In a recent interview with poet and philosopher Mark Nepo, I was moved by his story of a competitive bicyclist’s encounter with a great blue heron. He said, “There is a cyclist who’s training very hard for a demanding race that is like the Tour de France. He’s very serious and professional. He has all the equipment; he’s even shaved the hair off his body to lower his resistance to the wind. He’s trained for months. As the race begins, sure enough, he’s ahead. In fact, he’s far ahead after the first mile. And, as he’s coming down to the bottom of a hill, a great blue heron, with its wings fully spread, sweeps over his handlebars. It stuns him; it stops him. He literally stops and straddles his bike because the heron opened something in him that he didn’t know he was chasing. Of course the other cyclists catch up and pass him and he loses the race.
“Now we move years forward and he’s standing on his back porch looking out toward the sunset and once in a while if you ask him, ‘what cost you the race?’ He might say, ‘I didn’t lose the race, I left it.’
“A pragmatist could say, ‘Well, that’s a very poetic story. He did lose the race.’ But I hold it differently. I think he trained to meet the heron, and if you told him he was training to meet a heron he would not have trained so hard. So many of our goals, dreams, and ambitions are valuable as stepping stones to a mystery yet to unfold.”
The point, I believe, that Mark is making here is that so often when we give our fullness toward our dreams they become stepping stones to something much deeper. He describes this in his book, The One Life We Are Given: “We often confuse our wants as needs, and in doing so, we elevate or deify our wants as requirements to be happy. We often install or enshrine our dreams, goals, and ambitions as end point: ‘I’m going to do everything to make this dream come true, to arrive at my goal.’ While dreams, goals, and ambitions are wonderful tools, they’re not destinations. I now consider dreaming a process, not an end point. The dream is kindling used up in the fire of aliveness. The goal disappears or leads us to an unexpected goal. Our ambition dissolves when we encounter realness on the journey.”
The bicyclist’s understanding of success changed in the moment the blue heron unexpectedly swooped into his life. What was the blue heron in your life? When were you stopped in your tracks and your journey became deeper, more mysterious?
– Justine Willis Toms