I was sitting in a bookstore three blocks from my
freshman dorm, trying to decide on my college
major. It had been a tough year--the most
stressful of my life so far--and I felt too tired to
make the trivial decision, let alone one that might
have a serious impact on my future. Glumly, I
leafed through the Fields of Concentration
booklet I'd received from the registrar.
Should I concentrate on English Literature?
Well, maybe; I liked to read.
Philosophy? No--too pretentious.
History? That was a possibility. Visual
As this thought occurred to me, a most peculiar
sensation swept through my body. It felt as
though my cells had suddenly become buoyant.
For a dizzy moment, I almost believed that I was
rising up into the air. A panorama of memories
rushed through my brain: the thousands of
hours I'd spent drawing as an art-obsessed child and
adolescent; the gorgeous smell of crayons, paper,
paint, and turpentine; the wordless enchantment I
experienced whenever I made pictures. The
feeling was so surprising and lovely that I burst
I cannot tell you how atypical this was. For
several scared, bewildered, and lonely months, I
hadn't so much as smiled for an I.D. photo.
Now I felt as though I'd discovered the canary in
the coal mine of my soul, still singing away under
tons of bedrock. Emily Dickinson's line
"Hope is the thing with feathers" popped
into my mind, and for the first time, I knew what
I also understood
something else Emily once said: that when she read great
poetry, she felt as if the top of her head were coming
off. I'd always thought this was a sad commentary on how
desperate the recluse poet was for entertainment, but now I
realized Emily must have been talking about something similar to
the strange lightness I felt when I considered majoring in art.
I'll bet you've had this feeling too, or a sensation close to
it. Everyone experiences this a little differently, but in
each individual it tends to be very consistent over time.
It's the feeling of your essential self saying, "Yes!
This way to your North Star!"
Of course, when this happened to me in the bookstore, I didn't
listen. Within thirty seconds, my social self had launched
a full frontal attack. It dredged up a conversation I'd
overheard in the freshman dining hall several weeks
earlier. A group of my peers had spent half an hour
mocking visual-arts majors, whom they saw as a bunch of
wannabe-European airheads with dim minds and even dimmer
futures. A degree in art, my friends had all agreed, was
worse than useless. So much for that idea. My
body seemed to crash back into the chair, and my mood into its
For the next ten years, as I charted my course to a
"secure" career in academia, I occasionally pondered
that experience in the bookstore. I thought about it as I
slogged my way through one Chinese class after another, feeling
as though the subject and I had mutually repellant force
fields. I thought about it when I toted up all the income
I'd earned working my way through college and graduate school,
and realized that I'd made more money teaching and selling art
than my any other means. I thought about it the day I quit
my academic job, finally acknowledging that I simply wasn't cut
out to be a sociology professor, no matter how fail-safe such a
career might seem.
I'll never know what would have happened if I'd listened to my
essential self when it tried to choose my major for me. I
don't think I'd be a professional artist; my sense is that
studying the subject was my truest path, but not a final
destination. I do believe that if I'd chosen art as my
major, the next few years would have been more enjoyable, more
fulfilling, and easier. I think I might have lived the
breadth of those years, as well as their length. I'm
basing this conjecture on experiences I've had since: both
the times that I ignored my essential self shouting
"Yes!" and the times I listened to it. I also
have lots of corroborating data from people who habitually
listen to their essential selves, and have extraordinarily rich
lives to show for it.
the years I have come to believe that life is
full of unchosen circumstances, that being human
has to do with the evolution of our individual
consciousness and with it, responsibilities for choice.
Pain and joy both come with life.
I believe that how
we respond to what happens to us and around us shapes
who we become and has to do with the psyche or the soul’s growth.