The Number Line of Our Lives

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Last week I was at the University of Houston where I was planning to have lunch with a student who is considering returning to Texas from his out of state college. Our first stop was at the offices of transfer counseling services in the Cougar Village. I waited near the reception desk while he met with a representative to outline his needs and learn how to proceed in making the change. It was somewhat quiet in the office and my chair was right in front of the receptionist who was a tiny young woman who appeared to be quite businesslike but nonetheless polite and inviting. I thought of my own experiences with academic counseling at U of H in the long ago and remarked that I truly appreciated her kind demeanor, relaying a bit of my own experience when I too was little more than a slip of a woman.

My initial contact with the university had been quite a discouraging affair that almost sent me running. I sat for well over an hour before I was even seen by anyone. When my moment to garner information finally came I was greeted by a surly woman who literally barked the obvious fact that she was behind schedule and had very little time for conversation other than that related to the business at hand. There were no warm greetings, not even a tiny smile. Instead her angry demeanor set a tone for the interaction that left me flummoxed and almost as ignorant about policies and procedures as I had been before I came. My session ended on such a rushed note that I felt as though I was being pushed from the office. I somehow maintained my composure in spite of how I was feeling until I reached the ladies room down the hall where I found a stall and proceeded to cry for at least five minutes. Luckily once I got past the bureaucratic arm of the university it was smooth sailing. My classes were challenging and interesting, and my professors were always accommodating and determined to help me navigate through the years of my college life. I grew to love the University of Houston, but shuddered at the thought of having to deal with the business and paperwork associated with entering and exiting.

I joked a bit with the student with whom I had outlined my story and then she in turn relayed hers. She was from Asia and was majoring in mathematics. There were a number of career pathways that she was considering, but she was most interested in applying math in the business sector. She was excited about graduating in the spring and spoke of the many people at the university who had supported her when she first came and knew so little about the city or even our country. It was apparent that her efforts to be hospitable to those who visited the office had stemmed from her own experiences and the appreciation that she felt for those who come to the university attempting to make life changing decisions. She delights in the fact that she is now the one who greets so many of them. She wants their first impression to be be positive because she understands their fears.

I enjoyed my little talk with this stranger who now seemed a bit more like an acquaintance. I appreciated that she had taken the time to relate her own story with so much candor. I felt the kind of bond that two people enjoy in that brief moment when their worlds collide and they are willing to approach each other with mutual respect. It amazed me that even though our collegiate ties were separated by many decades we had both felt the same sense of apprehension and hopefulness as we imagined our lives stretched out before us. I was now viewing mine from the rearview mirror of nostalgia and she was just placing her foot on the accelerator to forge into unexplored territory full speed ahead. Both of us felt a kinship and gratitude for those who had helped us to reach our respective points in life. In particular I understood that her lovely demeanor toward everyone who walked into the office would set the tone for a wonderful experience that might encourage even those who felt lost to take the risks that most certainly would lie ahead.

Eventually the student with whom I had come for a lunch date finished his own appointment and we headed to a restaurant on campus. I saw in his eyes that his meeting had not given him the answers that he had hoped to hear. He felt a bit discouraged by all of the hoops through which he would have to jump if he decided to transfer his work from one university to another. It would be almost like starting over and losing all of the time that he had already invested. He was caught in a quandary that I too have faced, and so we began a quiet discussion of his options over a lunch of grilled cheese and tomato basil soup. The fact that it was a grey and cold day did little to help his mood, and I could see the wheels turning in his head as he calculated the cost of staying put in a place that made him miserable versus changing to a more positive environment where he has friends who care about him and encourage him to make the move as they have already done.

Time feels very different to me than it does to a young adult barely entering his twenties. I have the advantage of knowing how quickly it passes. i have experienced enough to know all too well the importance of being happy. Our minds tell us when something is wrong and while it may be challenging to extricate ourselves from certain situations in the long run we will always land on our feet and find the contentment that we seek. I have learned all too well that life rarely follows a straight line. Instead it is a series of curves looping back and forth often throwing us off balance. It is a high wire act that is both frightening and exciting. If we take a deep breath we learn that most of the platitudes that we hear have some merit. We won’t fail as long as we follow our hearts and keep trying. The clock will keep ticking but we soon learn to ignore it as well as the unsolicited advice and critiquing from well meaning people who think that they have a better understanding of what we need than we do. We almost always find the confidence that we need to be the person that we want to be regardless of what others may think, Our happiness comes from discovering a sense of purpose rather than pursuing a job and concerning ourselves with wealth. In the process we often find that we get exactly what we have needed all along.

I can’t help thinking about the continuum on which we all fall in a kind of curvy number line of life. As long as we are breathing the ray of hope shines ahead. There is always time for adjustments to our trajectory. I am at a far end, but still aware that unknown challenges and joys lie ahead. The young lady in the office is both ending one phase and beginning another. The student with whom I had hoped to convey some wisdom is stopping and starting and making circles as he attempts to come to the right conclusion that will work for him. None of us is a fortune teller capable of predicting exactly what will happen once we make a choice, but based on what lies behind I understand perhaps a bit better that the secret to a full and rewarding life begins with a little spark that tells us when we are heading in the right direction and when we are not. We learn to alter our course and adapt more and more quickly on our journey. We become like  race car drivers whose muscle memories react quickly to bumps and turns in the ever changing environment. Somewhere along the road we also become proficient in rejoicing in our uniqueness and gain confidence in the choices we have made. We ultimately realize that when all is said and done it is in the people we have loved and the lives that we have touched that we have found the keys to our puzzling searches. 

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