Every November, I’m reminded of a few weeks that changed my life, that challenged my strength, that so scared me that I never would have thought I could survive it alone…
A great writer, David Deida, once said:
In any given moment, a man’s growth is optimized if he leans just beyond his edge, his capacity, his fear.
It’s one of the great mistakes in life that so many don’t do this; that they don’t continually test their will and ability to do what scares them; that they don’t, at all times, stand at what is the edge of their comfort zone, and the tip of their fears.
That they don’t do shit that scares them – truly, truly scares them.
The weird thing is…
…that as babies, toddlers, and young, young, children we do nothing but lean into our fears, right?
As new to the earth, and not aware of (or knowledgeable in) the social norms, rules, and laws to which most others willingly or are otherwise forced to abide, children constantly push the limit of what is acceptable behavior, and therefore comfortable situations.
They break the rules.
They have no problem freaking yelling in the middle of a quiet church, or laughing during a somber funeral. They show no hesitation approaching strangers, talking to strangers, or even pointing out their handicaps or disfigurements. They’re not embarrassed when they piss themselves, or eat their own crap even (not cool btw).
They just don’t care. Because they have no limits, no regrets, no fears.
They have no comfort zone, no boundaries which restrict them or their behavior.
They are always willing to do what horrifies most anyone else, because they haven’t yet been shown that they ought to fear it or should not do it. They haven’t yet been told that that kind of behavior is not “normal” or “acceptable”. They haven’t been conditioned socially in what is taboo and what is okay, what is forbidden and what is not, what will draw unwanted attention to them (and criticism of them) and what will not.
And so there is no limit to their behavior, no edge to their comfort zone. It is boundless.
But as these children mature, however, as they grow and learn and become one of “us” – an adult, a grown-up, a functioning member of the mass of society – their child-like bravery, and courage, and daring – their eagerness to experiment and their confidence in being the center of attention – disappears. Quickly.
It doesn’t happen naturally (as in inevitably) but socially - through their inclusion in a family within a culture, and a culture within a society, and a society that depends upon discipline and order to function in a predictable and productive manner. It happens bit-by-bit, day-by-day, until they become as the rest of us are: mostly “well behaved”, disciplined, conditioned.
And so every time they speak too loudly they’re told to be quiet.
Every time they speak out of turn they’re told to shut up.
Every time they can’t sit still, or can’t stop stop touching whatever or playing however, they’re told to behave. They’re told to speak when spoken to, to raise their hand and wait their turn, to walk a straight line with their fellow students, and to beware of strangers, and strange places, and all that seems abnormal or different than they’re taught to expect. They’re told that their natural, uninhibited actions are the wrong actions, and that their behavior, beliefs, and attitudes ought to resemble those of their elders, and thus…everyone else.
They’re told to mark their behavior by the reactions and judgments of others; to judge themselves by the beliefs and opinions of others. Subtly. Consciously or unconsciously.
Ultimately, they’re told to put the feelings and considerations of others before themselves. At great cost to themselves.
In these lessons of their childhood, their truest and freest self is thus impaired, and their once boundless levels of comfort slowly harden under the external pressure of family and friends, strangers and others.
Their comfort zone slowly begins to define itself under the weight of what they are told, shown, and threatened; under the immense social pressures of the world they’re born into.
And as these children become young adults…
…their comfort zones becomes set.
But…they are set at a level of general dis-comfort.
They are set so that their ease in the world remains just below their desires – so that they are always some degree of uneasy; always in some way conscious of their faults, and afraid of what they want or need; always careful not to unnecessarily intrude upon others’ time, or attention, or efforts.
Always conscious of themselves - that they’re “behaving”; that they’re acting as they’ve been taught; that they stay away from the edge that scares them, the comfort zone that’s been beaten into them by countless disciplines, rebukes, and strange looks.
And so they fear speaking up in class. And they fear talking to the cute boy or girl. And they fear being the one gossiped over or spoken of.
They fear following their dreams. And fear leaving those they know. And fear change at all.
They fear doing things alone. Of being truly a Self - an individual – in a world of people who are mostly the same, mostly alike, mostly clones.
They fear exerting themselves beyond what has, thus far, proven comfortable and safe; beyond what has typically produced a predictable and safe result.
And as they continue through life – through adolescence, and college, and their coming careers – that conditioning only continues, only worsens, only further solidifies their once boundless and uninhibited comfort zones – as the social pressures of their friends and peers, the growing burden of their responsibilities, and the general realization that they are not happy, not content, not whole only further cements their discomfort in the world, and their disbelief in their Self.
And in that dysfunction – in that mold the world has fit them to – they are now ready to be called adults; to take their place amongst the rest of us, and quietly accept the struggled existence that so many endure for the rest of their lives – afraid of doing anything that would improve them, or so much that would enlighten them; resigned to their crappy jobs or spouses, or boring and predictable lives, or whatever stagnation they have accepted.
