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Isn't It Clear?

Waiting for Epiphany

 

Many people have this notion, or maybe it’s a hope, that their calling will just come to them one day, as an epiphany, and it’ll be clear. We wait for that clarity. When our notions are muddled or vague, we often don’t pursue them, assuming the lack of clarity is a sign it’s not our true course. If we really wanted to do a certain thing, the feeling would be strong, right?

Does it make sense to wait for that overpowering clarity?

Probably not. For most people I talked to, very little was clear when they began their journey. It had to unravel, slowly, over time.

Powerful epiphanies are actually very rare, and some of the most amazing ones didn’t bring clarity at all.

            That was the case with Debbie Brient, who had an old-fashioned religious epiphany, but didn’t get that sense of clarity until two years later.

Debbie lives in San Antonio. By the date of her graduation from the University of Kansas, I’d guess she’s now about 50, but it’s not always polite to ask a woman her age. Five years ago, she knew she needed something to change, but all she could think about was quitting her job and having time off. For fifteen years she had sold advertising for several Spanish-language television stations. She was a self-diagnosed workaholic, hyperactive and discombobulated, and she just wanted the treadmill to STOP. “I was so out of touch with what I wanted,” she said, “that I couldn’t even order off a menu.” She remembered being adventurous and willing to take risks in her youth (she had worked in Puerto Rico and Spain early in her career), and she felt that risktaking-person had been lost.

            It took Debbie a year to get up the nerve to quit her job. She was afraid she’d feel lonely and unimportant. Her therapist set up a lunch for her with another professional woman who’d quit and taken a year off; the two had lunch on Good Friday. Just meeting someone else who had done it made it okay, made it a viable option. The following Monday Debbie told her boss she was taking a year off. The other salespeople laughed and told her she’d never make it, she’d miss it, she’d last a month.

            First step: simplify. She moved from her townhouse into a 500 square foot apartment. She got rid of all but her favorite material things, down to only what she really needed.

            Second step: silence. The local Catholic University was affiliated with a convent in Cuernavaca, Mexico. She went there for two weeks. Priests came there to plan their year ahead. She was told not to talk to them; they were there to be in silence. The beds were like sleeping on cement. She felt wonderful.

            Third step: travel. She’d once seen a movie about Australian Aborigines’ ritual of walkabouts, completely unstructured wanderings. She dubbed her journey the “White Girl Walkabout” and headed west, alone, in her car. For a month she camped in New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. She never stayed in hotel rooms. She never read the newspaper, never watched television, never even listened to music. She took her good experiences as omens; she felt euphoria for the first time in years.

            Fourth step: Go back to Step One and hate yourself. A few months after getting back to San Antonio, she was tempted right back into advertising sales with a job at Telemundo which paid more than ever. She felt guilty, because she’d turned her back on what she’d hoped to do. Not surprisingly, she was more miserable than ever. She worked for Telemundo for three years, until she finally admitted that more money wasn’t making her feel better.

            Fifth step: repeat step three. She went on another walkabout, trying to reclaim the ground she’d lost. Before leaving, she felt heavy and defeated. The second night out, she found herself dancing with Mescalero Apache Indians around a bonfire; she took this as validation of her trip and regained her confidence.

            Two weeks later, she was in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, hiking among the historic pueblos of the Anasazi people, who lived there from 800 to 1200 A.D. It was the mid-day; she had a backpack with water and food, and she went on a one-mile hike by herself to the pueblo of Piniasco Blanco. She was mesmerized by the wonderful sound of her hiking boots crunching on the rocks underfoot. She’s too wound-up a person to ever meditate; hiking is as close as she gets. She reached Piniasco Blanco, and she was gazing at all the pottery shards on the ground when a voice suddenly said:

            “THIS WAS YOUR HOME.”

            “It stopped me in my tracks,” she told me. “It almost scared me. You have a normal stream of consciousness, like you’re talking to yourself, and here came something else. It wasn’t my voice.”

            “So did you hear it with your ear, literally?”

            “No, but it was auditory, like it was inside my head but not me.”

            “Did it have a gender?”

            “The voice was very stern, very taskmaster, not gentle, and I thought of it as a man’s voice, demanding my attention. And so his statement, THIS WAS YOUR HOME, it was like a command, like he was telling me something, almost ordering me to do something.”

            “And what was he telling you?”

            “Well I didn’t know. I was confused. I once lived in Alburquerque, but I didn’t feel connected to New Mexico until I came here on my first walkabout. Or was he telling me I lived here in another life? Or was he telling me I ought to move back here from San Antonio? And in a way I kind of got into this mental debate with his instruction, talking back, asking ‘what do you mean?’ You can imagine – I didn’t want to have this incredible experience hearing this voice but not understand what he meant.”

            “And then what happened?”

            “He said, ‘ISN’T IT CLEAR!?”

            “Like it should be obvious to you?”

            “Yes, and that was shocking to me because I was working hard to follow an inner voice or to do the right thing and it wasn’t clear at all. So I said back ‘San Antonio’s a great place, I have a great life there,’ and then the voice snapped back, ‘I’LL HANDLE IT!’”

            “‘I’ll handle it?’”

            “Yes. And then that was it. It was gone.”

            “Did you know it was over? Was there something final in his last words?”

            “I waited a while, but that was it.”

            Debbie had consulted her journals right before we talked, and so she was able to reconstruct the moment.

            I asked her how she felt right afterwards.

            “Well, I felt incredibly validated. I’d made this connection with a guide or something, and that was a reward for all the years I’d spent searching for spiritual awareness. I felt that my walkabout was justified. But I didn’t feel solace. His wasn’t a sympathetic voice, I felt almost scolded. He didn’t say ‘Everything’s going to be okay.’ He insisted it should be clear, but I wasn’t handed a manual. I had no idea what to do. It wasn’t like, ‘From here you go back to San Antonio and you do this ____. There were no directions.”

