(About a 7 minute read)
In Spanish there is a word for which I can’t find a counterword in English. It is the verb vacilar, present participle vacilando. It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere, but does not greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction. — John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America.
Traveling can sometimes be a straightforward, grim business of getting from one place to another as efficiently as possible. The goal looms large then, it becomes the lens through which everything else is seen.
Is the airport crowded? The goal sees the throngs of people as nothing more than an obstacle to it, certainly not an opportunity for people watching. The flight is delayed? The goal is annoyed, irritated, and in no mood to fully enjoy the chance to finish reading a novel. At the hotel, there’s just enough time to shower, change, and then for one last time prepare for the business meeting. The goal doesn’t even think of exploring a nearby restaurant.
As a rule, the more efficiently one pursues a goal, the more ruthlessly one turns chance opportunities into distractions, annoyances, obstacles, or into things ignored, completely unseen. In the end, one whittles down traveling to the point its only reward is attaining the goal.
Vacilando is almost the opposite of straightforward, grimly efficient travel. It still has a goal, but the goal does not dominate the journey, it is not the lens through which everything along the way is single-mindlessly seen. Vacilando, so to speak, is travel with a sense of humor. The chance opportunities are not the obstacles of straightforward traveling, but rather the punch lines of vacilando.
It seems to me that vacilando, as a concept, should not be confined to merely labeling one kind of traveling. For I believe the concept is more broadly applicable to life itself. When we vacilando through life, we have some destination in mind, but we are in no efficient rush to reach it. We are open to chance opportunities, detours, explorations, adventures. And why shouldn’t we be?
It seems to me best to be more concerned [in life] about the means rather than the ends which we may not understand and which may turn out differently (both better or worse from some perspective) than we anticipated. [bracketed material mine]
Indeed, no matter how firmly we believe in our life’s goals, no matter how fixed an idea we have of them, life all so often plays with our expectations, throws back at us something that is not quite what we had in mind.
I remember a friend of mine, Al, who in his sixties perfectly reconciled himself to ending his life as a single man. Then at 66 or 67, he had a heart attack. That landed him in the hospital where a much younger 34 year old nurse took notice of him. The two ended up moving in together. And I’ll wager there’s not a person on earth over the age of 15 who doesn’t have dozens of such stories. Stories of our firm and solid expectations knocked to pieces by life’s apparently endless fascination with messing with us.
To attempt to journey through life as straightforward as a bullet shot at a target is perhaps a species of insanity. It certainly sets one up for disappointment, which if not entirely inevitable, is surely the odds on favorite bet of the gods. But worse than any disappointment at not reaching one’s goals, might be the missed opportunities for exploration, discovery, growth, and unexpected fulfillment.
I have read of psychological studies that find people towards the end of their lives value the experiences they’ve had far more than the possessions they owned. If they have regrets they are usually not for failing to own a bigger house, a faster boat, more jewelry, or finer clothes; their regrets are for missing their kid’s performance in Arsenic and Old Lace, failing to take that trip down the Amazon, so seldom eating as a family, forever putting off the dance lessons, making excuses not to attend the family reunions.
But those are merely regrets for what one knows one missed. Whole new worlds can be closed off to us when we wear the blinders of too efficiently pursuing a narrow goal in life. It is both tragic that today’s economy forces so many of us to almost single-mindlessly live as if enslaved to financial goals. We work longer and longer hours to meet the obligations of our mortgage, our kid’s higher education, our retirement fund, and so forth, taking fewer and shorter vacations, spending less and less time with our family and friends, ruling out so many life enhancing things that we no longer have the time for. For far too many of us, the journey through life is becoming an unending business trip.
That’s unlikely to change unless and until enough people rise up to demand a more equitable share of the world’s wealth — for we live in an ironic age: The world economy is the richest in the history of humanity, and grows leaps and bounds by the minute, yet because those riches are increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, the average person in most developed countries now struggles harder than his or her parents and grandparents did forty or fifty years ago, when the global economy was a fraction of what it is today.
Is vacilando still possible? Surely to some extent it is, but I wonder whether it is a realistic option on a large scale. I spent five and half years at university, taking courses not only in my major and two minors, but in nearly every major field of science with a little English literature thrown in for the fun of it. Yet, tuition was low back then and I graduated virtually debt free, and with an education that has endlessly enriched the quality of my life. Today’s graduates, however, must “rush” through university in four years, least they rack up too big of a bill, and yet, they still graduate with an average student debt of $37,172 . Vacilando on a large scale might be all but dead.
Dead or not, it still strikes me as a worthy ideal, and it still seems obtainable on smaller scales — How one spends a weekend, or even a single day. Even, if one has the time, how one approaches an activity, such as a hobby. Are you planning out what you wish to accomplish as if your hobby were a military campaign, or are you meandering through it, exploring as much as progressing? On a small scale, vacilando still seems possible.
D. H. Lawrence somewhere in The Virgin and the Gypsy writes that the challenge for youth is to find the “unexpected and undiscovered door” to their future fulfillment in life. An implication is that that door is different for different people, for it cannot be found once, it’s location marked, and then maps to it distributed to others. Yet, discovering it, and then passing through it, is essential to living a fulfilling life. Lawrence’s door, I think, represents the juncture where our talents meet the needs of society, for it is there that we find our bliss in life. And I believe, based on my experience, that life has a way of leading us to that door when we respond sensitively and inquisitively to the chance opportunities life offers us.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a discussion of vacilando going on over at Gina’s blog, which can be found here. Or you are more than welcome to comment on it on this blog. Either way, please let me know what you make of the concept!
Last, J. R. R. Tolkien reminded us that, “Not all who wander are lost”. That seems to me to capture something of the core spirit of vacilando. To wander, but with a sense of direction.
Hat Tip to Aayush, who’s explanation for the name of his blog, The Vacilando, got this whole thing started. Aayush is an admirable 16 year old blogger whose clear, easy-to-read prose could be that of a 32 year old.