Circumstantial Drift

By Jim Selman | Bio

One of the biggest questions most of us have is “Why do we do what we do?”, particularly when what we do isn’t what we want to do or think we should be doing.  My answer is that, for most of us, most of the time we’re not actually choosing what we do. We are living our life according to our historical patterns within some narrowly proscribed personal and cultural ‘story’ about what is and is not possible and what our options are in any given situation. In effect, we live our lives in a ‘circumstantial drift’ where the future is determined by our past.

If you throw a piece of wood into the ocean, it will eventually end up in a predictable place, carried by currents, prevailing winds and tides. The circumstantial drift is the predictable future. It is what will happen ‘inside the box’ if you move the box through time. The circumstantial drift isn’t bad—it is just lacking any real choice on our part. It is the story of life assuming we have nothing to do with how it turns out. In the drift, we try to predict what will happen and adjust our plans and actions to maximize what we want given a predictable future, which in turn produces more of what we predict.

In the ocean metaphor, the drift ‘just is’ and the choice for a sailor is to go with the drift or to set the sails and use the drift to go where they want to go. For us, we don’t have a choice about the circumstantial drift. Our choice is whether we will choose to go ‘with it’ or to commit to a different reality and ‘set our sails’ to create a different future.

When we retire we may want to drift for a bit, to experiment, to explore, to savor the freedom of spending our days without a schedule or simply enjoying smelling the roses. Sooner or later, most of us will begin to wonder if we’ve lost direction or if we ‘should’ be doing something we think is more productive than just living day to day. This feeling of aimless drifting is the product of a lifetime of a goal-oriented career in which the purpose of living is to ‘produce’ rather than just to experience the joy of living for its own sake.

The point is that where we spend our time is not the issue. Whether we are volunteering to feed hungry people, enjoying painting, tending our garden or auditioning for an amateur theater group isn’t the point. The point is whether we are choosing—living our life intentionally and mindfully—using our time the way we are committed to living and not being trapped in endless ‘should’ scenarios and looking for something outside ourselves to validate our choices.

At the end of the day, our lives are just a series of choices. It isn’t so much what we did with our lives, but did we choose to do what we did?  This is wisdom in action.

© 2008 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.