Life’s instruction book includes complicated human rules that are bewildering and gnarled like vines; culturally based, community based, family based, professionally based. We’re expected to learn them as we go by those who came before, by observing, or by trial and error. It’s a fairly good system, on paper. Except that they’re not on paper. They’re enigmatic: once you think you’ve got them, they contract and transform, becoming more perplexing still. The rules are at once the best offering we seem to have for each other, and a trap.

I once thought joining that labyrinth would be easy. I didn’t have an iota of the pressures I feel now to justify my choices, thoughts and actions. There was a very short time I lived my life by my own decree, and the decree was written by my heart, not my head, and not by others. It wasn’t that I didn’t admire and respect other people, so I was influenced by many, it’s just that I was naive; believing I would be accepted into the convoluted system with open arms as I blazed my own trail. It seemed an immense jungle of paths to which I would hardly be noticed at all. That was a long time ago. 

Growing up happened. The paths narrowed and became limiting. I learned to walk within them, and to pull my own legs back from the fringe if wandered too far. I figured out a way to earn a living, pay the bills, present like an adult and function as a productive member of society, and in a way that sometimes brings me joy, which is nice. I’ve made peace with my choices, mostly.

But looking back, it makes my heart hurt a little. I lost my own path along the way, the one that called out to me and to which I responded by staring more intently at the ground in front of me, making blinders with my hands, and turning my steps shorter, staccato. I was unable, incapable of daring greatly enough to see what might happen if I went out on my own. I wasn’t willing to accept whatever consequence I couldn’t see coming. 

This matters right this minute, because after decades, decades of following the ever-changing rules myself, I now have two sons who are 20 and 18, and each of them, in his own right, is questioning the path that’s been shoved down his throat in his school years: namely that schooling = success; a path I’ve laid out and worn well, and am inviting them to travel. And they’re calling bullshit. Very loudly. Very clearly. Which terrifies me and makes me a little bit proud I can’t lie.

I was only repeating to them what was told to me. Which is the way this all goes.

I’m watching each standing at the edge of the jungle. One is wondering how to go up and over, the other around, so to speak. Yes, they’re both afraid, not brazen or stupid. But right now, and it’s exciting to witness, their fears are minute compared to their wondering how much they can do, how far they can go, how breathtaking the view – from nowhere near the center of that jungle of expectations.

So I, too, am facing a critical choice. How to support my sons as they learn to listen to the authentic voice inside themselves, even if that voice is going to take them A.) very far from the trodden path B.) to proverbial places I have never seen or heard of C.) where I can’t protect them D.) from which they may never find their way back.

If I could go back and speak to myself at that age, in that place where I chose to take the hand of those who’d come before, I’d tell her not to go. I’d tell her to take a step backwards so she could see more clearly. To take her time. To watch for awhile. And when she was ready, to forge a different way altogether.

To write that ‘maybe they’ll fail’ is a total misnomer. There is no such thing as failure. Our choices create our astonishing, singularized paths. I could choose to focus on my fear, of course, most people do. Fear is the cause of the insidiousness, the snarling of the vines. Instead, I choose to believe that they’re going to forge their own way, making sense of things as they go. Maybe not doing what they’re told (with the best of intentions) will be the best thing they ever did. Maybe not relying on others’ “rules” that feel wrong to them will be their ticket to freedom.

I have to follow their lead here. Is the point.