How do you know when it's time to act?

I believe things happen for a reason, and don't want to force things, but don't want to be paralyzed either

Published September 8, 2009 10:14AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have been reading your column for years and your reply, What Makes People Change, on Aug. 17, 2009, made me decide to ask you a question that has been troubling me for years.

One very wise man once told me that if he knew then what he knows now, he would not wait until he felt ready to do some things -- that sometimes you have to do things even if you are not feeling ready to do them.

I am really struggling with this. I tend to think that there is a reason for everything and things will happen when they are supposed to happen and of course people can make many things happen if they push things enough but maybe things you force may turn out to be not so good for you at the end -- and that the best time to do a thing is the time you "know" you are ready. Another part of me thinks it is better to keep doing things that I think are good for me, at least with my current judgment.

I know this is a bit abstract -- but how has it worked for you? If you knew then what you know now, would you or would you not wait until you felt ready to do things? Does one really "know" when the right time is? Or is waiting "to know" just a form of escape/avoidance?

Will I ever "know" the right time?

Dear Will I Ever Know,

Doing the things you are not prepared to do prepares you to do them. That is how you learn. You don't walk in knowing how. You walk in ready to have an experience and be changed by it.

You may not feel ready to do something that is necessary. You do not control the timetable. This is evident when people die, are born, get married, move away, are fired, hired, change their minds: You are not ready for what the changes in the world around you require you to do. Nonetheless, you deal.

You don't have a lot of time. You don't get a lot of chances. People get ready, there's a train a-coming. Don't need no ticket, you just get on board.

Realize that you are in the world and the world is working on you. Whatever you have to decide about is something that has come to visit you. Invite it in. Regard it. Talk. Have a conversation. These possibilities that you feel you need to decide on do not arise in isolation within your private, personal world. They are visitations, or callings, from the world. Naturally you regard them with some fear and trepidation and trembling. They represent change, challenge, the unknown, darkness.

It may add to your fear, or it may put your fear at ease to remind you that you really have no choice. These things will keep calling until you answer the door.

So dig it: Outside of our sphere of thinking, things call to us. Rock 'n' roll calls to us. The road calls to us. Europe and Asia and Africa call to us. The moon and the stars call to us. Plants and animals call to us. Lovers and friends call to us. Trees call to us. We did not make all this up. It's out there. It is just as alive and vital as we are. To pretend that we will reach some settled notion of how to proceed, and only then proceed, is to court a life of paralysis.

Answer the door.

I would amend the oft-repeated belief that everything happens for a reason, in this way: Everything may indeed happen for a reason, but we do not have to know what that reason is before acting. As stated, it is a little too pat, too cause-and-effect for my taste. If you wait to know the reason, you may never act. You act. Then things become clear. That's more often how it works. Rather than rational certainty, often what you need to act on is a trust in probability, and a trust in inevitability, and your own desire. Trust your own desire. It will often lead you the right way.

It is of course possible that things happen for a reason. In fact, that may be exactly what is happening right now. You are being called for a reason. Maybe you don't know the reason yet. Maybe you don't recognize what is right in front of you. Have you heard that joke about the man who had great faith in God and was waiting for God to save him? It goes something like this. A hurricane was coming and his friends asked him if he wanted a ride out of town, and he said no, God would take care of him. The hurricane came and the waters rose and some people on a boat came by and asked if he wanted to be rescued and he said no, God would take care of him. The waters rose to the roof and he went up to the roof and a helicopter came and offered help and he said no, he was a man of great faith, God would take care of him. And then the waters came up, and he drowned, and encountered God, and said, Why didn't you help me? And God said, sheesh, I sent your friends by, I sent people in a boat, I sent a helicopter ...

Dumb joke but you get the point: The world is here, right now, speaking to us. Look out at the world and feel how it is working on you. What is it asking of you? How is it prodding you to act? Ask of the world: What do you want from me? Ask yourself this: What would happen if you were to say yes? Yes to what? you may ask. I don't know. What comes to mind? What are you being asked to decide? And, likewise, what would happen if you said no? What do you want? Do you want to say yes to something?

Why might that be? Might you be thinking that there is some evil, destructive force within you that you are afraid to say yes to? How do you know it is within you? And how does its being "within you" make it somehow not a part of nature, not a part of the world? You and everything inside you belongs to the world. Your nature is nature. If it is your nature acting on you, then it is nature acting on you. And how do you know that you can go through life avoiding these evil, destructive forces that are part of nature? Something must die for something to be born. Do not be afraid of the destruction. We live in a cycle of constant renewal. Speaking of which, hey, guess what? It's September. The leaves are turning. The days are shortening. Summer is coming to an end. Let it come to an end. Let the leaves fall.

Answer the door.

Got decisions to make? Yep, there's stuff in here about that.

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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