I used to drive my parents and my teachers crazy with impossible-to-answer questions that I wouldn’t leave alone. But if they thought I was annoying them, they had no idea what I was doing to myself. Because the same questions — and much worse — were constantly spinning through my young and ignorant noggin. I mean, almost nothing about life has ever made sense to me. I’ve devoted the majority of the last thirty or so years puzzling for answers, and all I’ve come up with are even more vexing questions.
Many of the questions that really used to bug me as a kid centered around the concept of death and the afterlife. I hit an age around ten or eleven where I became obsessed with — and mortified by — the idea of dying. I would lie in my bed at night and be so scared of going to sleep. I thought I’d never wake up again. I tried to imagine what death would be like if there was no afterlife, and I saw it as this complete blackness that I couldn’t even see! I was scared stiff. Literally. Lying motionless, clutching my sheets, staring at the ceiling, keeping that encroaching darkness at bay.
I wrote dismal poetry for years because of this. I thought I was alone in these nightly terrors until I saw What About Bob, where the son has the same questions and fears, and this was extremely and gratifyingly normalizing. The terror has since gone away, but all the questions linger. Among them is this question: If there is an afterlife, which version of us persists forever?
Because it occurred to me early in life that we aren’t the same person day to day, much less year to year or decade to decade. I think it was watching my grandfather succomb to Alzheimer’s that clued me in. He became a different person right before our eyes. And even as a very young tyke, I was reading about people like Phineas Gage, who suffered a massive brain trauma and saw his personality change overnight. And what about the young who die before they grow into their adult personalities? Or the infants who never say a word or have a coherent thought before some childhood disease or birthing complication claims them? Are we the average of all our selves? Is the version of “us” that we leave behind our prime one, or the fragile form we often inhabit last?
I had a friend, Anna, whose death shakes me to this very day. She was a senior in high school when she died in a car accident. I was with Anna earlier that day, at the beach, and she was alive, smiling, brilliant, beautiful, with a world of possibilities before her. I’m still very close with her mom, and we talk about Anna all the time. She’s always with us in spirit. And she’s frozen in time at very close to the apex of her potential. She missed out on all that she would accomplish in life, and the family she might’ve had, and the journey she would’ve gone on, but she was the age and inquisitiveness and brightness that I think we tend to see ourselves locked in if life were to continue on forever.
At the same time Anna died, I watched my grandfather wither, and I wondered which version of him was the real him. At seventeen years of age, we’re trying desperately to find ourselves. Little do we know at that age — but the challenge is never resolved. Our personalities, ambitions, peer groups, careers, and so much more are always on the move. And as we try to locate ourselves in some sort of cartesian grid, now we have a fourth axis on which we slide: The fourth dimension of time.
It’s not just the global human question of What are we? or the more personal and intimate question of Who are we? or the cosmic query Why are we? it’s also the baffling concept of When are we?
For many reading this, I am thought of as an author. But I don’t feel like an author. Because that’s such a new part of my life. I’ve been writing for just over five years. I’ve been doing much else for a lot longer than that. Any question of who I am relies on when I am. It also relies on when the people in your life get to know you, and in what context. This is why the bond we have with our family is so unique: they know many of our selves. It’s also the magic of long term relationships, because we get to share quite a few of our selves with the same person, and we get to know quite a few of their selves.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I prepare to move back aboard a boat and live on the sea. Because that is largely who I am. It might not be the person this blog has materialized around, but it’s the person who started this blog. I’ve been a vagabond and a dilettante for most of my life. Amber and I often say that we can do one thing or be in one place for a maximum of five years. Even that is a stretch. Some might see this as a character flaw; I just know it as part of who I am. I want to experience much in life. I think it all goes back to that early fear of death. I haven’t lost that fear so much as coped with it by choosing to live what I consider fully.
