“There is no place so awake and alive as the edge of becoming.” ~Sue Monk Kidd
From a small café overlooking the boat harbor in Seward, Alaska, I looked out the window at the enormous mountain peak of Mount Alice that protruded from the earth behind rows of tour boats, sailboats, and a cruise ship large enough to carry several thousand passengers. The last few days of my summer there were coming to an end, and I reflected with gratitude on my time there.
Located directly off the Gulf of Alaska and within Kenai Fjords National Park, Seward is a place people dream about: bald eagles cut through the sky as frequently as clouds, humpback whales breach the calm bay on a quiet morning, and wildlife roam freely within rows of pine trees that crowd the hillside and hug the small town.
Seward was my home for the summer of 2019. I lived in a camper van next to Resurrection River with a full view of Mount Alice. At night I could hear the soft, constant mumble of the river.
When I wasn’t working downtown at a local coffee shop, I read next to the river, practiced yoga in the black sand that blanketed the bay, flew in a new friend’s helicopter above the wild landscape, ate breakfast on a beach where the whales welcomed the day, or sat beside a crackling fire under towering trees and mountain peaks.
It was dreamy. But I didn’t arrive there randomly nor without trials. In fact, my environment both externally and internally looked much different just a couple years before when I wrestled with questions and dilemmas that are common for many of us on the path of becoming.
The Confusion & Inner Turmoil of My Early Twenties: A Brief Backstory
Two years before, I was in the depths of the uncomfortable tension I felt between two opposing decisions: should I stay on my current, stable path or leave it entirely to pursue something more in line with my values?
I was a fresh college graduate, and I had recently started a job at a nonprofit organization that paid me well and offered many advantages I felt lucky to have. I was also working my way into the political world and imagined myself one day running for office. On top of working, I was also trying to keep the wheels moving on a nonprofit organization I’d started to train women to run for public office. My mind played with ideas of buying my first house and settling into this life path.
I was twenty-three, highly ambitious, and working toward a life that I didn’t really want. But I struggled to understand that feeling because I didn’t want to seem ungrateful or, even worse, delusional for letting go of what I had.
Another side of me was creative, free-spirited, and very much opposed to a linear life route. In fact, I never wanted to attend college. I had dreams of being a photojournalist or a writer who gathered knowledge by exploring and experiencing the world. I valued adventure, curiosity, and creativity. Yet here I was—not only pursuing a path that didn’t fit those values, but telling myself and others I was passionate about it.
My mind was a warzone of opposing beliefs and opinions about who I was and how I should live my life. I felt stuck and lacked direction. I was certain about nothing and questioned everything: my identity, my thoughts, and the direction I was heading.
I was also in a relationship with a man stuck in a cycle of self-sabotage and harmful drinking habits that grew out of his feelings of worthlessness.
I spent my days cultivating the professionalism I didn’t value and my evenings at my boyfriend’s house, smoking weed on his frameless mattress and teetering between my contrasting desires for rebellion and obedience.
There were nights I’d fall asleep next to him and the bottle of whiskey lying in the crevice between his mattress and the wall, then wake the next morning feeling drained, lonely, and lost on a path I was unsure how to step away from.
I’d unintentionally assumed the role of my boyfriend’s caregiver in a time when I needed my care the most. I was navigating the chaos, uncertainty, and vulnerability that often meets a person in her early twenties, all while reprimanding myself for not being where I thought I should be.
As a teenager I often made promises to myself I would follow my heart and choose a life I desired regardless of the circumstances, but in my early twenties I realized that was far more complicated than I initially thought.
Life has a way of guiding you in a direction that diverges from what you’d planned for yourself. Trying to navigate that divide can produce anxiety and inner turmoil–especially when you’re young, naive to the power of life’s unplanned circumstances, and still learning how to properly adjust your sails to work with its winds.
That’s the situation I found myself in when I was twenty-three, full of ambition, and feeling stuck in circumstances I didn’t want but had somehow still manifested. Through that time, I learned three key lessons that I hope you may also carry with you as you continually adjust your sails and navigate life’s shifting tides on your path of becoming.
Lesson 1: If you don’t know how to overcome your current challenges, look for lessons that can help move you forward instead of forcing yourself to take immediate action.