Because all else is “uncomfortable”.
Their comfort zone is now hardened by life; solidified by the countless fears upon fears, and routines upon routines they were given or accepted.
But as young adults…
…become older adults, as they go from more autonomous and independent young men and women to family-oriented and responsible heads of households, their comfort zone – that percentage of life they are eager and willing to experience – begins slowly contracting from what they knew even as young adults.
Their comfort zones actually shrink.
Because routine has set in.
Because responsibilities now easily trump desires.
Because the consequences of their mistakes become magnified when others they love depend upon them.
Because they no longer believe themselves capable of so much, or free to do as much when their lives are so burdened by so many more expectations.
They think they haven’t the time or energy or ability to do what once seemed exciting, or what was once even normal. They now see so much of what they used to do, or used to want, as unbecoming of someone their age and maturity; as somehow the kind of thing that only young people would do or risk.
Not them, anymore.
As if fun were a “young thing.” As if adventure were a “young thing”. As if they couldn’t be that once more, or for the first time ever.
And so they no longer experiment with different foods, or music, or entertainment. And they can no longer envision themselves backpacking across Europe, or packing up and leaving, or changing their life overnight.
They stick to the same activities they’ve experienced a million times before, the same conversations, the same “joys” that aren’t so joyful anymore, the same people they see everyday, the same routines they have performed day in and day out for the last countless years.
Complete and total stagnation.
And as a result, their experience of life slowly dies as their life itself dies.
Because as their life passes – day-by-day – that amount of it they are willing to explore and excited to experience becomes less and less – as their comfort zone grows smaller and smaller, and as more and more they find themselves saying: “No. Not that. Not me…”
For the great majority of my life…
…I had always wanted to travel.
As a total history nerd (now you know, but don’t tell anyone), I had always dreamed of seeing ancient ruins, and visiting historic places. I had always dreamed of walking the same streets, and looking upon the same sights, and touching the same walls as those who lived and died in a time that existed to me only in books and my imagination.
Except that…well, that wasn’t quite the case at all.
Because though I had always wanted to see and experience those old and ancient places, I actually feared the travel itself. It scared me to death.
The airports. The new places. The lack of communication. The idea that I would be forced to (gasp!) talk to other people. All the countless little, little things that inevitably go with traveling scared me shitless then, when I was a broken and messed up dude.
Growing up my parents just couldn’t afford that many trips, and as a result I had graduated college without a passport even, having only been to a handful of places in my life, having never traveled anywhere without my mother and father leading the way and taking care of all those little, little things that so scared me.
But, if I was going to change myself – if I was to become the person I dreamed and imagined I could become, if I was going to at last begin living life – then I knew I would have to do what horrified me.
I knew I would have to do what scared me – regardless of the dread, and terror, and worry that flooded my head at even the thought of it.
I knew I would have to begin leaning just beyond my edge, my capacity, my fears.
And so one day last year, I sat my parents down and told them I had booked a trip…to the Middle East. To Egypt and Jordan. For 3 weeks.
And when they asked me why, my answer was simple: “Because it scares the shit out of me.”
And when my friends and whomever else I told said: “But why there of all places?” I said: “Cause why not?”
And most just didn’t understand, of course.
My family has their own routines, and the very extent of their travel imagination pretty much reaches Hawaii and no further.
My parents have been there several times, and this year my entire family went as well. And when they got back they already began discussing their return. And all-the-while leading up to the trip, they asked me over and over why I don’t join them.
But Hawaii just didn’t interest me. It didn’t scare me.
To my friends, too, my trip made no sense. They have their own routines as well, and at our age, the typical extent of our travel imagination reaches party destinations and no further.
Every year they make a summer trip to Las Vegas, and for some in the group it’s the only trip they’ll make all year. I joined them one summer a few years ago and had a sick time. But I’ve have declined ever since. And yet they go back year after year, doing the same thing every time, and they ask me again and again: “Why aren’t you coming this year?” and I tell them: “Because I’ve seen it now. I’ve experience it now. And there’s not much left for me there.”
It just doesn’t interest me anymore. It doesn’t scare me. It isn’t new.
And so I’ll never forget…
…the day I left; how I felt waking up that day.
Leading up to the trip, I was pretty damn calm about it, actually. Because although all the plans had been made and all the necessary stuff had been purchased, the trip remained, in my mind, something distant, something somewhat hypothetical even, in that it didn’t even seem real to me because it wasn’t now.
But it became “now” that day.
My family was in Florida for my brother’s graduation. And as I waited for my 4 o’clock taxi to the airport I called them to say goodbye. When we finished the phone call I remember the dread I felt; different than any feeling I had ever experienced before. I remember pacing around the house continually checking my phone, horrified that 4 o’clock drew closer and closer, and that if I got into that taxi I was starting a process I could not reverse and a journey that I could not stop; that if I got into that taxi there was no turning back; that I’d have to go through with it all.
You think I wasn’t afraid? You think I wasn’t terrified in every way?
