The Road Back to Yourself

In this excerpt from her book The Second Journey, memoirist Joan Anderson describes the call that sent her in search of herself as she entered the second half of her life.

The whistle of the ferry startles me, and then I feel a surge of pure excitement as the heavy boat backs away from the dock and the seaside town of Oban becomes a fleck in the distance. I stand at the railing and breathe deeply, hoping to inhale some of the magpie magic that permeates the islands to which we are headed. A light swell soothes any anxiety I might have brought aboard, and, for a time, I am content simply to gaze at the scenery—a tall white lighthouse guarding the large harbor, a wonderful medieval moss-covered castle, a pod of seals dancing in the ferry’s wake. I am crossing to safety, or so it feels, heading for Iona to become a virtual vagabond, doing as Robert Frost suggested and taking the road less traveled.

Hardly anyone goes to Iona, I’m pleased to say, because it’s too hard to get there. My journey of three thousand miles began some 36 hours ago. I had an overnight flight to London, then a shorter one to Glasgow, after which I took a three-hour train trip into the highlands, spent the night in Oban, and boarded the ferry this afternoon. Now I am finally beginning to feel as though the real journey has commenced. The hardest part is behind me—breaking away, making the decision to come on such a venture in the first place, and convincing myself that I wasn’t being self-indulgent. This is what the women who come to my weekends must feel like. Many of them travel so very far and are both excited and anxious, wonderfully free and nervous about the unknown steps they are about to take. Compared with all of the preparation, the voyage to the island of Mull is too short—a mere hour and a half, hardly enough time to decompress, slow down, and switch from the frenzied pace of the mainland to the serenity of island life. I settle into a deck chair to let the ship rock me into otherworldliness, intending for this journey to be one that gets me out of my head and into my heart. I want the second half of my life to be every bit as meaningful as the first.

A self-imposed pilgrimage is a quest, Joseph Campbell suggested, where you might not know what you’re looking for, but you have acknowledged that you’re looking for something. “If you are ready, then the doors will open where there were no doors and there will come aids as well as difficult trials.” For certain, nothing that occurs is incidental.

Campbell also insisted that the pilgrim had to give up something to get something, so before leaving home, I obeyed the rules for a successful pilgrimage by giving up the projects that were weighing me down. I let go of my children, released my mother to assisted living, and trusted that my husband would understand my quest. Everyone kept pestering me about the pace of my life, my frenzied schedule, and my racing blood pressure. But I knew that was only one part of the problem. The other part was still unknown. I was uncomfortable going forward in my life without going deeper. Like walking around with a pebble in my shoe, I was constantly reminded that I hadn’t yet arrived at that place of peace, where I possessed a natural energy that emanates from within, not energy that is derived from sheer effort and will.

It was one thing to know my strengths—hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, and love that grow through resolving conflicts. But I was aching for those qualities not obtained from struggle, those intangibles such as pure joy, passion, vulnerability, inner contentment, peace of mind. I did not have nearly enough soul-filled moments in my daily life, and I knew I would remain stuck in the vast wasteland of my topside world if I didn’t take action.

In short, I sensed that there was more to get at, that as Henry Miller suggested, “Every person has his own destiny…the only imperative is to follow it, accept it, no matter where it leads.”

Recently a 44-year-old man approached me after a talk I gave in which I spoke about the difference between significance and success, and said that purpose is more important than power. He was president of his own company and seemingly had everything, yet his mother had died three weeks earlier and her death had left him empty. Suddenly he was seeking much more than success and power. “How could I have that?” he asked, wiping tears from his eyes.

Inner knowing, I wanted to say, but that would hardly explain anything. How does one reverse the constant pushing through life to capture success and refocus one’s attention on having an active internal life? Unfortunately, there is no straight course that will lead any of us to the intuitive, instinctive, and spiritual place inside us. I didn’t have an answer for this man, because I myself was just starting to turn my own attention inward.

So I simply quoted Carl Jung: “‘For people over 30, all problems are spiritual rather than psychological,’” I said. “‘Although you are overly involved in external goals, you will only be able to come to terms with what really matters if you pause, break from the mundane, and process the grief that is partner to change.’”

And that is precisely what I am about to do.