Seeing Through Red Brick Walls – How I Found My Vision at the End of the World

When we moved to Madagascar several years ago, I had three small children. The youngest was just a few months old. My husband worked long hours and I used to dread the moment when our helper left at the end of the day and it was just me there with the kids in a strange place where I didn’t speak the local language or yet understand the culture.

It wasn’t that being without our helper was scary. It’s not like we’d always had a helper. I think it was the feeling that, once she left, the connection I had to the world beyond my own small compound faded away. It was isolating, even if it only lasted a couple hours until my husband would bang three quick, clumsy thumps on the outside gate while balancing, suit and all, on his bike.

In the hours before he got home, I’d often insist, despite the determined swarms of mosquitos descending in the dusk, that we all go out to the front yard. The boys would play in the red, unrelenting dirt and I’d nurse my daughter from a chair on the front porch, holding on for dear life, staring at the jacaranda peering over the brick wall of our compound.

The brick wall.

If you’ve ever lived in Madagascar, you know that for the rest of your life, when you mention it as a place you once lived, people will say, “Woah! Madagascar! How was that!?” I always struggle to answer at first. While we grew to create our very best friendships there and to love our little life on the Red Island, my early memories are inseparable from the fact that we moved there with a newborn and two small kids, that I’d just left a job that I loved, but that spent me emotionally and I felt utterly without focus or vision.

Everything was red brick walls.

But sometimes, we have to get to this place where we feel stuck behind the wall in order to better understand our way through to the other side, to find the hidden doorways. That’s what happened to me.

It was during those early days in Madagascar, when my days were a mix of dreaming and surviving, that I began to see the importance of turning each day towards a vision of who I wanted to be in the world. I didn’t think I’d felt lost before, but in retrospect, I realize that what I thought was vision, was really more like ego combined with a fine dose of optimism and a fair bit of adventure. With small children and a meandering career, I realized those things were no longer enough.

It was there, that I began to see the significance of not only asking what my vision for my life was, but revisiting it often, with commitment and focus. Most of us probably have some sense of the person we’d like to be, yet we consider this as an after-thought – something to take up only during times of struggle or loss, great opportunity or fortune…and maybe not even then.

But learning to see each day as an opportunity to move closer to our vision of who we want to be in the world is something we can engage in at any time. It might even be simpler than you think.

The short exercise below is a modified version of one I do in vision crafting sessions with my clients. While I’ll confess there’s added benefit of taking up these questions with a coach, someone who can ask more questions and help you stay focused on the exercise, there’s really no reason you can’t do this on your own.

Do this…

First, think back to a time when you felt completely on your game. This can be a small moment – like a bath-time parenting win or something bigger like overcoming a professional or financial setback. When you think of that time, what qualities were you most exhibiting? Write down as many as you can think of.

Then, think about the people you know and love – what do you admire in them? Are those qualities you’d like to bring into your own life? Write those down too.

Next, look at all the words you’ve put on the list. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Then, open your eyes and circle the 3 words that most draw your attention. These words are a starting point for defining your vision of who you want to be in the world. This may take some time. You might even choose 3 to try out for a few weeks and then choose another 3 later. That’s okay.

Finally, to see how your vision works for you in real life, try one (or all) these practices:

During a moment of intense emotion, pause, take a deep breath and ask – Who do I want to be right now? Say your 3 words in your head. Use them as your guide.

After you have a stressful experience, a big change, a challenge or miscommunication, think back over the event. Ask yourself – How did my actions align with my vision of who I want to be in the world? If your actions aligned well, spend some time thinking about how you were able to act in accordance to your vision. If your actions weren’t aligned ask – How can I strengthen that alignment?

Write your 3 words from your vision on a notecard. Place the notecard somewhere you’ll see every day. Notice if this helps you become more aware of your vision in your daily life. Alternatively, consider keeping the notecard in a place where you feel you have the most difficulty staying aligned with you vision.

It’s important to remember in doing these exercises that our vision is not so much a destination or a list of wants or dreams. The most useful and adaptable vision is a vision that reminds us of who we want to BE not what we want to DO. Our vision of who we want to be guides what we want to do. It brings us back again and again to the deeper role we play in the story that unfolds before us. It’s a light shining on, and ultimately through, the brick walls.

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