            “Did you think your guide would handle it?”

            “He said I’ll handle it, and I thought, well, okay, all right – but I didn’t think I could just sit back and not search for the right place or activity to dedicate my life to. I always knew I had a responsibility to continue seeking.”

            “Your epiphany was quite confusing.”

            “Absolutely.”

I’m not a theist, so for awhile I didn’t know what to make of her story. It was too mystical for my orientation. Eventually, I heard two others just like it. One woman heard a voice telling her to go to Maine. A guy named Gregory Giagnocavo was standing in the hallway of his home in Houston when he heard a voice telling him to go to Guatemala (which he couldn’t have pointed to on a map). They felt guided, but as with Debbie, it was frustrating there wasn’t more to the message. The voice didn’t tell them what to do when they got to those places. They had to figure out the rest without any further help.

That’s a significant difference from the prototypical epiphany story I learned back in high school. Saul was a Jew; he’d been commissioned by the chief priest to go to Damascus to help suppress Christianity there. As he approached Damascus on his horse he saw a blinding light and fell off his horse and heard the voice of Jesus saying “Why persecute thouest me?” When Saul regained his sight, it was obvious to him how he had to change. He was baptized as Paul and began preaching Christianity right away.

            Clarity or not, you’d think having made that connection with her guide – even if the guide never reappeared – would help Debbie make courageous choices. You’d think she now had the spiritual strength to resist temptation and not fall back into her old patterns. But when she got back to San Antonio, she started looking for employment, and suddenly that daunting reality overwhelmed her again. No blissful opportunities readily emerged, and after a few months she signed on to an internet company. The hours were longer and the pay worse but she tried to rationalize that it was a cutting edge experience, et cetera. Her old habits sucked her back in, like the overpowering gravity of the sun. So it goes.

            “Progress takes many attempts,” she says now wisely. “For me, it took three attempts and five years to end up in a place I think I am supposed to be.”

            Laid off a year later from the failed internet company, she went on a trail ride in West Texas and fell in love with the land. She had trouble sleeping the first night because she was so excited to be there. The next day, she told the leader of the trail ride that she would move there if she could find work – any work. Waitressing, even. He told her that the Nature Conservancy of Texas had an open position for a volunteer coordinator in nearby Fort Davis. Debbie felt her gut drop. She had a moment of clarity and hunger that was completely unlike the powerful-yet-vague epiphany two years earlier. She knew: she wanted that job.

The Texas chapter of the Nature Conservancy is based in San Antonio, and on Monday morning at 9:00 she was on the phone to the Human Resources Department, begging for an interview. She was told the application deadline had passed – no exceptions. And the old Debbie would have left it at that. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She started calling friends, asking if anyone knew anybody at the Nature Conservancy. A friend of a friend of a friend later, she was sitting down with the head of the Texas chapter himself. He liked her passion but looked at her resume and told her she wasn’t suited to be the volunteer coordinator in Fort Davis.

            “You’ve got all this sales and marketing experience,” he said. “Maybe you should run our Marketing and Philanthropy.”

            Shortly later, she was hired. And she loves it. For the first time in her life, she’s working somewhere that she can imagine never leaving. Every day she goes to work for a purpose she and others find meaningful. She still works too hard, but now she’s happy to do it. “I’m in the right organization, in the right place. I hope to retire from here.” She’s having such a great experience that she feels it is nothing less than a complete miracle she made it here. She feels blessed. 

            I asked Debbie, “So that guide of yours – did he handle it? Or did you handle it? Because it sounded to me like you handled it. You wouldn’t take no for an answer.”

            She paused. “We handled it.”

            I asked her to clarify. She said she deserved credit for her hustle in that critical moment. But circumstances beyond her control had to align in order to make it possible. And in those beneficial circumstances, she sees her guide’s work. She even believes that in some way I was brought to her by the guide – that me telling her story was meant to happen.

            Debbie’s epiphany is one of the most important moments of her life. But here’s the important catch – she notes that her epiphany didn’t suddenly instill her with a desire to conserve land. She always had that desire – she just ignored it, at least professionally. Every time she surrounded herself with nature, she was euphoric, and every time she went back into sales, she was miserable and disconnected. “How much clearer did it have to be?,” she now wonders. All the signs were there. In fact, in her journals are several statements written in the very days before her epiphany, wishing she could do more to help preserve nature. So when the guide thundered ISN’T IT CLEAR!?, he was kinda right to be indignant. Look in your journal! Look at how happy you are when around nature!

            Was the “voice” she heard a blast from her suppressed unconscious, begging her to pay attention to her values? I don’t argue with Debbie’s version, but I offer that possibility for readers who balk at her spiritual account. We’ve all got neglected needs.

            Her love of nature was always clear. Her obstacle was that she never let herself imagine that what she loved and wanted could be a profession. In her mind, there were two worlds – one is the world of business, where you go to work, and the other is the world of things you care about, to be enjoyed on weekends. It’s not easy to bring these worlds together (it takes hustle and training and determination) , but once she learned those two worlds were embodied in one organization, her mission became clear. Learning that the Nature Conservancy existed – and that they had a job open – finally opened the floodgates. Like Paul, she was on a horse at the time. But she didn’t fall off her horse, and she didn’t lose her sight. Her guide wasn’t a spirit, he was a man who lead pack trips. His words were fairly matter of fact – but they made it all clear.

               I now tell people not to wait for epiphanies. They’re great if you get one, but so often they tell you something you already know in your heart. Never underestimate our ability to ignore the obvious. So often, that’s what keeps us from clarity – not a lack of desire.