, and take off. All good so far, but this is where several unseen forces conspire to take the plane off its original course. Wind currents, the rotation and curvature of the Earth, even pilot error all add up to alter the flight. Have you ever taken your hands off the wheel for a few second while driving 60 miles per hour or so? What happens? Car doesn’t always go where you want it to go, does it? Same thing with flying, only at 30,000 feet in the air.

If the flight crew doesn’t pay close attention and take corrective measures, the plane will stay off course. Worse yet, unless action is taken, the plane will get further and further from its original intended course. It doesn’t take much either. Just one degree off course at the beginning can cause enormously erroneous results at the other end. The answer to this potentially disastrous flight is what’s called “sensory acuity.” In simpler terms, we call this activity plain old ordinary paying attention to what’s going on around us. The pilot must make constant minor adjustments to keep the craft somewhat close to the desired course.

Once the plane is within a certain distance of the planned destination, the pilot can hone in on the end of the runway and guide the plane in, landing right on target. We’ve all heard stories of planes landing at the wrong airport for no other reason than “Oops!” It doesn’t occur all that often, but it does happen. It would appear that the pilot wasn’t exactly successful with step one in these cases.

So… know where we want to go, take action to get there, pay attention, and make adjustment as needed along the way. Simple, right? Do this a number of times and it becomes a formula, one that can be duplicated over and over to achieve almost any outcome we desire.

As human beings and children of God, we like to have formulas, proven methods to achieving our goals, whether those goals are well defined or just a passing thought. We want to know that our actions will lead to desirable results. We want to know that our efforts, time, money, and other resources won’t be wasted or that we won’t end up somewhere we didn’t want to be looking foolish and asking ourselves “How the hell did I get here?”

The real talent is to keep ourselves focused enough to avoid distractions while at the same time not having so much tunnel vision so as not to see how conditions around us are changing. Some of us are lucky in that sense. Some of us were fortunate enough to know from an early age what we wanted to achieve in life, what we wanted to become, what we wanted to do to earn a living, what kind of families we wanted to have, what kind of children we wanted to raise… etc. I was not among that group. I have struggled all of my life to determine with any degree of certainty what I wanted to be. It’s a struggle that I continue to battle to this day.

So I tend to wander aimlessly, searching for myself, without the aid of a formula, or life GPS to guide me along the way. And then when I do strike upon something that suits my fancy for the time being, I lose focus after a while, or stop paying attention to the ever-changing surrounding conditions, and find myself ten and a half miles down the wrong road and wondering why I didn’t plan better, or pay closer attention, or make the course corrections that are so obvious now in hindsight… or even why I didn’t take action to begin with and let a golden opportunity slip through my fingers.

Life has a way of knocking us off course at the most inopportune times, doesn’t it? We go along happy as clams and then something happens that makes us re-evaluate either our original destination or the course upon which we currently find ourselves. I guess that’s the way things are supposed to be. We have a sign hanging in our home that makes these little bumps in the road easier to understand. It simply states “Everything for a Reason.” I’m not exactly sure how that applies to missing my turn by ten and a half miles, but I did learn to be more attentive to the annoying voice that helps me navigate the roads of southwest Missouri during the course of my normal day.

I have found that when I study the course before embarking on my daily journeys, set myself some intermediate goals to achieve along the way, plan my day and then follow the plan, I make fewer mistakes and my day goes unquestionably smoother. And that’s just day to day. If I can get so off course in just one day, can you imagine how far off course I can get in a lifetime if I’m not paying attention?

Think about your life for a minute. Where you started, what plans were made when you were younger, where you are now, and how far off your original course you have gotten at different times in your life. (I can only assume that you've been off course from time to time... most people I've ever known has had this happen. If it hasn't happened to you, please accept my apology for the assumption.)

Some of us can easily recognize when we are off course just a little and take immediate and appropriate corrective actions. Some of us however, don’t pay close enough attention and find ourselves way down the road where it’s not so easy to get back on course.

And then some of us get so far off course for one reason or another that we think getting back on the original course is impossible. Day, weeks, months, even years and decades can pass before we look up and see where we are, and when we finally do we can be shocked at our current location. And it’s usually not a pleasant place we find ourselves either. Take your hands off the wheel and stop paying attention to the road and I can almost guarantee that where you end up is not going to very much fun, not to mention not where you thought you’d end up when you began the trip. We usually don’t go to such extremes as that while driving, or even flying, but it’s exactly what we do in life, only the change in course is more gradual and therefore the results aren’t quite as immediately dramatic.

While turning around and driving the ten and a half mile stretch of road was a pain, it wasn’t impossible. I made the U-turn, drove the distance, did my inspection, and then had to drive back along the same piece of road again to get to my next stop. Inconvenient? Yes! A royal pain? Yes! Impossible? Absolutely not!

Sometimes though, simply turning around is not an option. We must make a new course that will lead us to our destination, and more often than not the new course will be more difficult than the original one. After all, if this new course were much easier than the original, wouldn’t we have chosen it to begin with? So here we are, off course a little or a lot, and a correction is needed. Sir Isaac Newton taught us that staying the course is easier than changing. Going down the road with momentum pushing us along keeps us from making that next turn needed for course correction sometimes. Did you ever come up on the street you were looking for so suddenly that you couldn’t make the turn? We all have, I think. So we slow down, get ready for the next opportunity to turn, and then get back on course. Maybe a little inconvenience, but we can still get there, right?

Sometimes we follow the same wrong course so many times and so often, and we carve such deep ruts in that path that we find it very difficult to get out. It becomes harder and harder to make a course correction of any kind and so we just stay in the rut, because it’s easier that way. Less effort needed, and less strain involved. But that doesn’t really do us any good, does it? That usually doesn’t get us where we want to be.

I was in just such a rut and so far off course a while back that I thought the original destination was no longer within the realm of possibility. It was extremely difficult for me to accept the fact that way off course doesn’t necessarily and automatically mean hopelessly lost. I think we all have an idea of where we would like to be when the game ends, and I don’t really think that this destination changes all that much within each of us. I still knew where it was that I wanted to go, but I didn’t know where to turn and which of many possible courses to take to get there.

That’s when I found a really good GPS system. And not only a good GPS system, but people around me who loved me and cared about me enough to help me monitor the road ahead and make minor course corrections as needed. They also help me recognize the voice from the system that is there to guide and direct me along the way. And this voice told me in no uncertain terms that the way back was not nearly as impossible as I had imagined. It wasn’t going to be a leisurely walk in the park, but certainly not as difficult as I had originally thought either. And this particular voice is infinitely more pleasing to my ears than the one from the GPS in my car.

But just like the distractions that present themselves to me while I am driving will drown out Ms. GPS, the distractions that come with living life can drown out that other GPS voice. We will get off course in life, that’s a given. We will no doubt turn left when we should have turned right. No one is immune from these errors either. The questions then become how soon will we see that we have strayed, and how quickly can we make the corrections needed. The logistics may be a little unclear, but the real message to remember is that we can get there from here. The longer we stay off course though, the easier it is to let momentum carry us to places unknown and unforeseen, the easier it is to just stay in the ruts and continue down this wrong path, and the harder it becomes to take action, any action, to correct our course.

I have taken some glorious rides through the countryside while performing the duties necessary for my job, and the grass glimmers a little greener, the sky looks a little bluer, and all of the other sights and sounds and smells are much more pleasing to the senses when I know that I’m on the right course than they are when I’m struggling to find my way. The journey should be just as important as the destination, in my humble opinion. My journeys could be, and most definitely should be, wonderful rides. They will be as long as I don’t get too far off course… and remember to listen to the GPS voice.

Until next time…