You know those ideas that seem good – so good that they could even be from God – but then they don’t work out? I had one just last month. It came to me unexpected but complete, like a sudden, clear vision. I saw myself as a volunteer mentor for a local nonprofit that I deeply admire. The planner in me took over, and I thought of that Steve Jobs quote about life only making sense when we connect the dots looking backwards. I was sure this would become my story of pieces of the past falling into their perfect place in the world. Weeks of prayer, research, networking, emails and texts followed.
Then, I stopped to listen: Silence. Dead ends. Space. Not yet.
I didn’t understand. My idea made so much sense. It seemed so good. Pure. Selfless, even.
It’s weird when God doesn’t pave the way for our good ideas. What starts out as an “Aha!” moment can so quickly spiral into to self-doubt and confusion. I am not convinced we are meant to connect the dots of every “no” we meet in life, but I do love it when what seemed like a dead end becomes a breakthrough. And this is what happened with my idea.
More like a painting in process than a reverse connect-the-dots, my story is not about making sense of “no.” It is not about the amazing things that never could have happened in my life because this one thing never did. It feels broader than that, like an unplanned brushstroke that causes the painter to reconsider her entire vision.
I knew things were going to unfold differently with this particular “no” because of the feelings that came with it. Instead of questioning or becoming more determined to make it work, I felt surprised. I never expected it to go this way. It scared me too – how many other things in my life had I left unquestioned, charging ahead with a healthy dose of self-determination, because they seemed good and made sense? A truth was emerging that seemed bigger than an answer to why my idea wasn’t working out. It looked something like this: Becoming more of who we are meant to be requires less from us, but more of us.
There is a part of me that could have made my idea work. Made up of persistence, desire to help others and deep longing for the story of my life to be a compelling one, it is a sliver of me that is less inclined toward pride or fear. If God approved of certain parts of us more than others, this one would get a nod, wink and thumb.
But we break ourselves into pieces, not God. We separate into good and not good enough, disintegrating what was intended to be a whole surrender. And this is what makes our good ideas just as fragile as our bad ones.
It is also why we must listen. Not just for the answers to our questions or approval of our good ideas, but for all the divine whispers that pop up in a day, coaxing our pieces back together.
I still don’t know exactly why my idea didn’t work out. But hearing that surprising “no” made me a better listener. Or at least a more frequent one. And that is enough.