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Breaking Open the Ordinary

By Sandy Prather

12/31/2014

Are we there yet?

“Where are you going? How’s the journey so far?” As we roll up to Dec. 31, it’s a worthwhile exercise to ask how it’s been going. January beckons with the prospect of a fresh new year which means it’s a good time to look back at the past year. We see where we’ve been and what’s been happening; we contemplate our journey thus far. Whenever I do this, there’s a gentle lesson from one of my favourite cartoons that shapes my reflections.

The cartoon depicts a family of four crossing a barren desert. The two adults and two children are each riding laden camels, and the camels are strung out in a single line. As the family crosses a sea of rolling sand dunes, the hot sun beats down; there’s nary a palm tree nor an oasis in sight. The punch line comes from one of the obviously strung-out parents: “Will you stop asking if we’re there yet? We’re nomads, for Pete’s sake!”

Humorously, it reminds me of a great wisdom: not to be so concerned with the destination that I miss the journey. It’s a danger many of us face. “Are we there yet?” rings out from more than the child in the back seat of the family van. We all want to get where we are going and to get there now. As a culture, we tend to be impatient with the “journey” part of life.

As teenagers, we are in a hurry to grow up. We can’t wait to graduate; then we can’t wait to get our first job. We hurry to find the perfect relationship, settle into our first home, begin our family. We are eager to be fully engaged in our chosen career, keen to move on from being a novice or learner. As adults, living our daily routine, we keep our eyes what’s coming next as we meet deadlines, accomplish tasks, always anticipating the next demand. We are goal-oriented, moving quickly and efficiently. The details of life, the minor vicissitudes of relationships, are often seen as interruptions, the things that slow us down. “Are we there yet?” signals a desire to be done with the slow-moving nature of everyday life in order to say that we’ve already arrived.

Yet, in truth, the answer to that question, “Are we there yet,” will always be, “No, we aren’t.” As long as we are drawing breath, we aren’t where we are ultimately called to be. Life itself is a journey and we are always moving toward our final destination, God. In our pilgrim state, the essential question for all of us is not so much, “Are we there yet?” but, “How am I doing on the journey?”

Such awareness leads us to recognize that the journey itself has its own importance and value. It’s what our life is about and when we shortchange the journey, or hurry through it at breakneck speed, we might be missing out on life itself.

I recognize that it’s often the pace of my life that gets in the way of my appreciation of the journey. Just as it is our tendency to try and get to a destination as quickly as possible, so we move through life at breakneck speed. While that at times is necessary, it does make for a completely different experience. A leisurely approach allows for a much different appreciation and apprehension of what’s going on around us.

I had this experience in September this past year. My husband and I were touring Japan, visiting two of the major islands and several key cities. We used a variety of travel methods to go from place to place but notable among them was the Shinkansen, the Japanese Bullet Train. Travelling at speeds between 240-320 km/hour, the Shinkansen is a super-efficient transport system of which the Japanese are justifiably proud. Its very speed, though, means that it provides a different experience of travelling. Sitting in the sleek coaches, you move at maximum speed across kilometres of countryside. The speed means that you catch only a blurred sense of the scenery. You are deposited several hours later in a far distant city with no sense of what was in-between. The answer to the question “Are we there yet?” gets a surprisingly quick affirmative response yet one also might want to ask, “But what did we miss on the way?”

I contrasted that with the slow-moving days when we walked through Tokyo. Riding buses and strolling city sidewalks, we didn’t get nearly as far but what we sacrificed in distance, we made up for in experiences. The sights, sounds and smells of the city, the sense of being immersed in the culture amidst the people, permeated our senses and we truly delighted in it. Here was our encounter with Japan!

On a recent retreat, I found a lovely painting hanging in my room. Entitled Destination, it was a watercolour depicting two weathered row boats pulled up against a sandy shore. The painter, Ada Wong, had added an explanatory note alongside the painting: “Destination signifies arrival,” she wrote, “a job that is done. I see that destination is rather insignificant if there is no story to tell about the journey. I’m curious about the stories these boats would have to tell if they had mouths.”

I’m curious about the stories too. We’re all nomads and it’s all about the journey. Slowing down means we can appreciate and savour its details and its demands, its graces and its challenges. It also means that once we do arrive at our destination, we know where we’ve been.

Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.