There is a story in the Bible that I frequently share with my clients. I originally heard the story and the following interpretation of it in a sermon given by Rabbi David Cantor a few years ago. Now, I'm not a particularly religious person but there is a good reason I like to use the Biblical example. Many of my clients (and perhaps all of us) go through times in our lives when we think "I should be doing better... I should have already been established in my career by now... I should be finished with school because all of my friends are already done and getting on with their life..." My goal in sharing the story is to help reframe these thoughts in an alternative, possibly more helpful, way.
The story goes like this and I'm going to warn you, I'm taking a long period of history and giving you the Cliffs Notes Cliffs Note version!
The Israelites were slaves in Egypt for several generations until finally Moses goes to Pharaoh and requests that he let them go. After ten plagues occur, Pharaoh finally agrees to free the slaves and they flee, knowing that Pharaoh will probably change his mind. They end up being right about that, but Moses parts the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to escape the clutches of Pharaoh once and for all. Yay! Here's where the story starts to appeal to me, though. Now, geographically, Egypt and Israel are next-door neighbors. Israel is a tiny little country and even if we draw the borders much more north than they currently stand, its a fairly short distance from Egypt to "the Promised Land". But what happens next in the story is that the Israelites "wander in the desert for 40 years"! What the heck were they doing? Did Moses have a really REALLY bad sense of direction? No. We learn later on that the newly-freed individuals were actually not going to be allowed to enter into the Promised Land but their kids were. So, the original slaves literally had to become new people.
Being slaves for several generations caused the Israelites to become accustomed to slavery. There's even times in the story of their wandering where some of them said "hey, we should go back to Egypt because at least we knew where our next meal was coming from and we had some shelter!" They were not happy individuals in the desert. They had lots of discomfort and lots of learning to do. Had they been able to go immediately into the Promised Land, there is a very good chance that they would not have survived since they really didn't know how to "be free". They were used to not having choices and constantly being told what to do, how to do it, and for how long. The wandering in the desert was absolutely necessary for them to be READY to go live in the Promised Land.
So, how does this relate to our modern lives? I like to think that in the periods when it might look, from a critical eye that not much is going on, that perhaps there is a lot of important stuff going on. When it feels like there is "no progress", perhaps the progress is just not observable or measurable in the standard way. I like to believe that our desert periods are absolutely essential to be READY to go to the next phase, to our Promised Land.
If you find yourself saying "I should really have graduated from college by now... " or some other similar sentiment, please think about the possibility that you actually were not capable of doing that thing sooner. It was important, and perhaps still is important to be wandering in the desert, until you're ready for the next thing, whether it be "getting your act together" and graduating or taking school seriously or whether its something else. To judge ourselves or others for not doing something on some prescribed schedule is utterly unfair as every person will have different needs and abilities with which to accomplish their goals and these goals may simply take longer for some people.
Much like those Israelites wandering in the desert, our "desert period" may be really uncomfortable and we may wish, as they did, that we could just get to the Promised Land already! It's right there! I can see it! We need to learn to be patient with ourselves, which I'm sure is something the Israelites also needed to learn. They needed to trust that things would work out and not give in to doubt. We need to recognize that when we're ready for the Promised Land, we will be able to get there. We need to embrace our desert, knowing that its a necessary part of the process and is something we have to cross and possibly wander around in on the path to our Promised Land.
I want to thank Rabbi David Cantor, from whom I originally heard this (or a very similar) interpretation of the wandering in the desert and how it applies to our lives today. I may have taken liberties on retelling the story but the "intention" or at the very least my interpretation of Rabbi Cantor's sermon is something for which I thank him. As I stated earlier, I really have shared this interpretation with many of my clients, many of whom have found it very helpful. I hope you do, too.