“Every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware,” wrote philosopher Martin Buber. The image of life as a labyrinth is ancient and profound, with each pathway we follow digressing, advancing, concealing, revealing, and delivering us to unexpected crossroads and outcomes.
You leave the house to buy a quart of milk and meet your true love near the frozen foods. Your blood tests come back not as you’d hoped, you experiment with acupuncture, enjoy the needles, study Asian medicine, quit your job at the bank, and wind up living in Chinatown with a Pekinese dog, a new hairdo, and your once-overwhelming disease in remission.
We watch our destinations change with every loop of the maze – never more suddenly than in these tempestuous times. Finding your way forward through uncertainty is becoming an ever-increasing challenge. What mattered yesterday seems absurd — today’s resolution is already passing. The dramatic headlines remind us daily of how little control we have over life. “Take your hands off the wheel!” a spiritual teacher used to tell me. “You’ll see who’s really driving.” He’s right, I’m sure, but that takes faith in the power of life to actually guide you.
This faith is part of the secret, it seems, for finding your way to your true destination. Just take the case of Jim Maclaren. A super jock from San Diego, the bionic 6’5″, 300-pound, blue-eyed all-rounder went to Yale on lacrosse and football scholarships, took up acting, moved to New York and was just leaving a late night rehearsal on his motorcycle when he was broad sided by a 40,000 pound city bus, flew 89 feet in the air and was pronounced D.O.A. at the hospital.
After 18 hours in the operating room, doctors managed to stabilize Jim’s condition but were forced to amputate the comatose patient’s left leg below the knee. Jim hopped, then skipped, then ran his way back to full mobility like a champ, returned to school, took up swimming, then became interested in triathlons. The very unlikelihood of his being able to compete pumped Jim’s inner competitor to do it against the odds. Within three years, Jim had set records in the New York City Marathon as well as the Iron Man Triathlon in Hawaii, where he competed with able-bodied opponents.
Then on June 6, 1993, his true descent into the maze began. Killing time on his bike near his home in Mission Viejo, California, the amputee was plowed into by a van mistakenly waved through by a traffic cop. The collision broke Jim’s neck at the C5 vertebra and left him paralyzed from the neck down. Defeated, the ex-All Star withdrew to Honolulu and spent most of the next few years becoming a drunk and a cocaine addict, hurling just as much gusto into booze and blow as he had into long jump and javelin.
Grueling as his previous ordeals had been, it was here, during Jim’s dark night of the soul, that his most shattering insights began to occur. Having interrupted his substance abuse, he became aware that his greatest suffering was not actually coming from the accidents but from a source beyond his crippled body. Physical rehab had been a kind of smoke screen; now Jim was meeting his true nemesis head on: overcoming the depression and addictions that now threatened to kill him. Carl Jung described addiction as “a prayer gone awry”; certainly, addicts are individuals who appear to have lost their inner compass. With Jack Daniels and cocaine no longer working, Jim was forced to pull his own heroic mask aside and take a good hard look.
“The first thing I had to do was identify my absolute deepest fear about all this,” Jim told author Elizabeth Gilbert in an interview. What was the worst thing about having to spend life as a quadriplegic? he asked himself. Was it fear of death? Not really. He had had two near death experiences already, “with the white light and the tunnel and the whole deal,” amazing encounters that virtually removed his fears of dying.
Was he afraid of losing his sexuality? No, MacLaren said again. “I knew as long as I had taste and smell and sensation, I could lead a sensual life.” Was he afraid of helplessness? Not really. “Managing on my own is a drag but it’s just logistics.” Was he afraid of pain? No, he knew how to deal with pain. “So what was I afraid of?” he wondered aloud. “The answer was pretty clear,” Jim realized. “I was afraid of being alone with myself, with my mind, with the dark things that lived in there. The doubt, loneliness, and confusion. I was afraid of metaphysical pain.”
Looking inward, Jim came to understand that his greatest pain arose from a damaged sense of wholeness. This is a common refrain among survivors I’ve spoken to: material difficulties aside, it’s the imagined loss of wholeness, of feeling intact, that wounds many of us the deepest. Today, many people feel less-than-whole, disjointed, uncertain of how to move forward in a world that that seems to have slipped its axis.
But what is wholeness, really? Jim was forced now to ask himself. What did it mean to lead a full life? What were his actual obstacles? After delving into these questions a long time, a new awareness arose in him. Jim realized that – as frustrated as he was with his handicap (and envious of the able-bodied), if he could get up out of his wheelchair and walk across the room, would that really get him to the place he most wanted to go in his life? Because, if he were honest, the other side of this room was not his ultimate destination. His ultimate destination was self-knowledge and enlightenment. Did he have to get there on foot? Or could he find some other path?
Eventually, Jim did get sober, and traveled the world in his wheelchair, giving lecture-sermons, kicking butt, handsome and blue-eyed with his big, burly shoulders. He showed people that it can be done, helped them to navigate their own labyrinths en route to their secret destinations. It’s not the life that MacLaren had planned for himself — never in a million years — but Jim insisted that it led him, however circuitously, precisely where he needed to be. When this extraordinary man eventually succumbed to his final illness a few years back, he was proud of what he’d done on this earth.
In every life, there comes a moment when you must make a conscious choice about how you want to live – the path you choose to take. In our generation that moment is now. If you trust the direction your life is taking, you will reach your secret destination.