A life of thriving requires us to choose between the illusion of safety and the ultimate safety.
Let me tell you a story about walking in the direction that seemed more immediately uncomfortable. It wasn’t an easy choice. But I’m a logical girl, and choosing life is always a smart call.
Many years ago, I went hiking with a long-haired poetic boyfriend, somewhere in the wilds of Oregon. We scampered along the trail for hours, in the cool green of the forest. Then, we practically fell to our knees and sang the gospel upon seeing the Pacific Ocean at the end of the trail.
Giddy as we were, we ignored the time. The sun gradually evaporated from the sky. This wasn’t good. It was a time of year that turned very cold once the sun had set.
Just like that, we realized we were in danger.
We’d both dressed lightly, in shorts and T-shirts. We hadn’t intended to hike this far. We had no camping supplies, jackets, pants or milk chocolate, so, really, I couldn’t see how we were going to survive. The moment we saw that draining sun, we started hightailing it on the trail back to the car.
The light grew dimmer. We walked faster. My lawyer brain kicked in, seeing possible liabilities everywhere, which is oh-so-helpful when your heart is already pounding so fast you know the vultures are taking dibs on your body and choosing a wine.
Then halfway out of the forest, we heard an unusual knocking noise. A tribe of birds squawked and fluttered away. They left a hollowness in their wake. Something didn’t feel right. Something didn’t feel right at all.
A unwanted companion
The creepy, unsettling noise continued. Type A to the core, I power-walked ahead and peered into the trees. I saw darkness behind them, almost a blackness. Then in the hideous slow motion of terror, I realized that the darkness wasn’t some nice woodsy, amorphous darkness, but rather a shape peering at me, the shape of a bear.
I instinctively walked backward on the trail, cautiously, like a cartoon character. Then I ran farther back until I was at a distance where I could imagine breathing. Kir followed me, wondering what was going on. “It’s a bear,” I said to him, terror and adrenaline lighting up my senses. “It’s a goddamn bear.”
Then our negotiations began. We started realizing the horrible Zen predicament of it all.
We had to walk back past the bear to get out of the woods.
We had to walk in the direction of our fears.
The direction of our fears was also the direction of our freedom.
Because it just so happened, as it always seems to, that the direction of our fears was also the direction of our freedom. If we walked the other way, nightfall would set in, bringing its wet ocean breath of cold and death by hypothermia. We were already beginning to shiver.
I imagined being mauled. Hypothermia sounded nice, just going numb forever. I really wanted to avoid that bear. But then if we avoided that scenario, we were facing the guarantee of a slow, insidious death.
A symbolic choice
Believe me, the symbolic choice here wasn’t lost on me. At the time, I’d only recently left my 900-hour-a-week legal career to dare my “crazy” dreams of becoming a writer.
I’d left the “safe” position because I knew it was numbing and annihilating my heart minute by minute. The comfort of that paycheck and validation was seducing me into a stupor in which I abandoned my will and lapsed into a menacing indifference about my own life. It was the hypothermia of having my heart go cold.
But in that scenario, I’d decided to fight to save my own life. I chose the terror of a creative, unpredictable, alive life. I faced the immediate risk of not knowing how things would work out. I felt exposed and naked.
Yet I also knew that at least now I possessed the chance of something working out. My job had been “safe” in cliché worldly terms. But I knew I had not one shred of hope of living my True Life while there. I was unequivocally dying every single day. It wasn’t imminent, savage death. But it was certain death.
So, yeah, the fact that I’m writing this is a spoiler alert. I lived. We walked by the bear, slowly, praying silently to ourselves and to the God you pull out of your back pocket when you hope there’s a God and you hope he texts. We surrendered to the vulnerability of our desires and the purity of our instincts. Then we ran like hell and, if memory serves, I kissed that rental car’s thin tin sides.
That night we ate at a local diner and I told the waitress about the bear and how happy I was to be alive. I have no doubt I sounded like someone who had just seen a UFO. She gave us french fries on the house. I’ve never tasted better french fries. I was alive—and everything tasted alive to me.
I suggest you walk by your bear.