Into The Void: On the Nature of Risk and Achieving Full Potential

I awoke next to my brother under a semi trailer after a long night of wind and rain. It was the truck backing into the trailer and reconnecting that caused me to start, half stumbling and drowsy with hunger from missing meals for 2 days. Straightening out my matted hair as I gathered my few belongings I smiled.

“ So this is what freedom feels like.” I said to myself. Shaking from adrenaline. Beautiful, unadulterated, stray dog freedom.

Hunger in the belly, listless wandering, lost in the sea of the American plains, Oklahoma or some such dreary and god forsaken place. I was 20 years old, being imbued with the knowledge of the way of life by hardship, want, and will. There was a warm basement waiting for me in my father’s house. A life of ease and mediocrity, video games, working at a gas station, irresponsibility. This  could all be mine with a simple phone call and a bus ticket.

I began asking myself why I was doing what I was doing. I left my hometown with nothing. My brother and I picked a date to leave and when the date came we stepped over the threshold never to return or be dependent upon anyone but ourselves.  I remember an encounter with a man who picked us up on the road. He posed a question.

“ Don’t you want to live a comfortable life?” He inquired. He remarked on our intelligence and said, “ You boys should be in college!”

My reply was simple. “ I have no desire to live a life of comfort if I have no purpose.”

The reason why I left my hometown in the manner that I did was because I was searching for something more. A deeper driving purpose behind my life. In our collective past there have always been coming of age ceremonies where a boy sets out into the unknown, into danger, but through will and determination overcomes the hardship presented him. It is through this process that he earns the social right to assert his manhood. It was this that I was seeking. It was this that I got.

Be on the watch. The gods will offer you chances. True opportunities are those that we must risk everything for. Prior to setting out I was told tales of horrible crimes committed against those who were foolish enough to set out on the road and thumb it. I knew I should pay these stories no heed. The right of passage was worth the risk.

Many of the experiences I had on the road informed my paradigm and affect me deeply to this day.

I went to church with what we would later find out were members of a cult. The preacher got up and began ranting about the music in the rocks. “ William Branham was the second coming of Elijah!” he screamed through foam and missing teeth. Gesticulating and waving his arms over the heads of the members of his church. A shack I should say. Built of plywood and held together by a few secondhand nails. Little more than a chicken coop in the middle of the American plains.

We rode with a former catholic priest turned trucker. “ The world is a painting, look at the sky!” He exclaimed all the while chain smoking cheap cigarettes that burned my eyes and gave me a headache.

The final and most important was while thumbing it through Northern California during the forest fires of 2008. My brother and I lay down in a field amidst the smoke. We were woken up by a rushing cacophony in the close distance. A constant rushing sound of wind and destructive force. We both stood up and began to approach the noise slowly. It got louder and louder until we could finally see the cause of the commotion. A freight train was barreling through the night not 10 feet from where we stood. The smoke barreled in circles from the force of 1 million pounds hurtling along at breakneck speed. It makes the hair stand on end, the ears deaf, and the mind gape. To touch the divine in symbol. We stood in awe until it was fully past.

It was these small rewards, stories from life well lived and risks taken, that were worth the uncertainty, hardship, and hunger. Resolve and grit are character traits that can only be birthed by this triumvirate.

In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

The character traits I earned when I  walked out of my hometown are still serving me well to this day. After my first adventure I was blessed to see sunrises on four different continents, feel the wind chill my face in places that are higher than the highest elevations in the lower 48, and hear the languages of dozens of disparate people groups. My focus became walking vast distances across foreign mountain ranges, meeting people who lived in such seclusion that none spoke english, subsisting on cuisines that have never known bread or pasta.

Ultimately, I strove to take action to leave where I was comfortable and place myself in positions where I had to be creative and improvise to make headway. As humans, we take the raw material that is presented to us and we form it by whatever means we have at our disposal to reach our end goals. The world is an open opportunity. We simply have to reach out and take action to seize the chances presented us.

These reminiscences take my mind back a decade and force me to contemplate the causes of the actions I took. An undeniable call shook me to action. No opportunity was present before me in my hometown.  As I get older it is clear that everyone lives the story they want to live by sacrifice or they live the story they don’t want to live by denial. Cleanthes states, “The fates lead the willing but drag the unwilling”.

Joseph Campbell wrote a book titled, “ The Hero With a Thousand Faces”. In it he expands upon the theories of Carl Gustav Jung and Jung’s theory of the mythological archetypes.

Campbell espouses that the myths of our primitive ancestors were not just fantastical stories that have no bearing on reality but are in fact metaphors for living in constant connection with the collective unconscious. By measuring our personal progress in life against these metaphors, we can understand the progress we are making upon fated pathways.

Only by taking responsibility for our personal choices and playing the hand that life has dealt us can we begin to understand the meaning of our lives on a personal level. Without risk there can be no boon to be had.

Following the path is difficult. It is fraught with hardship and struggle. There were times that I starved for days on end, days that I slept in the rain, on park benches. Days that I traded cigarettes with the homeless for information about a new and foreign city. Days of ashes.

I have experienced grief. I have experienced pain. There is a deep seated grief that never goes away. Knowledge of one’s own mortality and the certainty of death.

It takes bravery to walk this path. The beauty that is held out in front of us by life is to take potential and by whittling and chiseling ourselves we turn that potential into reality. We determine the proportion of our own meaning by the proportion of risk we are willing to take to realize the deepest longings of our spirits. In this way we shape the world around us for the better. We fulfill our purpose through personal responsibility and actionary force. There is no other way.

What is it that drives you? What is it that you truly desire? What ripples do you want to set down in history? What trees do you want to plant that you will never see?

Seek these things above all else. The worst that can happen is that you die in the process.