to What Should I Do With My Life?
people have this notion, or maybe its a hope, that their calling will
just come to them one day, as an epiphany, and itll be clear. We wait
for that clarity. When our notions are muddled or vague, we often dont
pursue them, assuming the lack of clarity is a sign its not our true
course. If we really wanted to do a certain thing, the feeling
would be strong, right?
Does it make sense to wait for that overpowering
Probably not. For most people I talked to, very
little was clear when they began their journey. It had to unravel, slowly,
Powerful epiphanies are actually very rare, and some
of the most amazing ones didnt bring clarity at all.
That was the case with Debbie Brient, who had an old-fashioned
religious epiphany, but didnt get that sense of clarity until two years
Debbie lives in San Antonio. By the date of her
graduation from the University of Kansas, Id guess shes now about
50, but its not always polite to ask a woman her age. Five years ago,
she knew she needed something to change, but all she could think about was
quitting her job and having time off. For fifteen years she had sold
advertising for several Spanish-language television stations. She was a
self-diagnosed workaholic, hyperactive and discombobulated, and she just
wanted the treadmill to STOP. I was so out of touch with what I
wanted, she said, that I couldnt even order off a menu. She
remembered being adventurous and willing to take risks in her youth (she
had worked in Puerto Rico and Spain early in her career), and she felt
that risktaking-person had been lost.
It took Debbie a year to get up the nerve to quit her job. She was
afraid shed feel lonely and unimportant. Her therapist set up a lunch
for her with another professional woman whod quit and taken a year off;
the two had lunch on Good Friday. Just meeting someone else who had done
it made it okay, made it a viable option. The following Monday Debbie told
her boss she was taking a year off. The other salespeople laughed and told
her shed never make it, shed miss it, shed last a month.
First step: simplify. She moved from her townhouse into a 500
square foot apartment. She got rid of all but her favorite material
things, down to only what she really needed.
Second step: silence. The local Catholic University was affiliated
with a convent in Cuernavaca, Mexico. She went there for two weeks.
Priests came there to plan their year ahead. She was told not to talk to
them; they were there to be in silence. The beds were like sleeping on
cement. She felt wonderful.
Third step: travel. Shed once seen a movie about Australian
Aborigines ritual of walkabouts, completely unstructured wanderings.
She dubbed her journey the White Girl Walkabout and headed west,
alone, in her car. For a month she camped in New Mexico, Utah, and
Arizona. She never stayed in hotel rooms. She never read the newspaper,
never watched television, never even listened to music. She took her good
experiences as omens; she felt euphoria for the first time in years.
Fourth step: Go back to Step One and hate yourself. A few months
after getting back to San Antonio, she was tempted right back into
advertising sales with a job at Telemundo which paid more than ever. She
felt guilty, because shed turned her back on what shed hoped to do.
Not surprisingly, she was more miserable than ever. She worked for
Telemundo for three years, until she finally admitted that more money
wasnt making her feel better.
Fifth step: repeat step three. She went on another walkabout,
trying to reclaim the ground shed lost. Before leaving, she felt heavy
and defeated. The second night out, she found herself dancing with
Mescalero Apache Indians around a bonfire; she took this as validation of
her trip and regained her confidence.
Two weeks later, she was in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, hiking among
the historic pueblos of the Anasazi people, who lived there from 800 to
1200 A.D. It was the mid-day; she had a backpack with water and food, and
she went on a one-mile hike by herself to the pueblo of Piniasco Blanco.
She was mesmerized by the wonderful sound of her hiking boots crunching on
the rocks underfoot. Shes too wound-up a person to ever meditate;
hiking is as close as she gets. She reached Piniasco Blanco, and she was
gazing at all the pottery shards on the ground when a voice suddenly said:
THIS WAS YOUR HOME.
It stopped me in my tracks, she told me. It almost scared
me. You have a normal stream of consciousness, like youre talking to
yourself, and here came something else. It wasnt my voice.
So did you hear it with your ear, literally?
No, but it was auditory, like it was inside my head but not
Did it have a gender?
The voice was very stern, very taskmaster, not gentle, and I
thought of it as a mans voice, demanding my attention. And so his
statement, THIS WAS YOUR HOME, it was like a command, like he was telling
me something, almost ordering me to do something.
And what was he telling you?
Well I didnt know. I was confused. I once lived in
Alburquerque, but I didnt feel connected to New Mexico until I came
here on my first walkabout. Or was he telling me I lived here in another
life? Or was he telling me I ought to move back here from San Antonio? And
in a way I kind of got into this mental debate with his instruction,
talking back, asking what do you mean? You can imagine I
didnt want to have this incredible experience hearing this voice but
not understand what he meant.
And then what happened?
He said, ISNT IT CLEAR!?
Like it should be obvious to you?
Yes, and that was shocking to me because I was working hard to
follow an inner voice or to do the right thing and it wasnt clear at
all. So I said back San Antonios a great place, I have a great life
there, and then the voice snapped back, ILL HANDLE IT!
Ill handle it?
Yes. And then that was it. It was gone.
Did you know it was over? Was there something final in his last
I waited a while, but that was it.
Debbie had consulted her journals right before we talked, and so
she was able to reconstruct the moment.
I asked her how she felt right afterwards.
Well, I felt incredibly validated. Id made this connection
with a guide or something, and that was a reward for all the years Id
spent searching for spiritual awareness. I felt that my walkabout was
justified. But I didnt feel solace. His wasnt a sympathetic voice, I
felt almost scolded. He didnt say Everythings going to be
okay. He insisted it should be clear, but I wasnt handed a
manual. I had no idea what to do. It wasnt like, From here you go
back to San Antonio and you do this ____. There were no directions.
