Way back in 2007, or maybe even 2008, I watched The Great Debaters, directed by and starring Denzel Washington. I barely remember the movie and what happened plot-wise, but there was always one line that I carried with me: “We do what we have to do so we can do what we want to do.” (Washington isn’t in that clip, by the way, though it’s a line he quotes to his children often as well as a line in his memoir.)
As a teen, I thought it was a cool-sounding line. And hearing it in the context of a son-father relationship on-screen made me think that the line meant that I should do my homework before I do anything related to play or entertainment.
But now, ten years later, I’m no longer in school. I’m finding my way through life as an adult, and in the process, I’m finally coming to understand what it really means.
And it’s a message everyone should hear.
Disclaimer: I’m not a licensed life coach, therapist, or anything like that. I’m just a writer who takes an interest in humanity and the stories they want to tell. I also happen to be so empathetic to the plight of other human beings that I might cry during movie scenes and documentaries that have no personal, immediate relevance to me.
So when I see people inside and outside my closest circles suffering, I feel the need to speak out about what I see. Take the following words for what you will. It’s not medical advice, just opinion.
You Are Your Own Person
There’s a mis-attributed quote to Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching, that goes something like this:
At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.
It’s actually from a poem in a book called “A Grateful Heart: Daily Blessings for the Evening Meal from Buddha to the Beatles“ by M.J. Ryan. Here’s the whole poem:
Always we hope someone else has the answer.
Some other place will be better, some other time, it will turn out.
This is it.
No one else has the answer, no other place will be better, and it has already turned out.
At the center of your being, you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.
There is no need to run outside for better seeing, nor to peer from a window.
Rather abide at the center of your being; for the more you leave it, the less you learn.
Search your heart and see
the way to do is to be.
In short, it describes how many human beings feel from time to time. When we are the midst of struggle, we tend to blame outside sources: If only my parents weren’t so mean to me… If only my dog would stop eating my slippers, then I wouldn’t have to buy so many… If only I was richer, then I’d be happier…
But, as the poem says, the answer to your problems does not lie in another person, another place, or another time.
It lies in you. You know who you are. You know what you want.
If that’s confusing or strange to you, I understand why it would be. That part of you, the part of you that knows who you truly are and what you truly want to do, might be very quiet — perhaps even silenced. Perhaps you grew up in a household that discouraged you from taking art classes, even though you liked to draw. Perhaps you grew up very poor and subsequently grew up with the belief that you won’t ever become rich. Perhaps because you want to write stories, you believe that you can’t make a living from it.
But I promise you that inner voice you have is there. You just have to be willing to listen to it.
And you can listen to it by first asking yourself this question:
What Do You Want to Do?
Sit down, and ask yourself this question. Write down the answer on a piece of paper, if you have to. Ask it. Answer honestly.
What is the first thing that comes out of your mouth or out of your pen/pencil? Is it get married? Is it to win awards? Is it to own a house? Is it just to do something as simple as today’s laundry?
Whatever it is, make note of it. Interrogate it. Is it something you yourself really want to do, or is it something you want to do because it’s what your parents or peers expect you to do?
Listen to that voice. Write out a series of sentences about all the things you want to accomplish in your life. Don’t censor yourself. Be honest.
And then, be as honest as you answered the last question when answering this one:
What Do You Have to Do?
What do you have to do in order to do what you want?
What sacrifices will you have to make? What lunch dates will you have to miss over the next month to work on that draft? What phone calls will you have to reschedule so you can give yourself time to write? What day will you have to tell your roommate that you’ll be getting up earlier in the morning to write?
If you want to bolster your MFA program application so that you can apply next year, what do you have to do to make yourself stand out more as a candidate? Get published in more magazines? Get more job experience?
If you want to win a Hugo award, what do you have to do to make yourself more likely to get it? Study Hugo-award winners? Join a writer’s workshop? Write every day?
Make a plan. Make sacrifices, if you must.
Determine what you have to do so that you can do what you want to do.
Go Out, and Do Those Things!
This is the point where so many people fall short of living the lives that they want to live. They have a ton of things that they want to accomplish, but they don’t know what they need to do to accomplish them. Or, they do know what they want, but they don’t act on it.
And I get it. Maybe you’re not in the best of situations right now. Maybe you’ve been having trouble landing a job lately, and I don’t blame you. The economy is tough, these days. But rather than sit down and give up and believe that there’s nothing you can do to change things, try checking your resume one more time. Maybe it’s time you go to the tailor and get a proper suit or skirt. Maybe you need to practice your interview and presentation skills more.
In other words, there’s a whole lot that isn’t in your control, but there’s also more in your control than you might think. Find these areas you can control, and take responsibility for your life and your actions, or otherwise, you’re going to stay miserable and unhappy.
If you claim that the “system” is treating you unfairly, but you make no effort to try and get out of that system, that’s on you, not the “system.”
Sink or Swim: You Decide
If there is anything that writing stories has taught me, it is that humans are creatures driven by desire. We want things, and we want to do things. When we can’t have or do them, we find ourselves in a conundrum, and we have two choices: We can sink deeper into our own despair and blame other forces, or we can swim through the waters and take responsibility for ourselves. We can do what we’ve always done and grow frustrated at the lack of change, or we can do what we have to do to give us our best shot.
Again, I get it. If you have a mental disorder or are living in a tough situation where you don’t have a lot of room to act without bumping into somebody else, you might take longer to make these changes. But that doesn’t mean that changes can’t be made at all. If you want to learn an instrument, look up some YouTube videos or find a local class. If you want to liver longer, start exercising 10, 20, 30 minutes a day — however much time you can fit. If you want to buy a car, start saving money. Even if it’s just $10 at a time, that’s better than doing and saving nothing.
The steps you take don’t have to be big. They can be small. But you must understand that you have to take them.
Go places. Get out there, and do things. Stop caring about what people think of you. Figure out what you want, and figure out what you have to do to get there.
You can do this.