251: “Just An Opportunity” (Howell Chickering)

                “Is this something that’s real for you, something that resonates in your heart, or is it just an opportunity?” -Professor Howell Chickering, at his home when I visited in ‘15

                Lately I find myself grasping at straws. Then again, that might not be lately: at Amherst, I remember talking with a friend about how I used homework to justify a day—if I’d written something or read something assigned, then at least I’d done something. (“Yeah,” my friend said, in a way that made it clear he’d done the same thing; then he added, “But I’m trying not to do that”). These days I want to learn something, study something, make something—prove something, really; anything; anything to ‘get through the day,’ to ‘make this time productive.’ I think that’s a misguided (and a misguiding) impulse.
                “Is this just an opportunity,” asked Chickering.
                Until then, I’d never heard “just an opportunity.” I think I believed, dimly, that in the struggle to learn, to become, to create—and of course, to get ahead—you took whatever secret doors you found. Life was Chutes and Ladders: if you were lucky enough to find a chute, you took it. I had just been told about a box with letters from Edith Wharton that had never been studied, one of those things passed down in a family. I could study them. As a student who’d loved my time at Amherst, as a twenty-something who wanted to go back to grad school, but didn’t know how to make that work, I thought it might be a dream come true. All the same, something didn’t feel right. Chickering reminded me that it matters what you dream, that you probably have lots of dreams, and some of them are passing flights of fancy while some of them are choices you might decide to make, again and again. I said “chutes” before, but picturing the board, it’s actually ladders that helped you. Maybe there’s something telling in my slip: and of course, outside of the game with its clearly imposed endpoint, you have to decide where you’re going.
                Too often, I’ve gotten myself mixed up and exhausted by clutching at whatever ladder seemed close to hand, by trying to bump through every door. I don’t mean that I want to be sure of the opportunities I pick: I’m not sure I ever will be. But I’m tired of fumbling for this or that “achievement” to show something. I want to practice pausing. I want to remember what Chickering said, not as a question, but as a place to be: a place where thoughts gather like water, where currents still, and perhaps eventually the pool overflows towards something that might be its own downstream.
                There are the opportunities, and there’s what’s real for you, what resonates with your heart.

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