I have been running, so sweaty my whole life
Urgent for a finish line
And I have been missing the rapture this whole time
Of being forever incomplete
— Alanis Morissette, Incomplete
Life is not a race. That’s one of those things we hear all the time but never really absorb.
How much time and energy do we waste racing to make everything perfect, to get thing out of the way? We rush around in a panic to be debt-free, raise the kids, sculpt the best body, move to the right city, and/or complete our education before we allow ourselves pursue our dreams. We act as though crossing the finish line means we can properly start living, but we instead find ourselves 90 years old and wondering where the time went, still waiting to begin.
One day, I’ll be secure…
We forget that each time we jump a hurdle on the track, the final ribbon moves up 100 yards, and we must keep running to catch up. Landing back at the start after years of striving, tears, and introspection, makes us want to throw our hands up in disgust, sit down on the track and never move again for the futility of it all.
What a shame.
The good news is that we’re just looking at it wrong. The finish line metaphor is broken – the story doesn’t work because not only is life not a race, but it’s not linear at all.
It’s a series of spirals.
We go through the same work over and over in different contexts, always encountering similar stages and milestones that let us know where we are and how far there is to go. Once we’ve finished one rotation on the path, there’s another bend to start on, another step in the process, another fork in the road, another level to reach. One story leads to another; each time you go around, you become stronger and wiser, your role becoming more clear and defined.
Decluttering your house brings up issues of fear, guilt, grief, and attachment, so you work through them, throwing out the dusty knick-knacks and “when I’m skinny” clothes, chucking out the issues with them. But one of the things you toss is an ex-lover’s favourite shirt, which stirs up nostalgia and some sticky feelings. Armed with new strength from decluttering, you begin to walk this new bend of the spiral.
The work is hard, sometimes overwhelmingly so, but each stage brings deeper understanding, sloshing you back and forth inside yourself until you emerge triumphant, ready for the next go-round.
The spiral metaphor works because, as much as we ache for them to be, our lives are never complete. There’s always more work to do, another layer to excavate, a deeper truth to speak, and one more corner to turn. Sometimes, we infuriatingly find ourselves back where we started, only a little deeper.
Despite the urge to give up, we must keep walking forward – there’s no reverse gear on this track. More than that, we should revel in the repetition. The dance around the graceful bends give us patterns to recognize, familiar territory to walk, opportunities for grace, lessons to remember.
Don’t beat yourself up when you find yourself gripped by existential déjà vu; rather than fight the spiral, let the current take you where you need to go. Embracing the inevitability of change and the glory of incompleteness gives us the power to grow beyond our wildest imaginings.
There is no “done”; there is only movement.
Ever unfolding, ever expanding
Ever adventurous and torturous
But never done