In the midst of my inner turmoil, I wanted to exit the discomfort immediately and be in a state of ease. But my Buddhist-inspired beliefs and mindfulness studies taught me that in the center of the challenges I needed to sit with what I was experiencing and listen to what there was to learn. Rather than taking immediate action, I needed to observe. What was I feeling? What were my emotions trying to communicate? What was stirring in my soul?
I spent many evenings journaling the raw thoughts in my mind without trying to make sense of them. I allowed emotions to arrive and stay as long as they needed. I gave myself space to not know what I wanted nor what was to come next. I asked questions without needing an answer. I considered my needs at every moment and did my best to meet them.
By doing so I learned that staying present and accepting the current moment doesn’t mean neglecting action. It means being alert and cognizant of what lessons the moment has to offer so that one can move forward with the insight, tools, and knowledge needed when it is time to take action.
Lesson 2: Focus on the things you can control, then take action and adjust as you go.
In time—by being still and aware within the confusion and fear I felt—I realized I needed to leave the situations that I didn’t want. I needed to adjust my sails to steer myself in a different direction, even if I didn’t know exactly where that would lead me. I didn’t need to know the future in order to know that I wanted to (and could) change my present circumstances.
Within about eight months my relationship naturally fizzled, I gave notice at my job, found a new job in Alaska, bought a van, gave away many excess things I owned and didn’t need, moved out of my apartment, and hit the road from Wyoming to Alaska. I shifted my sails.
Rather than focusing on the areas of my life I couldn’t control—like the potential consequences of changing so many aspects of my life—I leveraged the choices and agency I did have in order to produce different outcomes.
Lesson 3: Remember, sorrow or joy, this too shall pass.
One summer morning after arriving in Alaska, I sat at the end of the boat harbor overlooking the jagged peaks in the distance. I watched and listened as the boats swayed gently in the water and the birds sang their songs in the blue sky.
My body felt different. The anxiety had receded. There was more space in my mind, and I felt a sense of direction even in the lingering uncertainty. I still didn’t know what would come after my short summer in Alaska. But more than anything, I felt an immense amount of gratitude and contentment for my life at that moment. Where else would I rather be? I thought to myself.
In times of joy, I often forget the challenges that led me there, and I fall prey to the belief that the joy just might last forever. But that morning on the dock I understood that the joy too was temporary, just like the moments of hardship that preceded it. Regardless, something within me had faith that I was right where I needed to be in both phases of my life.
Life’s changing tides have taught me the same lesson: both joy and sorrow pass through our lives like eagles cutting across an Alaskan sky. We often yearn desperately for joy over sorrow and grasp for a future where–when it finally arrives–all our hard work and desperation will pay off and we’ll live the remainder of our lives in ease.
But despite our relentless attempts to prove otherwise, the magic of life isn’t found in eternal happiness nor in the future moments that might follow the one right in front of us. It’s in feeling the depth of every experience, regardless of what it contains. It’s staying present in what’s scary and uncomfortable as much as it’s staying present in what’s exciting and fulfilling, all while knowing that whatever meets you here and now will pass in the same way as the moment before it.
It’s been two years since I spent that beautiful summer in Alaska. Within that time life’s tide has continued to rise and fall, bringing both challenges and joy. Just as I’d anticipated, the ease I felt that summer passed, then came again, and passed once more. Each wave of experience has delivered numerous lessons, like little gifts waiting to be opened, observed, and put to use.
Staying present in the challenges leads to immense growth and strength, and being present in pleasure generates gratitude and bewilderment. We need both. A meaningful life depends on our ability to value all aspects of the spectrum. It’s all critical to the process of becoming.
If you’re currently sitting in hardship, you may believe it’s your job to find the next joyful experience as soon as possible, but that’s not your job. And if you’re engrossed in happiness, you might feel that it’s your duty to maintain the current environment of your life so you never have to experience hardship again. But that is also not your task.
Your job is to sit in what you’re experiencing without infusing it with judgment and forcing your emotion into shapes it doesn’t belong in. Explore it. Find gratitude for it. Ask questions. Listen. But do what you can to not wish for it to end nor wish for it to stay. Get curious about this simple invitation: Can you let this moment simply be, and if so, how deeply can you delve into it without attaching to it or its outcomes?
Wherever you are, it’s just a moment in time. It, too, will pass. But there is a purpose to its presence despite its impermanence. It has something to teach you about who you are. So while it’s here, dive into it and expand the depths of your dynamic and vibrant human experience. How deep can you go? The lessons and experiences you find along the way will mold you into your becoming.