Directions and Destinations

“The problem is whether we are determined to go in the direction of compassion or not… If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace

It’s important to understand the difference between directions and destinations. We typically set goals based on destinations rather than directions, because a destination is clear and unambiguous. A target, if clearly set and understood, will either be met or it won’t. You motivate yourself towards it, and celebrate your arrival once you reach it.

The limitation of destinations is that they are rooted in the known. They can’t take you further than what you already understand, because your current understanding is what chooses the destination. Directions, on the other hand, aren’t meant to be reached. We don’t set our direction to the North Star because we mistakenly believe it’s within our reach. We choose it because sometimes the unreachable is the clearest view we have of where we want to be.

Directions require an embrace of ambiguity and uncertainty. In striving towards something like compassion (in Hanh’s case), or empathy, or reconciliation, there is no point at which you can say you’ve done it, you’ve reached your goal and now you can stop. There are days where you stay on course, and others veer wildly off track. There are days where you don’t move at all, and others where the wind is at your back and the distance passes easily. And whichever day you have, your reward is to do it again the next day.

Destinations are an important tool in motivating ourselves to keep moving. It’s easier to climb a hill when we imagine ourselves basking in the view at the top. But if we have the courage to follow a direction instead of a destination, then we acknowledge we will never be perfect, we can always do better, and we won’t let our preconceptions stop us from traveling farther.