Did you think your guide would handle it?
He said Ill handle it, and I thought, well, okay, all
right but I didnt think I could just sit back and not search for
the right place or activity to dedicate my life to. I always knew I had a
responsibility to continue seeking.
Your epiphany was quite confusing.
Im not a theist, so for awhile I didnt know
what to make of her story. It was too mystical for my orientation.
Eventually, I heard two others just like it. One woman heard a voice
telling her to go to Maine. A guy named Gregory Giagnocavo was standing in
the hallway of his home in Houston when he heard a voice telling him to go
to Guatemala (which he couldnt have pointed to on a map). They felt
guided, but as with Debbie, it was frustrating there wasnt more to the
message. The voice didnt tell them what to do when they got to those
places. They had to figure out the rest without any further help.
Thats a significant difference from the
prototypical epiphany story I learned back in high school. Saul was a Jew;
hed been commissioned by the chief priest to go to Damascus to help
suppress Christianity there. As he approached Damascus on his horse he saw
a blinding light and fell off his horse and heard the voice of Jesus
saying Why persecute thouest me? When Saul regained his sight, it
was obvious to him how he had to change. He was baptized as Paul and began
preaching Christianity right away.
Clarity or not, youd think having made that connection with her
guide even if the guide never reappeared would help Debbie make
courageous choices. Youd think she now had the spiritual strength to
resist temptation and not fall back into her old patterns. But when she
got back to San Antonio, she started looking for employment, and suddenly
that daunting reality overwhelmed her again. No blissful opportunities
readily emerged, and after a few months she signed on to an internet
company. The hours were longer and the pay worse but she tried to
rationalize that it was a cutting edge experience, et cetera. Her old
habits sucked her back in, like the overpowering gravity of the sun. So it
Progress takes many attempts, she says now wisely. For me,
it took three attempts and five years to end up in a place I think I am
supposed to be.
Laid off a year later from the failed internet company, she went on
a trail ride in West Texas and fell in love with the land. She had trouble
sleeping the first night because she was so excited to be there. The next
day, she told the leader of the trail ride that she would move there if
she could find work any work. Waitressing, even. He told her that the
Nature Conservancy of Texas had an open position for a volunteer
coordinator in nearby Fort Davis. Debbie felt her gut drop. She had a
moment of clarity and hunger that was completely unlike the
powerful-yet-vague epiphany two years earlier. She knew: she wanted that
The Texas chapter of the Nature Conservancy is based
in San Antonio, and on Monday morning at 9:00 she was on the phone to the
Human Resources Department, begging for an interview. She was told the
application deadline had passed no exceptions. And the old Debbie
would have left it at that. But she wouldnt take no for an answer. She
started calling friends, asking if anyone knew anybody at the Nature
Conservancy. A friend of a friend of a friend later, she was sitting down
with the head of the Texas chapter himself. He liked her passion but
looked at her resume and told her she wasnt suited to be the volunteer
coordinator in Fort Davis.
Youve got all this sales and marketing experience, he
said. Maybe you should run our Marketing and Philanthropy.
Shortly later, she was hired. And she loves it. For the first time
in her life, shes working somewhere that she can imagine never leaving.
Every day she goes to work for a purpose she and others find meaningful.
She still works too hard, but now shes happy to do it. Im in the
right organization, in the right place. I hope to retire from here.
Shes having such a great experience that she feels it is nothing less
than a complete miracle she made it here. She feels blessed.
I asked Debbie, So that guide of yours did he handle it? Or
did you handle it? Because it sounded to me like you handled it.
You wouldnt take no for an answer.
She paused. We handled it.
I asked her to clarify. She said she deserved credit for her hustle
in that critical moment. But circumstances beyond her control had to align
in order to make it possible. And in those beneficial circumstances, she
sees her guides work. She even believes that in some way I was brought
to her by the guide that me telling her story was meant to happen.
Debbies epiphany is one of the most important moments of her
life. But heres the important catch she notes that her epiphany
didnt suddenly instill her with a desire to conserve land. She always
had that desire she just ignored it, at least professionally. Every
time she surrounded herself with nature, she was euphoric, and every time
she went back into sales, she was miserable and disconnected. How much
clearer did it have to be?, she now wonders. All the signs were there.
In fact, in her journals are several statements written in the very days
before her epiphany, wishing she could do more to help preserve nature. So
when the guide thundered ISNT IT CLEAR!?, he was kinda right to be
indignant. Look in your journal! Look at how happy you are when around
Was the voice she heard a blast from her suppressed
unconscious, begging her to pay attention to her values? I dont argue
with Debbies version, but I offer that possibility for readers who balk
at her spiritual account. Weve all got neglected needs.
Her love of nature was always clear. Her obstacle was that
she never let herself imagine that what she loved and wanted could be a
profession. In her mind, there were two worlds one is the world of
business, where you go to work, and the other is the world of things you
care about, to be enjoyed on weekends. Its not easy to bring these
worlds together (it takes hustle and training and determination) , but
once she learned those two worlds were embodied in one organization, her
mission became clear. Learning that the Nature Conservancy existed and
that they had a job open finally opened the floodgates. Like Paul, she
was on a horse at the time. But she didnt fall off her horse, and she
didnt lose her sight. Her guide wasnt a spirit, he was a man who
lead pack trips. His words were fairly matter of fact but they made it
I now tell people not to wait for epiphanies. Theyre great if you get
one, but so often they tell you something you already know in your heart.
Never underestimate our ability to ignore the obvious. So often, thats
what keeps us from clarity not a lack of desire.