One’s reach should always exceed one’s grasp.
It is entirely possible I misunderstood this adage for, say, the first forty years of my life. I now know that in common usage ‘reach exceeding grasp’ implies extending aspirations as far as possible - and then perhaps a bit further - in seeking the next idea, the perfect relationship, whatever. I readily admit this realization was rather slow in coming. And by slow, I mean glacial because for most of my life an impartial observer might have been forgiven for believing I was ignoring the concept entirely.
On the campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology there is a long hallway known as “The Infinite Corridor.” Traversing it, one walks a perfectly straight line through several main buildings of the Institute, past windows and open doors and side corridors revealing a profusion of diverse departments and labs. Its decoration comprises – in addition to the inscriptions and statuary - a helter skelter assortment of announcements, maps, illustrations and other communications, the better to allow the traveler to find items and ideas of interest. The Infinite is at once highway, meeting space and constantly morphing informational kiosk, directing the traveler to repositories of brilliance that branch out along its tributary hallways and up and down stairways. The metaphor is extended by the twice per annum alignment of corridor to sun angle, a coincidence (or perhaps not) of architecture and the plane of the elliptic giving the impression that the light of knowledge and truth blasts in through the western portal and radiates down the length of the passage, illuminating all within.
I was never destined for MIT except as parent of a student (are all daughters smarter than their fathers?) and anyway, no arrow-straight Infinite Corridor could have led me to Truth. This is not, I tell myself, due to an insufficiency of intelligence but rather, to an overabundance of curiosity. Not the steady and insatiable curiosity of the researcher who pulls at a single thread over a career dedicated to a well-defined discipline. I’ve never been attracted to provable answers so much as to the next interesting question. I am afraid my curiosity has always been of a more unruly sort.
I used to worry about this. It seemed to me that through the sheer dumb luck of having been born in a when / where that offered me unlimited access to learning, I might have capitalized on my good fortune by sallying forth in dogged pursuit of a great discovery or a special insight of profound import or even just personal wealth and stature. Alas, I never found reliable footing along any such path. Instead, I eschewed both the well-worn thoroughfare and the road less travelled in favor of simply taking off cross country. I stumbled from road to trail, mostly rambling sans itinerary and always intrigued by the things I saw along the way. But enjoyable as this was, I worried that without a marked map my life seemed to have no point, no laudable raison d’etre.
I used to joke that a job was ‘the penance you do so they will give you the money you need to live your life.’ As a result of welcoming this thought into my mindset, it seems that over time I assembled quite the resume of penance jobs. I frequently found myself regretting the current situation, questioning whether my life did justice to the wealth of could-haves with which the accident of my birth had endowed me. And so I occasionally sought self-betterment in the form of sojourns in academia and I made a disconcerting number of career turns. Each of these attempts at improvement felt well-conceived at the time and each would ultimately meet its demise on the rocky shores of practicality. It bothered me greatly that I never seemed to find a respectable way forward and reach-versus-grasp felt like a personal condemnation.
As it turns out, I should have worried much less all those years about the wisdom and validity of my life course. I was always reaching, just as the adage insisted I should. It’s just that my reach was never linear and certainly not always directed forward. My arms reached out in more of a sweeping – okay, make that, flailing - motion, touching without intending to the oddments that added to my knowledge but more importantly exposed me to unexpected ideas, different approaches, parallax views. I could not have predicted where or when the next learning would come, nor could I have identified in situ the great teachers in my life. The lesson asserts itself only over time.
I recall the week before I reported for my stint in the Navy expounding for my friend’s father on my plans for a Life Well Lived - so much time in the service, then college followed by a brilliant career - laying out for him the roadmap I had drawn for myself. He grinned a bit as he told me that my best bet might be to try to make a good first decision, then see what life brought before making my next course correction. It turned out his was probably the best advice or at least the truest prediction of how my life would unfold that I would ever receive, although at the time I didn’t recognize it as such. I did enlist in the Navy, learned from that experience and long before my plan called for the next step, life happened. My friend’s father had been right. And although I didn’t exactly listen, I could not help hearing and his advice has stuck with me these many years.
My life has been about turning toward things I noticed in peripheral vision, my feet following where my eyes and ears had been invited. I sampled and touched and observed and I would have been hard pressed to confidently claim that I knew why. Why look at this or try that, why the fascination or the delight or dread? Why? It was compulsion, pure and simple, fueled and steered by the need to understand things that I could not have predicted would ever interest me. It was curiosity without mindful direction but I believe this apparently random journey has served me well. In the end, I never attended an MIT but I have learned a few things.
I am married going on thirty years to my perfect mate, although she was not the person I would have thought to seek out. My current work is neither an amalgam of my earlier positions nor is it in line with any previous trajectory. But I love what I do in this, the sunset engagement of my career and finally, I finally have a job that is not penance. And of course, I find myself writing, which seems to be what I might have done all along had it not been necessary to collect so many decades of experience and insight before I would have something to say. I have become a writer, a seeker if the cliché may be forgiven, an explorer not so much of that which lies beyond but of what may be learned from each new here-and-now.
In the end, my grasp has exceeded anything for which I might ever have thought to reach. For all the twists and turns, stumbles, falls, and downright dead ends, this is my life and I regret none of it. Because circuitous as my path may have been, no other course could have led me here. My reach may not have taken me far but I happily report it seems to have taken me wide and sometimes, even deep. My travels have been about neither journey nor destination, and not so much about what lies on the other side of the hill but rather about viewing it from all sides. My attention has been taken rather than applied and the sights and sites I’ve come across have informed a life that I would not have given up for a king’s ransom. I never attended an MIT but I have learned. My resume does not reveal a career, per se, although there are evidences of affinity if not a logical progression to be found in reading it. At any point in my history, I am best defined by the here and now.
My life has brought me here, now. And this is where I would always have striven to be, had I known then what I know now.