By Shira Boss
Zero Cost Kids
There is an enormous sign next to the highway near my hometown of Flint, Michigan, with a large depiction of a super peaceful Jesus, and the question, Are you on the right road?
Growing up, we always seemed to see it at night, brightly lit. The sky was dark, the car was quiet, Jesus loomed. Even as a child it had an effect.
Getting off track
We’re making decisions about our lives constantly, and the fact is, sometimes we go off in the wrong direction. In large or small ways.
If the question “Are you on the right road?” causes a knot in your stomach or a crinkle in your forehead, or if you don’t want to think about it, it’s time to make some changes. No matter how difficult.
When I lived in Turkey, I learned one of their sayings, with an action-oriented twist that really appeals to me:
No matter how far you’ve gone on the wrong road, turn back.
So simple, yet so powerful. Just like the highway sign.
The Turkish saying, ironically, ultimately led to my divorcing my Turkish husband. And not because things were glaringly wrong. That would have been easy. Because something was not quite right. We were on the wrong road, and I knew it. (Even though absolutely nobody else could detect anything wrong, and told me so, constantly…and still do!)
On the wrong road? Turn back
When you know, deep down, something isn’t working, you must change course.
That’s easier said than done. When I met with a divorced friend to ask her advice about separating from my husband, she told me starkly, “Things are going to get worse before they get better.” She was so right.
Making major life changes can be gut-wrenchingly difficult. My first husband and I held each other and cried a thousand times over separating. The last time, standing on a street corner when I told him our divorce was final. Then we went out to dinner and ordered champagne and tried to cheer ourselves up. Complicated stuff.
Getting to the right place
Six months after separating, I met Bob. He came to prune my maple tree and it was love at first sight. He had been our building’s arborist for years, but I had never seen him before. Now we have a rock solid partnership, two gorgeous and loyal whippets, two amazing sons, a home and garden we gutted and rebuilt together, and the most valuable thing of all: peace.
We feel we were meant to be together and now we are. Sure, we have two rambunctious young boys, we snipe at each other (okay, I do it more than he does), and every day is a struggle right now…but it’s a struggle that feels right.
In short, we are on the right road.
It wasn’t easy to get to this point. The divorce was by far the most difficult experience of my life. But the reward is priceless.
If you’re on the wrong road and turn back, it will always be the right decision.
Why don’t we make changes?
When we realize we are on the wrong road, why are we reluctant to turn back? Let’s look at some reasons holding us back:
This comes into play most strongly when we know something isn’t right – we are on the wrong road! – but we can’t put our finger on exactly what the problem is. If we try to discuss it with someone, we can’t be specific – so we seem to make no sense. Since we aren’t making sense, there’s not really a problem, right?
And yet, we know. In our gut, deep in our heart – wherever we feel our inner knowingness comes from – we feel the wrongness of the path we are on.
That inner feeing is always right. Trust yourself – no discussion or outside input necessary.
If you change course, how will it look? What will people say?
Or, perhaps you’ve confided in someone about your doubts about your situation, and he or she tries to talk you out of it.
Maybe you tell someone a relationship might not be the one for you – perhaps you can’t even put your finger on what’s wrong. Your friend tells you, “Nonsense! Nobody’s relationship is perfect. You and he are so great together!”
My dad – my most trusted confidante – still complains, a decade later, “What was wrong with [my ex]? Nothing!”
Getting advice is fine when we’re in a quandary, but too often we know what we want but let other people sway us into the wrong decision for us. When it comes to your own life, make your own decisions – those are the right ones.
And if it turns out to be the wrong path, no matter how long it’s been or how far you’ve gone, turn back.
Time, money, effort, or all three might be “wasted.” When we’ve invested ourselves and our resources, we don’t like to abandon ship and lose what we’ve put in.
But the other side of that is any version of “throwing good money after bad.” Maybe your decision was flawed from the beginning or maybe circumstances or your feelings have changed. Whatever the reason, once you realize you’re on the wrong path, the time to change, regardless of how much you’ve invested, is now.
When I was in second grade or so, my mother was helping our class at school make pottery. I made a box, but then told her I wanted it to be a castle. She told me, “If you wanted to make a castle, you shouldn’t have spent all this time making a box!”
I was too young to be familiar yet with Thoreau’s “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost. That is where they should be. Now build the foundations under them.”
It works in reverse too. Of course a box can be made into a castle! And our work is never lost. We can always change our minds. There is (almost) always room for a re-attempt.
We always gain from the experience, even if it is to discover the wrong path after all.
You’ve done so much to get to where you are… can you really give it all up now? This is a version of sunk costs.
A few years ago, I wanted to change fields and study nutrition. Well, to go into a master’s program for nutrition I needed to take almost the entire pre-med curriculum. Lots of chemistry, biology, anatomy & physiology, etc. Two years worth of undergraduate classes. I’d studied economics and political science in college and graduate school – this was going all the way back and essentially starting over.
I do love a challenge, so I dove in! Semester after semester, getting on the subway at 7am to go to school in Brooklyn, studying every day, stressing out over exams… finally I finished all the prerequisites, asked professors for recommendations, gathered all my transcripts, wrote the application essays….
I got into my top choice of school, ordered the books, loaded up my backpack, and went off to graduate school for public health!
I hated it immediately. For many reasons. I went back on the second day…then went home and read “What Color is Your Parachute?” On the third day I dropped out.
I’ve basically never quit anything in my life. Despite my wanting to follow through, it was the right decision. And I don’t regret getting a science education in the meantime.
Momentum is powerful, but it can always be broken. Changing course can be expensive, time-consuming, gut-wrenching, and just overall difficult. But it’s worth it.
We’ve told ourselves – and the world – we will do one thing, and then we change our minds. At best it makes us look fickle or weak and at worst we look careless or stupid.
Well, nobody wants that of course! We want to look like we know what we’re doing. So we stick to our decisions and tough it out.
A classic example here is cancelling a wedding at the 11th hour. How many people have gone through with the wedding feeling it wasn’t the right decision, just because they didn’t want to make such a public turn-around and cancel it? The result is years of unhappiness, or a feeling of “having settled,” or a divorce.
Fix things when the problem becomes apparent. If you haven’t fixed it yet, fix it now. Don’t worry about how it looks or what anyone else thinks.
Make Whatever Changes You Need To
Try not to sweep what isn’t working under the rug. As Dr. Seuss wrote in the infinitely wise life manual Oh! The Places You’ll Go!, “Hike far, and face up to your problems, whatever they are!” Please share your own experiences in the comments below.
You can do this!