Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"I seldom end up where I want to go but I always end up where I need to be" - Douglas Adams

(The title of this post has been set by a friend, and various blog buddies are using it as a title this week - enjoy the result! Also see Nicola's, Phil's and Wendy's posts on the same title)

I don't know about you, but my life hasn't necessarily turned out how I expected it!

That's not to say that I am unhappy with where I have ended up at this particular moment in time (far from it), but it's more a sense that I have never quite had a clear picture of exactly what shape my life would take, or a fixed idea of the exact path my life would follow.

As I was growing up, the impression I developed about life was that it was linear. A procession of right choices leading to adulthood (at which point all would become clear) and therefore the most important thing was to make the right choices, and quickly! Choose the right subjects to study, get the right grades, pick the right university, study the right course, pass the right exams, get the right job, find the right person, move into the right house... and so rightly or wrongly that's what I set out to do.

From the age of 13 or 14 I showed an aptitude for sciences (although the more I think back, I'm not sure I was necessarily any stronger than in other areas), and I'd been brought up playing with lego, so a general career choice of "Engineering" emerged (whatever that meant to me at the time.. I don't think I had a clear idea of what this really was apart from a vaguely applied science). For "engineering", I therefore picked all the sciences at GSCE.. then at least maths and physics at A-level (I was weaker/less interested in Chemistry, and the thought of dissection put me off A-level Biology). In hindsight one of the best pieces of advice I've ever been given over the years was to choose something I enjoyed for my third and final A-Level, so I picked English Literature (ironically I was far better at this than maths or physics, which says something about forcing young people to seemingly make life-defining decisions that lock them into a certain trajectory, but I'm getting ahead of myself).

Anyway, as I progressed through senior school the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut of linear life chugged on. Since it seemed that "engineering" was my destiny (I'm leaving it in inverted commas as I still had no real idea what the world of engineering was), I started to look at degree courses. Thinking that some fields of engineering would offer relatively narrow career choices, and noticing that others looked a bit complicated, I plumped for Civil Engineering as the broadest engineering discipline giving me the widest career choice upon finishing my degree.

As a bonus, the maths looked less hard - essentially civil engineering structures are designed not to move, and if they move they tend to be broken - unlike, say, aeronautics, which is filled with fourth-order differentials and spinny propellery things requiring fiendish use of calculus.. even so I still only managed 17% in first year maths at uni!

As an aside, friendly competition between engineering disciplines is something I discovered later, one of my favourites being the boast by mechanical engineers that they design the weapons whilst civil engineers design the targets. And then there's the perennial joke about looking up "Boring" in the yellow pages to read "see Civil Engineers".

Skipping forward to the end of my degree (and passing), I fall into employment at a firm of local consulting engineers (through an after church discussion with a friend's dad), and now 12 years later (to the very week) here I am - still with the same company, although in a somewhat different role and in a completely different location.

Now you may be wondering why I've given you a potted history of my school and career choices, but the reason is this. Have I ended up where I planned to go? In many ways I don't think I made the conscious decision to follow "engineering", if anything the decision made me instead. Has taking a linear approach to life been the right approach? Is life the linear procession I thought it was as a teenager?

These days, having reached the ripe age of my early thirties (definitely not my mid-thirties for at least another 8 months), I find myself reflecting back over my life a little more than I used to. One thing I'm learning is that life is rarely linear and in fact is generally much more of a meander. More importantly I've learned that you don't need to be defined by decisions you make or decisions that seemingly "make" you when you're very young.

I grew up by the River Thames, near a particular section called the Desborough Cut. It's called this because in the 1930s, to speed up navigation rather than wasting time following the river's meanders past Shepperton and Lower Halliford, a big straight line a kilometre long was carved out, creating a convenient and fast route down the river, and Desborough Island as a happy by product. I spent many a happy hour canoeing and rowing on this stretch of the river as I grew up. The thing is, this artificial channel is actually a bit lifeless. When the river's in flood the water speeds down it, faster than it naturally would, which has impacts on scour downstream. And actually, the meanders around the back of Desborough Island (named after Lord Desborough, chairman of the Thames Conservancy at the time) are much more interesting and full of life.

In my work I've ended up having a lot to do with water and flooding, and the interesting thing is that however we try to straighten and control rivers, they have a habit of breaking their shackles. And rightly so - you see we've also realised that artificially constraining them makes the consequences of flooding worse (just watch the news this week), reduces natural floodplains, reduces biodiversity, and requires perpetual engineering intervention downstream. National planning policy is actually to "naturalise" watercourses these days instead of engineering them into artificial, linear channels.
You see, it's all very well intending to force our life into fast, artificial straight lines, but it's more natural, dynamic and life-sustaining to journey along life's meanders instead.

I've learnt that life has a habit of breaking into our narrow plans and introducing interesting diversions, tangents, digressions. I've been guilty in the past of resisting change, settling for the status quo, sticking to my safe, straight channel - mainly out of fear of the unknown than genuine satisfaction with my situation. As I've matured (!) the more I realise that life's all about the meanders, and the decisions I've made to turn off the main channel are the ones which have brought the most fun, adventure and insight into who I really am, and what I'm really happy doing.

How often do we know exactly, precisely where we want to go and what we want to do? For me, I've usually had more of a general sense of direction (the nebulous direction of "engineering" for example) than knowing in advance the exact straight line to travel in. If ever I'm asked for advice from people worried about making big decisions, my response these days is that it's best not to worry about the exact route your life will take, but instead to embrace life's rich meanders, knock on many doors, and have fun exploring in between the way markers. 

I've learnt, and am learning, that life is a gentle unfolding of our personalities, desires and skills. Speaking from a perspective of faith, it's when we place ourselves in the hands of a loving God that we're most free to enjoy the wandering path of our lives, rather than fearfully sticking to our artificial and "safe" straight lines. Our culture says that time is money, coveting both, and therefore that straight lines are best because they're the fastest way to get somewhere - up the career ladder, up the housing ladder, to get ahead in the rat race. But this approach isn't necessarily true, there are plenty of things that you can't rush and which are best savoured over time (a huge subject I'll save for another post).

'I seldom end up where I want to go but I always end up where I need to be'. As I reflect on the last dozen years of life, work, success and failure, I'm grateful that I've gradually been breaking free of the fearful shackles of a flawed linear worldview, and that where I've ended up is right where I need to be - embracing the rich, wide, creative and adventurous life God has given me.

I'll finish with a quote from C.S.Lewis, from the end of the his Chronicles of Narnia: "The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets!". And so on the journey we're each on, may we end up where we both want and need to be, enjoying each unexpected turn we encounter..


Stainless said...

I'm reminded of the line in Jurassic Park: 'life finds a way'

Tom said...

Glad I am not the only one who feels that I have not had / do not have a clear, detailed plan for my life!
Whilst this does sometimes bother me, I think you are right about the excitement of following the various meanderings that inevitably come our way. When I look back over my life, many of the best things that have happened to me were totally unplanned (at least by me!)
I once saw a postcard that read:
"Life is what happens to you whilst you are busy making plans."