Insight doesn't have to come in a magical flash. Columnist Leigh Newman shares the everyday moments that let us make that leap into an unforgettable realization.
We tend to think of revelations as monumental events, made for prophets and ancient oracles. The world goes silent, a golden beam of light descends from on high, and we're catapulted into sudden, deep and total understanding of a particular truth, like "My father was just afraid of BLANK"!" or "The reason I can't commit it is BLANK-BLANK!!" or "The evidence that proves leprechauns exists is BLANKITY-BLANK-BLANK!" That emotional or intellectual lightening bolt arrives—shazam—on its own schedule. Nothing can rush it, because it's born of years of experience and introspection, if not a nudge from the heavens.
But what if we had more faith in smaller, everyday eurekas? These ordinary-extraordinary moments are so much easier spot or even trigger, no beam of light or harp music needed. Here are a few epiphanies that might just be lying around your life, ready for you to recognize.
1. That Weird, Kooky Thing You Do Is Where Your Destiny Lies
So many of us agonize about finding our big, life-changing passion. We long for some totally reliable test that will affirm with atom-splitting precision: Yes! You're supposed to be an art director. Or, No! You're supposed to be an ultra-sound technician. Or No again! You're supposed to be an actress—what you've wanted to be since you were a kid.
With all these conflicting signals, how are we supposed to know when we're doing what we're really supposed to be doing?
Enter the iced coffee lady, whom I met while surfing the Web last week. The iced-coffee lady takes 12 elaborate, meticulous, if not verging-on-the-obsessive steps to make one single iced coffee, all the while waxing philosophical on subjects like artificial sweeteners and the regrettable end of big glass bottles with metal tops. The creativity at work (she takes photographs), the thought (she has an excellent solution for how to get sugar to dissolve without having to make a syrup), the unfettered joy (the title of her post? "I Love Homemade Iced Coffee") were more than inspiring. It made me think of my mother ecstatically ironing underwear or my husband reading his seventh newspaper of the day, then placing it reverently in his towering teetering stack of finished "special" periodicals.
Those arenas where each of us appears slightly compulsive or even a little kooky is right where we've already found our passion. It may produce income—or may not (The iced-coffee lady can open a neighbor café, and my husband should go into library sciences, but Mom probably won't open an underwear-ironing store). This is not the test of whether we ought to be doing it. We can't help but go further, so much further, than anybody else that we may just stumble into our own niche of genius—or maybe just plain old fulfillment.
The gateway to this realization is, of course, admitting your own free-flying, freaky weirdness. Such as (and this not me, of course—I would never, ever get obsessive about this) perfecting chicken marinades (but if you do enjoy this kind of thing to extreme, see this excellent article.)
Next: Make impossibilities possible2. Humans Invented Hot Blue!
Hot blue, sadly, is not born of the natural word. There are no hot-blue vegetables or flowers, no hot-blue fruits or whole grains. Scientifically speaking, the lovely rose can't be any shade of blue—hot, cold, frozen or otherwise—due the limits of genetics and natural variation, a mystery that reminds us there are still things out there in the universe to contemplate and spend our lives chasing.
Hot blue, on the other hand, was invented by mere mortals like you and me, and this can provide an unexpectedly welcome flash of insight on those sweltering, sticky, humid summer afternoons when you have undergone some unwelcome trials (the fridge broke, your forgot the conference call with your boss) and the world seems to be headed for a entirely believable cataclysm (war! recession! global warming!).
On such days, head to the nearest park and observe a line of kids ordering 100 percent artificially azure snow cones from a stand if only to allow yourself to suddenly and sweepingly comprehend that yes, being a human is challenging, but there are distinct benefits. We can make impossibilities possible with only syrup and dye! We can grace children with a mouthful of frozen, sweet, idealized sky...
3. If You Don't Love X, You're Never Going to Love X+Y
Has it happened to you? You don't love your primary care doctor or the color of the paint in your new bedroom. You don't love your job or the guy you're seeing. But instead of declaring your feelings about X, you say to yourself: "All I need is a little time to get used to it" or "All I need to do is think about this differently" or "If I were different, I'd like X more because X is sweet or good for my career or a positive step."
Unfortunately, regardless of what Y you add to X, it's still...X. You might like it more, as a result of your efforts. You might get used to it. You might even be grateful for it. But you are not going to love it. Love does not arrive via brainwashing.
Worse, over time, your real feelings about X become impossible to see, buried as they are under Y after Y after Y. And so the best time to understand how you really feel about X is during those moments when you're telling yourself to change yourself to suit your circumstances, instead of telling yourself to change your circumstances.
Right then, something will feel so deeply and funkily wrong that admitting "You know what? This isn't love" is almost always a relief. What may result, hopefully, is another revelation: Not-quite-love, like love, is just an emotion—one you're perfectly allowed to have, without doing anything to fix, dull or deny it.
Next: The security of a security blanket4. Security Blankets Can Actually Make You Feel More Secure
In an emotionally perfect universe, we'd need nothing other than ourselves to feel safe and whole. Unfortunately, we live someplace else. But in our imperfect world, we can usually find a concrete object that can help us battle our everyday anxieties.
It might not banish them forever, but it'll reduce them to a point where we can function with significantly more clarity. For example, maybe you need $10,000 in the bank just in case your husband—a man who has no intention of leaving you—leaves you, guaranteeing that you'll have enough money to pay the mortgage on your own for a few months. Maybe you need some flash cards of big, hard-to-pronounce words that you stumble over regularly, usually in front of people you want to date. A certain woman I know—okay, my mother—fights social anxiety with table manners, on the belief that if you're not worrying about fish knives while at the table, you can make conversation about the things you really care about.
It will come, that moment in which you'll feel the first, familiar wobble of anxiety or dread, but instead of giving yourself a pep talk or forcing yourself to blunder through the situation, you'll realize there is one if not logical, at least entirely legal thing that will make you feel better. Take it.
5. The Only Realistic Time Frame Is "For a While"
You're in the best possible moment of your career, complete with healthcare and a fat brass plaque on your office door. Or, you're in an ugly, excruciating fight with your friend about the thing you said about her husband. Or, your migraines leave you crawling across the bathroom floor, or suddenly, inexplicably they're—presto—gone.
No matter what the situation or condition, the only realistic way to measure its length is "for a while." Something happens and then unhappens. You will be glad it's over, or not glad (or not glad at all).
The moment it ends, however, is when it's most obvious that it—like everything good and god-awful—lasted not forever, not for a second, not for 67.32 days on the lunar calendar, but "for a while," which is the both exact and immeasurable timeframe you need to decide what to make of its influence on your life, especially with regard to all the other a whiles to come.