I have found that one of the most dangerous and unproductive sentences in the English language is this: It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
We all have an idea of how life is “supposed to be."
There’s an order to things, a societal flow, a rhythm of expectations: school, college, marriage, career, kids, grandkids, etc.
You know, the way things are “supposed to be.”
With this rhythm in mind, I made plans for my life, and I was certain that things would unfold just as I had imagined they would. And for a while, they did. My own “supposed to be” started to swerve a bit at college, but it jumped the tracks at career, slammed into the ditch at infertility, and burst into flames at epilepsy.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
And now, we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis: COVID-19. Social distancing. Distance learning. Face masks. Plans postponed indefinitely. Society itself is on hold.
All of our best-laid plans gone awry.
When this crisis hit, I was directing a high school production of Peter Pan. We’d been practicing five days a week since January. Though the set is finished and the costumes are ready, the auditorium sits empty. We were supposed to perform it next weekend. The kids won’t get to show anyone what they’ve done.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
It’s an alluring thought, really: It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It gives us permission to not only grieve the dream, but to also hold onto the perfection that never came to be, to allow it to live, at the very least, in the space of our own imagination.
But this is where the danger lies.
This is a a temptation I succumb to often, the longest-running show in my imagination: The Way Things Were Supposed to Be, starring Kirstyn Wegner, playing nightly to sold-out audiences and rave reviews.
I am guilty of preferring this imagined version of events over the reality of what is. I have invested more fully in the “supposed to be” scenarios than I have in what is. I still harbor an insanely irrational hope that I’ll wake up and things will be different, that the order of the universe will have realigned in my favor somehow and things will finally be the way they are “supposed to be”: Peter Pan will go on as scheduled. Regular school is in session, and society is bustling. COVID is gone. Friends are closer than a screen or phone call away. I don’t have epilepsy, I still have my teaching job, and I have my own biological children.
I know that none of this is true, mind you. “Supposed to be” was never real in the first place. It's a hard truth to swallow. I never really had any of these things. But that does not make them any less heavy to bear.
What is can be a disappointment. In fact, it almost always is, because it’s never what we expect.
But “supposed to be” is just a collection of trophies I’ve never won, and that is a heavy cross to bear.
This is the weight of “supposed to be.”
Each “supposed to be” carries the expectations that created it, and those expectations are burdensome and hard to part with, even as we watch our “supposed to be's” pass into ether. I did not want to put those trophies down. Instead, I held onto them with tight fists. Letting go of them felt like a betrayal, like I was abandoning my dreams.
There is an exchange that needs to happen at this point: “Supposed to be” has to die. We have to set those heavy trophies on fire. Only then can we exchange those ashes for the strange beauty of what is, which is nearly always wrapped in disappointment. It is only after we can shed that husk and accept what’s actually inside that we can begin to learn to enjoy it.
What is is all around you, just waiting for you to embrace it, to explore it, to experience it. If you are present and brave enough to make this divine exchange, you will see how much it can teach you.
Light those “supposed to be’s” on fire.
Do not be afraid to let them burn.