In order to avoid this bitter end, we have to be reborn again, and born with the knowledge of alternatives” “I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou
Have you heard of the story titled, “The Horse Might Sing”? There are many different versions, but my favorite goes like this:
Nasrudin was caught in the act of stealing and sentenced to die. Hauled up before the king, he was asked by the Royal Presence: “Is there any reason at all why I shouldn’t take your head off right now?” To which he replied: “Oh, King, live forever! Know that I, the mullah Nasrudin, am the greatest teacher in your kingdom, and it would surely be a waste to kill such a great teacher. So skilled am I that I could even teach your favorite horse to sing, given a year to work on it.” The king was amused, and said: “Very well then, you move into the stable immediately, and if the horse isn’t singing a year from now, we’ll think of something interesting to do with you.”
As Nasrudin was returning to his cell to pick up his spare rags, his cellmate remonstrated with him: “Now that was really foolish. You know you can’t teach that horse to sing, no matter how long you try.” Nasrudin’s response: “Not at all. I have a year now that I didn’t have before. And a lot of things can happen in a year. The king might die. The horse might die. I might die. And, who knows? Maybe the horse will sing.”
I love this story. It’s a message about hope, a reminder that anything is possible, that there are always options.
For me, having the “knowledge of alternatives” is incredibly powerful. Over the years, knowing that I had options has been essential to me; having options means the difference between seeing a way ahead—or a way out—or staying in those deep holes that I have, on occasion, fallen into.
Giving ourselves permission to willingly consider alternatives is the key to getting from where you are to where you want to be. Willingness is a necessary precursor to taking action: you have to be willing to do something—or, at the very least, willing to try to do something—in order to keep moving forward.
It’s the Same Old Song
All their lives they did what had to be done, and didn’t bother daydreaming about alternative lives because they never expected to be free enough to have a choice. I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was, Barbara Sher
Have you ever wondered how some people can willingly walk away from what they know to embark on a journey into a future that isn’t even defined? Do you marvel at people who recklessly go out on a limb—and intentionally saw themselves off? Have you said to yourself, “I could never do that in a million years!”
But then secretly, and maybe a little wistfully, whispered to yourself, “But if I only knew how they did it, maybe I could do it too”?
Most people rarely, if ever, question the path they’re on. They put one foot in front of the other and simply keep moving forward. Part generational, part genetic, part upbringing or culture, there are many reasons why we never consider what we might really want or what might be in our best and highest interest. We simply do what we think, or believe, we have to do.
When thinking about our lives, most of us do what I call “snapshotting”: We see our lives in a certain way, like a photo, and we freeze it at that moment. We look through the lens, we frame the image in the way that is most pleasing to us, and we capture that perception. We like the results, and so we leave it as is.
Then something happens that either allows us or forces us to change our perception of the image, and we are faced with a decision: either keep the image as is or look at the image in a different way, to frame the external situation or event to match our new, internal perceptions. We find ourselves at a crossroads where the same choices and the same decisions no longer serve us.
The definition of crossroads is “the place where roads intersect or a place at which a vital decision must be made.”
This definition has two significant elements.
First, a crossroads involves options: this road or that road, this way or that, this direction or that.
Second, a crossroads implies that we are intended to select one of the options available to us: we turn left instead of right; we take the shady path rather than the sunny one, the uphill climb rather than the downhill stroll. Otherwise, we are at a standstill.
When we come to a crossroads in our lives, seeing all of the possible roads we can take and all of the options that are available to us can certainly be overwhelming and scary. But it can also be a golden opportunity to make some fundamental changes in our lives. It can mark a turning point in how we live our lives.
The Music of the Spheres
I sing like I feel. Ella Fitzgerald
I believe that when we give ourselves permission to rethink, to consider other possibilities, we crack open a door to our Higher Self—and our Higher Self, recognizing that the door has been cracked open, wedges a crowbar in to make sure that we consider a different way ahead.
In order to crack open that door to your Higher Self, you need to give yourself permission to think about alternatives: what you want, why you want it, and what you’re willing to do or even try to do. When you free yourself to at least consider alternatives, ideas that might not have occurred to you in the past now may occur.
Here is a simple exercise for learning how to open the door to your options. You can use this exercise whether you’re at a crossroads now or find yourself at that “place at which a vital decision must be made” in the future.
- Open a new page in your journal, notebook, or computer file.
- At the top of the page, write: What Does “Opening the Door to Your Options” Mean to Me?
- Write down words, phrases, and feelings about the concept of opening the door to options.
If you do only one step in this exercise, do this one. Understanding how you feel about the concept of having options in your life is a necessary precursor to acquiring the knowledge of alternatives. And be honest! If allowing yourself to consider options makes you uncomfortable, you need to acknowledge this as well as the reasons for your sense of “dis-ease.”
- Next, thinking about your life now, are you at a crossroads or at a place where you need to make a vital decision? If so, describe the place and the options that you believe you have.
- Looking at the crossroads you said you’re at in step 4, are there any options that you believe you don’t have because of the possible consequences or outcomes, whether real or imagined? If so, write these down.
- Looking again at the crossroads you said you’re at in step 4, are there any options that you’d be willing to do or at least try to do if you weren’t afraid of the consequences, whether real or imagined? If so, write these down.
Not allowing yourself to get caught up in possible consequences or outcomes is an essential component of learning to open yourself to options. If we think we know what will happen because of something we will or might do, the steps we take, whether consciously or unconsciously, often become a self-fulfilling prophecy: we make it happen because we assume it’s going to happen anyway. In her book, After Shock: What to Do When the Doctor Gives You—or Someone You Love—a Devastating Diagnosis, Jessie Gruman describes this tendency like this: “It is the fear of the unknown that paralyzes. You can acknowledge the possibilities and know where you might go. It doesn’t mean that you are fatalistic and it doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen.”
Sing Your Song
Have you been avoiding looking at alternatives? Have you been trying to not look in the mirror and see what is true? Have you ever asked yourself, “If I didn’t have to worry about the outcome, what would I let myself think about? What options might I have? What choices would I make?”
Are you like the servant in the story about the singing horse? Do you wring your hands over the worst that might happen? Do you see the bitter end in your endeavors as something than cannot be avoided?
Or are you like Nasrudin—ever hopeful, confident in the knowledge that a thousand things might happen before anything might come to pass?
In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott said, “If you start to look around, you will start to see.” If you desire to be reborn with the knowledge of alternatives, let your eyes and your heart see all of the possibilities around you!