From a young age, we ask children to start making their life plans. What are you going to be when you grow up? What will you do with you life?
But life doesn’t always adhere to those plans. It’s not linear. It can be many things at many times, and sometimes all at the same time: intense and exciting, joyful, despairing, and deeply empty.
This is knowledge I’ve gained gradually. I recall feeling panic in my 30s because the plan I wanted—to find a partner, to have a family—was not happening when and how I wanted it to. Other people’s plans seemed to be working out so well; mine, not so much. And I hadn’t planned for the messy emotions we go through when things don’t turn out the way we wanted them to.
This week, in a beautiful FaceBook post that was a love letter to her best friend, author Elizabeth Gilbert opted for radical truth over the best-laid plans. “Here is the thing about truth,” wrote the author of the bestselling 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love. “Once you see it, you cannot un-see it. So that truth, once it came to my heart’s attention, could not be ignored.”
The truth she had seen was that her best friend, Rayya Elias—who has been diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer—was also the love of her life.
“I do not merely love Rayya; I am in love with Rayya. And I have no more time for denying that truth. The thought of someday sitting in a hospital room with her, holding her hand and watching her slide away, without ever having let her (or myself!) know the extent of my true feelings for her…well, that thought was unthinkable.”
Terminal illness has a way of focusing the mind. But reading Gilbert’s words is also a reminder that our devotion to planning—planning our careers, or homes, or how we aim our to raise our kids—can be blinding. Eat, Love, Pray opens with Gilbert’s first marriage falling apart, and it ends with her finding love again.
But now that has marriage ended, she explained, because she realized the power of her love for Rayya. She quotes David Foster Wallace: “The truth will set you free—but not until it’s had its way with you.” It has had its way with Gilbert, and no doubt with those she has loved, and who loved her in return.
What Gilbert shows is that self-discovery, embracing life and exploring, do not end when the goal of the plan has been “achieved.” The “happy ending” of Eat, Love, Pray was simply one chapter in a much longer, messier book of life.
Here’s what it comes down to for me: I need to live my life in truth and transparency, even more than I need privacy, or good publicity, or prudence, or other people’s approval or understanding, or just about anything else. Truth and transparency not only make my life more ethical, but also easier. (Why easier? Because untruth is always complicating, and truth — no matter what the consequences — is always strangely simplifying.)
I might have had an easier time in my 30s if I’d accepted, back then, that there is no plan. Eventually, after a raft of painful breakups, I did get the things I wanted—love, marriage, a career. But it wasn’t because I made a plan. It didn’t happen when I wanted, or exactly how, and there was plenty of messiness along the way. Looking back, I think the source of my unhappiness was the belief that there was a plan and I was failing to execute it in a timely manner (biological clocks don’t help).
Gilbert’s latest love story eloquently argues for truth above all else. Still, her brand of radical honesty may not be for everyone. Some may prioritize the potential damage to others over their own “truth,” for example.
But the thing about truth is it tends to come out anyway, as Gilbert says, quoting Elias:
“The truth has legs; it always stands. When everything else in the room has blown up or dissolved away, the only thing left standing will always be the truth. Since that’s where you’re gonna end up anyway, you might as well just start there.”