Getting to Yes
Martha Beck

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 art?

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 out laughing.

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 she meant.

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 inky funk.

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.

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You are the person who has to decide.
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Or just be contented to stay where you are.

Edgar Guest



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Over 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.

Jean Shinoda Bolen