Lindbergh, Da Vinci, Galileo, Martin Luther King, Jr. They thumbed their nose at convention. They spat into the wind and dared it to spit back. Each of them reached beyond the horizon and grabbed tomorrow. Not for themselves. Not for posterity. They did it because they had to, because, as Jack London wrote, they "would rather be ashes than dust." These men, and other men and women like them, could not float on the tides and be content to take life as it came. No, they were meant to carry others in their wake. They created the eddies that brought us changes in perspective and forced us all to swim against the current. They made us bigger than our evolutionary roots, bigger than our petty grievances. They gifted to us the human spirit; each one building on his predecessors.
They have always been my heroes. Mavericks, outlaws, malcontents and rebels, each of them. But history shows them to be the very best of what defines us. Forget today's sports heroes. Forget the fifteen minute wonders and the beautiful muses. They are mostly cardboard cutouts without substance, quickly forgotten and discarded. They are fashion. Heroes, real heroes, are all style and grit.
These are the thoughts that have been on my mind of late. Now, when our first vacation in a long while has given my clouded mind a chance to clear, I find that Ms. E. and I are on a vacation with the dead. Oh, there are heartbeats, to be sure. But rigor mortis is just as apparent now as it will be when those hearts stop beating. Life is for the living, or so they say. But some of us have made this grand adventure more about counting seconds in order to view the next minute than about sculpting time into stories that transcend day to day realities.
I amble up to the bar for an umbrella drink, hoping the fruity libation will bring some sort of cheer, however false, to my gloom. I must confess to never once having had any desire to be on a cruise ship. But I think it's fair to say my lack of excitement has in no way colored my judgment regarding the good ship Bore-Me-To-Death.
"Don't tell me," I say to the man sitting at the bar, "you won this trip."
"Damn shame, isn't it," he smiles and says. "I didn’t expect much, but this has definitely fallen short of my expectations."
"And so soon. No worries," I answer, "we haven't left port yet."
Ms. E. has found a couple of young guys from Chicago to have fun with so I order both of us drinks and push hers in front of her while I continue speaking with the man at the bar. The Chicago guys are thrilled that a pretty woman is willing to talk to them. The truth is they are thrilled to have found a woman they want to talk to.
"What do you suppose they do on a daily basis?" I ask, nodding in the direction of a couple of dozen of our fellow hostages.
"Probably what they're doing right now."
"Sitting around waiting for the party to start?"
Moments of silence as I stare at the group.
"So," I ask, "what does that make us?"
"Birds trapped in a cage once that anchor goes up."
A basic definition of life is the capacity for growth, functional activity, and continual change preceding death. So what do you call it when one voluntarily surrenders those requisites?
The capacity for growth requires that we seek it out. Striving to learn new things and seek new experiences is how humans continue to move with the world. (Contrary to what we see in this country today, gaining weight while sitting in front of one television show after another doesn't qualify as seeking growth.) How many of us reach middle age and become sedentary in our careers, our relationships, and our personal lives? In order to grow in any one of those areas isn't it necessary to push for new knowledge and experience?
When we went to France Ms. E. and I were amazed to listen to and watch some of our compatriots. We could do this from afar because we were just visiting, not part of a group, and not particularly interested in parading to all of the typical tourist sites. We really did see and hear the typical Americanisms on several occasions. Why don’t they do it like… Can't they just speak english. We just knew what they really wanted was to be able to find a French Wal-Mart with a McDonald's next to it. (Do those exist?)
You could, I suppose, write these things off as homesickness. You would also be just as correct in wondering how it is possible to experience something completely if you can't leave behind just a little bit of your own perspective. Is it possible that these tourists really experienced anything of French life? When do we decide that we know enough that an entire culture can't open our eyes to new meanings and perspectives, new opportunities and potential growth?
Attaining knowledge isn't the only form of growth necessary. Humans are spiritual beings and the pursuit of spiritual contentment is just as important as the pursuit of knowledge. But can we truly experience spiritual growth if we aren't out in the world, accosting it, getting dirty in it? It seems an empty exercise to think we can grow spiritually simply by watching someone quote from a poorly written and archaic book a few days a week on television or at church. Spiritual growth, to me, seems to be predicated on experience.
So, what of this "continual change preceding death" as part of the basic definition of life? Obviously, there are major changes in our physical lives as we age. Human life isn't defined by its physical characteristics alone. Our intellect and spirits are what truly define us. If we do not continue to change spiritually and intellectually can we maintain honestly that we are alive – in human terms? Or, is this, like many things, a matter of perspective. Because in the end, life is uniquely ours, our perspective and our experience.
Perhaps those out on the deck waiting for something to come along and entertain them aren't completely wrong. If the journey is uniquely theirs then it is up to them to define it. It is up to each of us to define it for ourselves.
Agents of the undertow come in many guises. Sometimes they deliver bits of our lives back to the taste buds on the tips of our tongues. And sometimes they tug at our shirttails in an attempt to pull us places we don't want or need to go. Sometimes the undertow's only goal is to drag us down, back into the muck. It is often easier to be dust than ashes. But coasting through life – counting the minutes until the end - is resigning yourself to insignificance. And that will not do.
Ms. E. is finished with young Eric and the boys from Chicago. She smiles as she turns to me and I am reminded that coasting isn’t what we do. We aren’t good at it, not when together anyway. There is inspiration in her eyes. They say the same thing Jack London wrote so long ago: "The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time." Here, amongst the mostly dead, and on the good ship Bore-Me-To-Death, we will find a way to create life, to lose a few precious minutes without looking at the clock and counting them down. We will move forward and watch as most of those around us move in slow motion. And we will look beyond our own horizon and find a way to get there. We will continue to be the heroes in our own lives. For us, there can be no other way.
in category Life