You think that I didn’t imagine myself in the Middle East, 6,000 miles from home – alone – with no knowledge of the language, customs, or how to get myself through whatever might happen, and I didn’t get afraid?
Of course I was afraid.
I was terrified.
The furthest I’d ever been from home was Puerto Rico. The oldest place I’d ever been was Jamestown, Virginia. And, I mean…we’re Puerto Ricans from Virginia, so it’s not like any of that had felt all that strange or scary at all.
And yet there I was boarding a plane for a 6,000 mile trip to a place I knew nothing of, and from which there was no easy return, and no turning back.
But fear wasn’t reason enough to prevent me from doing what I wanted. It isn’t reason enough to not live your life.
I chose the Middle East because, though there are places all over the world I’d be thrilled to see and excited to visit – with old places and ancient things – this place was absolutely the furthest from what seemed normal, safe, comfortable to me. The culture. The language. Everything was so opposite of all I had known and experienced in my life until then.
I went because this place scared me beyond all other places, while still being within the realm of what was possible and not entirely reckless (safe, accommodating, etc).
And so Europe didn’t excite me. Asia didn’t thrill me. South America seemed boring.
I was going to the Middle East.
And for the rest of my life…
…no matter what may happen to me, or where I may go, I will never forget every detail that trip.
I’ll never forget stepping off the plane, and seeing desert as far as I could see.
I’ll never forget the smell of the air, which was as smokey and ancient as I had imagined it.
I’ll never forget the cab ride to my hotel; speeding in 5 lanes of traffic on 3 lanes of road; going through red lights as if they were simply road decorations – my driver honking and being honked at every 10 seconds, and it seeming so simply normal to him.
I’ll never forget that first night, staring down at Cairo from my balcony – amazed at the pace of the streets, and the livelihood of the people; awoken the next morning by the beautiful sound of prayer calls being broadcast around the city, from the mosques nearby.
I’ll never forget staring up at the Great Pyramids, or bribing guards to go into tombs, or nervously pretending to be a student to get a discount at the mummy section of the museum.
I’ll never forget staring at Pharaoh Ramses II’s face – hair and teeth and all – who would have known Moses it’s said, and been so feared and terrible in his day, laying peacefully there, dead for thousands of years.
I’ll never forget sunsets on the Nile; running my fingers through the waters that have sustained generations since mankind began.
I’ll never forget getting lost in the maze that was the city market; stopping with a British man in the most back-alley of tea shops, sipping tea while we sat and watched – of all things imaginable – WWE wrestling on a small TV, there on the other side of the world, with 4 or so elderly Egyptian men with whom we would have thought we shared so little.
I’ll never forget climbing Mount Sinai at sunset, and climbing so slowly down; nearly walking into every cliff face, so mesmerized was I by what I saw above me – more stars than I could spend 10 lifetimes counting, as if the atmosphere above no longer existed.
I’ll never forget the day long trip to take a 2 hour boat ride from Nuweiba, Egypt to Aqaba, Jordan. 8 hours on one side of the border – in a dirty, nasty ferry station. 20 minutes on the other – the difference between Egypt and Jordan.
I’ll never forget my trip to Burger King of all places that first night in Aqaba; 2 kids staring at my sleeve tattoo as if they were seeing a ghost.
I’ll never forget walking around a small shop in the ancient ruins at Petra, Jordan and being invited into the former cave home of one who used to actually live in that ancient city – the most gregarious and happy man I had ever met – and offered tea as we compared tattoos – his done by hand, pressed in needle by needle, as they were once always done.
I’ll never forget sleeping under the stars in the Jordanian desert; the cold chill of the air, and the utter serenity of life there, hours from anything that might be called civilization.
I’ll never forget dinner in Amman on my last night of the trip, looking through the open window at the streets below – which truly never settle, never quiet – and thinking how perfect that moment was; how much I’d miss the place.
I’ll never forget feeling so far from home, so alone in a sense, and yet feeling a strange comfort in looking up and knowing that everyone I knew and loved back home looked up at the very same sky as me.
But most of all, I’ll never forget the pride in myself I had felt – for taking that chance, for taking that trip, for doing and surviving so much that had scared me for so long.
All of which my fears would have robbed me of – had I been foolish enough to heed them.
Because none of it would have been possible if I was not willing to do what horrified me; to lean bit by bit, and step by step into my fears – beyond what was, to me, comfortable and safe.
None of it would have been possible if I was not willing to push beyond the very edges of my comfort zone, to live the life that I wanted, rather than the life that my fears would control.
Because when you live beyond your comfort, you gain confidence through experience.
You gain confidence through the knowledge that that which scares you is that which will improve you; that beyond what you think you can do is what you will be proud you have done; that if you can simply manage and survive this small thing, you will surely be able to manage and defeat the next small thing as well.
So live beyond your edge, your capacity, your fears.
You will not forget it.
And you will never regret it.
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