Over the holidays I went whale watching with my parents in Maui, thanks to the folks at the Pacific Whale Foundation. While we didn’t get up close and personal with the magnificent mammals, we did see several whale tails above the water and the phenomenon known as whale “footprints.”After a whale brings his tail back under the water there remains the image of the tail, making it appear as if the whale is still there, just below. (Technically this is the area where the surface of the water is smoother than the surrounding area due to the vortex caused by the whale’s massive size and the momentum of the movement.)
The resulting effect is that it appears the whale is still there in the same spot. If you want to see the whale come out of the water again, it looks like you should focus your attention there. But (and I’m sorry to say) you’ll be disappointed. Because while you’re focused on the markings of where the whale has been, the whale itself has actually moved on.
In order to witness the whale’s next appearance you’ll have to fight your instinct and peel your eyes away from the footprint. Which direction to look next? You won’t know. You will have to scan the horizon and keep your eyes open for the next sign of life. Whales have to do what whales have to do … keep swimming.
At this time of the year when most of us are prone to look back on our own footprints made over the last 365 days, I can’t help but think how tempting it is to stay so focused on the past that we lose sight of what lies beyond. This applies not just to our own experiences, but also when we remain focused on the footprints of others. Often this preoccupation leads us to follow where others have trodden, but the reality is we will never catch up. By the time we find their footprint it is too late, they too have moved on to warmer waters. This happens in business, relationships, creative endeavors, and well, life in general.
While we can never be fully certain where the whale will appear next, over time and with practice, we can become better at predicting. Similarly, if we want to get better at knowing which direction to head in the future we have to be willing to take our eyes off of what has past.
I believe the security of knowing what has, in fact, happened is a large part of why we take such pleasure in curating lists and quantifying “the best and worst of” at the end of every year. We know what occurred and there is comfort in certainty. For example, I can list here how many races I ran or talks I gave or places I visited in 2013. Even if the numbers fall short of where I would like them to be, I know they happened and that feels empowering.
The truth is I’ve tried to write my year in review post and I’ve (mostly) enjoyed reading those of my peers and friends. But 2013 was such a head-spinning year of goodbyes and hellos that the reality is I’m tired of living in that space. I stared so long and hard at the footprint of my 2013 in hopes of a sign for which direction to head next, that I must admit here I lost sight of what I truly needed to find: A sense of peace.
On the last day of my visit to Maui my mom said something to me I had never heard before. I was dreading the red-eye flight and the cold weather and the reality that awaited me back in NYC. Sensing my anxiety she said: “Don’t suffer twice.” Wow. I took this as great advice to help me stop worrying about future things out of my control, but I now realize it also applies to accepting the difficult experiences of the past. Once was enough.
Thus, as they say, “Onwards!” I’ll see you in the New Year with my intention for 2014. I don’t know exactly what is in store for me but I’ve finally, finally, learned to find peace by keeping my eyes on the horizon instead of the murky deep below.
I wish the same for you.