Sometimes I flirt with crossing a line on this blog, a line that puts this blog squarely into the motivational genre; a genre I don’t generally care for. So you’ve been warned – this isn’t about photography, but life (and what is photography about if not life?)
Last year I decided to make a change in my life. I bought a truck, sold my stuff, gave up my condo and a fixed address and set out on an adventure that’s still barely two months old. My plan was to spend the rest of 2011 traveling North America when I wasn’t photographing or teaching internationally elsewhere. And then I started the journey itself and things began to change. I began to like this lifestyle more than I thought. I miss having a home less than I expected. I had more time with people than I imagined. I found myself settling into the rhythms of nomadism and I started to dream bigger and allow myself a few more “What Ifs”
And then my buddy Zack Arias hosted a meet-up event at his studio in Atlanta and that night was magical for me. I met some amazing people, including Zack, face to face for the first time. And Zack, if you don’t know him, is the kind of guy with no shortage of opinions on things. One of those opinions that evening was that I should speak to the group, and say “something inspiring” or something. I declined. He insisted and told me that “in one beer, you’re on!” I figured I could make my beer last all evening and avoid speaking entirely, until he made it clear I was on when his beer was done, not mine, and I got the feeling that wasn’t going to take long.
Not sure what to say, I told the story of the last few months and the growing awareness of the brevity of life that had led me here. And the more I talked (a barely coherent mix of spontaneous babbling and preaching) the more it galvanized something in my own mind; a feeling that I’d passed a point of no return. I have written before that life is short, but it’s becoming more than a passing feel-good idea; it’s becoming the place from which I make my biggest decisions. I am moved more than ever by the awareness of the brevity of life and that the fulfillment of our dreams and longings aren’t simply things that accidentally happen to us. Life is complicated and at times feels more like something that happens to us than something we make happen, I know, but people live extraordinary lives because they overcome those circumstances and choose to do the things they dream about.
But too many people don’t listen to their dreams at all. Or they listen but allow the dreams themselves to get drowned out by the desire to fill their homes with stuff or even just to play it safe, or – and this is more likely – they listen to their fears.
The culture we live in would rather watch great stories on movie screens than live them. Why? I think it’s fear of risk. The bigger the risk the greater the potential reward but also the greater the potential for “Oh God, Oh God, we’re all going to die!” or something similar. Fear is the loudest voice in many of our lives. Fear of rejection leads us to buy some crazy stuff, as well as keep our voice down when it should be loudly telling others “I love you.” Fear of the unknown keeps us close to home. Fear of fear keeps us in therapy. So we’d rather watch Braveheart and imagine ourselves with that kind of courage than risk finding out for ourselves if we have it. Makes sense. Afterall, Braveheart gets horribly disemboweled at the end. But while our hearts swell with resonance as William Wallace says “All men die but not all men really live,” we wash it away with popcorn and sodas and go back to sleep. That very quote, or the sentiment it reflects, points to two things for me, and these two things make it easier to listen to something other than the fear.
1. All we have is now. I’ve said it before: none of us lives forever. The time to make a change is now. You may not be able to pack the house and go on an adventure right now, but you can put yourself on a path to doing it. Don’t wait until you’re 65 and retired. You might not be around or in good health. The time is now. Don’t be the one breathing his last breath wishing he’d gotten around to the things that were most important. Live with all the passion and energy you’ve got now. Now is all you have. Each moment matters.
2. Risk is inevitable. We all risk, day in and day out. You fall in love at first sight with someone amazing and you’ve two choices, both involving risk. You can act on it and risk rejection, or you can sit on it, do nothing, and risk losing what might be the best thing you might ever experience. Sure, rejection’s painful (but not certain), but it’s nothing compared to the life-long regret of letting her slip away (absolutely certain). You have a dream and the only way to get at it is to make some changes, live sparsely, and pull your kids out of school for a year. You can do it, and risk failure (not as likely as it seems) or play it safe and let the dreams remain un-lived (absolutely certain).Life is about risk. The best stories hinge on it. But even those risks aren’t as big as they seem. It’s funny how we often prefer to listen to fears and avoid risks that are only potentially painful, and in so doing sacrifice our dreams – a loss that is most certainly painful.
It could be that the last thing you want to hear is another sermon. I get it. None of this stuff is easy. There were moments of nerves, and even overwhelming fear, as I was staging to give up so-called normal life. It’s taken some painful decisions and course-corrections over the last few years to get to this place. It’s taken falling down and getting back up. One day my diabetes may prevent me from pursuing these adventures. All the more reason to take a deep breath and do it now. I had planned to go back to Vancouver at the end of this year – it was the “sensible” decision. Instead I am looking into what it will take to come back to Europe and live nomadically here for a year – to spend time on the British Isles and Scandanavia before taking the boat to Iceland for the summer, then to drive to Istanbul or Marrakech or Ulaan Bator.
All those many words to say: don’t settle. Your dreams will be different than mine, but the regret for not living them will be the same. Life is short. Choose your risk intentionally, don’t try to avoid it. Live a great story; don’t settle for merely watching them. Whatever got stirred in you when I wrote the first blog post in the Life is Short category, I hope you’re moving towards it. Because those dreams are part of what it means to live life to the fullest.