The Life We Have and The Life We Want

915A6PIcXyL“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”—Mark Twain

I have been wrestling a lot lately with how we distinguish our job (what we do from 9 to 5 for pay) and our career (a series of advancements and promotions in a certain field), from our calling (what we feel compelled to do regardless of fame or fortune).  There are the lucky few who have found the place where job, career and calling intersect perfectly.  But in my experience those people are incredibly rare.  Most of us live in the in-between space—that space between what others expect of us and what, in our deepest heart of hearts, we want to be doing.

In her whimsical book, The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna explores this question by distinguishing Should from Must.

“Should”, she writes, “is how other people want us to live our lives. It’s all of the expectations that others layer upon us…Sometimes, Shoulds are small, seemingly innocuous, and easily accommodated. ‘You should listen to that song,’ for example.  At other times, Shoulds are highly influential systems of thought that pressure and, at their most destructive, coerce us to live our lives differently.”

Must, on the other hand, is something else entirely.

“Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self.  It’s that which calls to us most deeply.  It’s our convictions, our passions, our deepest held urges and desires…Unlike Should, Must doesn’t accept compromises.”

Luna continues, “Must is when we stop conforming to other people’s ideals and start connecting to our own.  To choose Must is to say yes to hard work and constant effort, to say yes to a journey without a road map or guarantees…Choosing Must is the greatest thing we can do with our lives.”

The key, of course, is to distinguish between Should and Must. You can’t find Must without first knowing Should.  What do other people expect from me?   And how do I fashion my life to meet those expectations?  What are the belief systems I inhabit but don’t fully embrace?  What are the things I agree to do without really wanting to?

Not all Shoulds are bad.  Some we will value and keep.  But if we’re ever going to live that life that we really want, we have to first understand how much of our life is dictated by Should.

Unfortunately, confronting Should is only half the battle.  We also need to discover Must.  What is it I really want?  Not what do I think I want.  But in my deepest heart of hearts, what do I want to be doing with my life?  And what would it take for me to be doing it? What would it take for me to live a life that is full and free?

The reason most people choose Should is the overwhelming fear that accompanies confronting the changes necessary to live the life of Must.  Living the life others expect you to live offers a smooth and comfortable path.  Everything is clearly laid out.  You know what is expected and how things will turn out if you conform.  Must on the other hand can be highly disruptive.  Big changes might have to be made.  James Hillman says, “You have to give up the life that you have, in order to have the life that’s waiting for you.”

Once you glimpse Must, however, you may not have a choice. Once you know why you are here, once you know what it is you’re intended to do with your life—to teach, to write, to build a family, to make furniture—you can never go back to life as you knew it.

That is what makes the road to Must so fascinating, so intoxicating, and so frightening.  That is also what makes it a road worth taking.


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