Recently, I’ve been reminded of an image from Parker Palmer’s wonderful little book Let Your Life Speak. In it, he describes a conversation he had as a young adult with an older woman who was a Friend (Quaker) at Pendle Hill, a Quaker community where he was living at the time. Parker was struggling to know his direction ahead, given his vocational journey at that point seemed to him a bit of a bust. He was at a loss, as what he thought he wanted and where he thought he had been going had fallen apart behind him. Now, there was much language within the Pendle Hill community about finding the Way Open. This frustrated him. And he vented about it to this woman wise in years and experience. He exclaimed – I can imagine with an onerous tone of doom – that he couldn’t find the Way Open, there simply were none for him. The woman listened to Parker wear out his tale and, after a moment of silence (and, I imagine, perhaps a chuckle that originated deep within her) she said something like, “I’m 80-something years old and I’ve been a Friend all my life. I’ve never seen or found the Way Open. But I’ve had a lot of Ways Close behind me, and they set the path.”
On recounting this story to a friend-companion years ago, I remember her image of it as gates closing behind animals on a farm. The very gates closing are the herding processes that move them to where they need to be.
Perhaps you and I are “herded” forward too by the doors and gates that close behind us. They may be closed because of actions of ours or others. Events or circumstances may close them. For whatever reason, they make inaccessible a certain path and the Way ahead is uncertain. And yet, there is a direction — not there, but here. The only Way is ahead, forget trying to determine which way. As you approach narrowing entrances, you’ll see what’s open or not… and, if it’s not, that too is a herding. If the doorway is open but requires you to cut out your heart or compromise your core values to get through… proceed forward only at risk of not finding yourself on the other side.
Of course we all need to build experiences, nudge doors, claim directions — but often this kind of energy is the absolute driver of the first half of life. In life’s second half, or in its seasons of wisdom – whatever our age, we look behind to see what is no longer an option and we choose ahead step by step with less frantic flight. Our value is not to be found in a perfect journey. What is that, anyway? We are already of great value before any steps are taken. Loved. Held. By a God of grace who is our refuge and strength. We are not mice in a maze, but fearfully wonderfully made and much loved Creations who can learn to step in time with our gifts and to learn and give from our woundedness as well.
Closed doors then are good things. But they aren’t often fun when we encounter them: we prefer open spaces and smooth sailing. Closings feel confining, perhaps sad, and they may prompt regrets or anger or guilt or confusion. That’s okay – perhaps shed a tear or ask forgiveness or listen for the learning. But then, breathe – and turn away from them!
Closed doors provide something very positive to us – null data! Researchers know that such data is very important. It tells us what something is not or what doesn’t work in an experiment or process. These doors in your lives tell you where you are not, and where you can no longer be, and where you cannot go ahead. Let them herd you some, and then listen – so your life can be heard – and follow. Maybe what is closing behind you is even a birth canal – no turning back! Expect new life and lusty screaming as you enter a new way ahead simply by leaving the old!
I think this is something of what Palmer means when he speaks of learning to let your life live in you. “Relax,” he seems to say. “Live your real life. Where you really are.” And let’s get support as we learn to trust life’s unfolding treasure-giving, whether it comes with kudos or closings. Blessings on our journeyings – yours and mine and ours! “The Lord will guard your coming and your going, both now and forever.” (Psalm 121: 8)