Of course, everyone has a different opinion of what it means to live a full life. These are subjective measures. Personally, I would argue that someone who commits to healing others, as Amber has, or teaching others, as my mom did, or growing crops, as my father did, live a fuller and more meaningful life than I ever will. My life has been about the fear of sitting still. Perhaps that’s a bad thing. I would hate to inspire more of it, but I will say to any who dream of breaking out of their routines but aren’t sure how or when the time is right: The time is always right.
It doesn’t have to be anything as drastic as living on a boat, something I first chose to do when I was twenty years old. It might be simply to start exercising more. Or to write that novel you’ve always dreamed of. Or to take that job opportunity. Or to simply quit the job that makes you miserable and move to another state, not scared of the unknown but eager for new opportunities. My brother did this, and it was petrifying to watch, and now he’s happier than he’s ever been. My sister continues to amaze me with her bold life choices and her willingness to take big chances. It’s the secret to not having regrets. And the more we move, the more we might get confused by When we are. And I think this confusion can be a very good thing.
The worst part of the illusion of permanence of self is that it traps us into thinking we’re destined to be a certain way. The memory of our former selves can be ruinous. Not because there was anything wrong with our former selves, but because that memory masquerades as some rigid reality, when it was more of a flowing illusion. Self-improvement and personal growth are made more difficult when we’re resigned to being who we recall. And it might be a case of fibbing to ourselves, but there’s something advantageous to remembering the best parts of our pasts and aiming to emulate that, and realizing that the worst parts of our pasts are things we can strive to change. That wasn’t who we are. It was just one of many when we were.
And how do we know who we can be if we don’t sample much of what life has to offer? Again, this might mean nothing more than taking a wide variety of college courses with our minds open to what our major might be. Or skipping spring break and spending that week volunteering in a different state. Or getting our of our homes on the weekends and being a tourists somewhere an hour’s drive away. Or just walking the dog a direction we never go, giving both our noses something new to sniff. It can be anything. A return to a former passion or a striving for a new one.
As I sit here in South Africa, working on the boat that will be my future home, there’s a mix of both: A return to a former way of life, but also an urge to see beyond the horizon. The people who have known me the longest and know me best are less surprised about me moving on board a boat than I imagine they were about me living on land for so long. Those who got to know me through my writing think I’m doing something crazy. I thought the last five years of my life was the crazy bit. It’ll be interesting to see what the combination looks like, as I plan to keep on writing.
I can also remember friends and family members always commenting on how crazy they thought my life was, taking off on boats to distant islands, or driving across the country, or working some weird job, and for a while there I thought that maybe I was just lucky to have these opportunities come to me. But when I looked more closely, I saw wild and varied opportunities were there for most people, but it just felt safer and easier for them to decline. Not me. I always said “yes.” To just about anything.
This doesn’t make me brave, by the way. I’m a chickenshit. I’m a coward. I’m terrified of lost opportunities. I’m terrified of a life squandered. I quake with the thought of routines, where day piles upon day until they are all remembered as a single average of themselves, none of them standing out, so that our seventy years on Earth feels more like some vague twenty four hours. This is my fear. It is not courage. I don’t jump off cliffs because the fall is nothing to me; I jump because I feel an encroaching flame at my back. I jump, because to stay feels like certain death.
Here’s a picture of my friend Douglas jumping off a literal cliff. We were on a little island in the middle of nowhere, and we both got there by leaving our jobs in an instant when a boat passed through town on the way to China. We were young, without the families we have now, but we were both moving forward in our careers with opportunities just ahead, opportunities that were created by and promised us more routine. It was crazy to jump on this boat. No pay. No certain future. A very difficult decision. We never made it to China, as a dozen things went wrong along the way. Instead, we ended up marooned in paradise, where we enjoyed what remains some of the best weeks of our short lives, and we wouldn’t change a thing. I’m glad we jumped. And I’m glad we didn’t stay. A fire crackles at my back, and I move, terrified, leaping, plummeting, with a smile on my face.