When I began riding a motorcycle at age 63, my friends asked, “Are you totally nuts?!” and complete strangers I met while on my bike eyed my graying hair, shook their heads when I said I’d just begun riding, and told me crash stories. But when I subsequently purchased a dirt bike at age 65, my friends just rolled their eyes. Most have gotten used to the idea that I love something they wouldn’t dream of doing. And some even think that’s pretty cool.
I have always been an independent wanderer. My mom says my first full sentence was “Do by my lone!” spoken belligerently. And the wandering began at Age 2, when I intentionally left a protected playground behind a barracks at Fort Lewis, Washington, where my father was stationed during the Korean War, and ventured to the front of the building along a busy street that my mother had explicitly declared off limits. I knew I was being naughty but disobedience wasn’t the point. Whatever it ended up costing me, I just had to see what was on the other side!
But youthful intrepidness fades if not nourished and I grew up with a fearful father who repeatedly said “No” to his own passions. Locked into that fearfulness, he began saying “No” to mine early in my adolescence and dictated a “safe” future for me by requiring that I train for a profession I ultimately despised…just as he did the profession he had trained for at his father’s insistence. By the time I graduated college with a degree in Nursing, I was playing it safe most of the time…except for the occasional joyful day when I’d point my car in a direction I’d never explored and try to get lost.
Today I remember my father as a gifted man who was always sad and angry, and I feel compassion. But for years I blamed him for the fact that I was also unhappy…and pissed off…and empty, without dreams or passion. I had forgotten who I am. That’s what Fear does to us! It obscures our knowledge of what lies within us. It causes us to point an accusing finger at others. It robs us of joy!
My father redeemed himself while on his deathbed, though I doubt he ever guessed that he was changing my life as he told me, repeatedly, two stories of his own. I had heard them many times, so I didn’t listen very carefully until I noticed that, day after day as I cared for his failing body, he told them always together. One story was a remembrance of piloting a small plane for the first time and landing it so skillfully that the flight instructor asked how long he had been flying. “Twenty minutes,” was his response. Clearly, flying was something he was born to do…but he never allowed himself to become the commercial pilot we all knew he longed to be. The second story was a snapshot of a moment when, during a party hosted by his commanding officer at Fort Lewis, he was invited to dance and had to decline. I can still hear its wistful last line, “I wish I had learned to dance.” When I finally listened to Dad attentively, I heard these stories as accounts of joy lost to fear, as his grief for a life lived without soaring or swirling. And I vowed that my final stories would ring with celebration, not regret.
But Joy isn’t free. I had to face fears that had immobilized me for decades. I had to stop looking for my passion in the experiences of others, ask myself what truly made me happy, then follow the scary answers offered by my heart. I had to relinquish my need to control everything in order to feel safe. Perhaps you know just how difficult such steps are to take.
A life rich with joy is necessarily lived, I believe, with the understanding that bliss cannot be separated from the potential for harm. Joy has a price. We pay it by risking the inevitable dangers inherent to our passion, having come to terms with the reality that we may not always beat them. Dreamers become Adventurers the moment they begin refusing to let Fear stop them.