The day before Brian and I left on our latest journey (7 months and 30,000+ miles around the U.S.) I went for a run. I was feeling the way I normally feel before setting out on a new and untested adventure: Excited and nervous as hell.
As I was running I was thinking about the past few years of my life, how one adventure had readied me for the next, how each lesson learned along the way had opened me up to learn another. As I ran a thought beat through my head in time with the slow rhythm of my feet, a thought that summed up the past few years of my life: You have to be brave enough to walk away from the thing that isn’t right for you, even if you aren’t quite sure what the right thing for you is.
When I got back from my run I shared the thought on Facebook:
The past few years have taught me that if you can be brave enough to leave behind what doesn’t work for you you get to spend your life falling into yourself. If you can leave behind the pieces of who you aren’t you get to build a life that expresses who you are. Even if you aren’t quite sure what you are doing, or how to keep it going, it all keeps working out. Somehow. Maybe it’s a miracle. Maybe it’s reward for having faith in it all.
A few months ago Brian and I traveled back through Ohio to attend my little sister’s graduation. Oh man, how graduations make me weepy. The march to Pomp and Circumstance and the cap toss and all of that potential, thousands of young people right on the edge of a new beginning.
The commencement speaker was Tebelelo Mazile Seretse who is the Ambassador of the Republic of Botswana to the United States. As a traveler, I was enthralled listening to stories about her country. Afterwards, I heard complaints that her speech had too little to do with graduation and too much to do with Botswana.
But I understood what she was doing. She was trying to tell the graduates that a whole world exists outside of their own experience in Cincinnati. It’s a lesson that few of them had probably had the chance to learn yet, sheltered as they were, as I used to be, in their Midwestern life. She was imploring them: Go. Live. See the world and leave your mark on it. And as she wrapped up her time at the podium she asked a beautiful question. “Some people make life their music and they sing it,” she said. “What will you choose?”
When I was younger I was intrigued by the people I’d meet who would use the phrase, In another life I was… when offering a piece of their personal history. In another life I was an electrician. In another life I sailed the pacific with my dog. In another life I was a day trader in New York City. In another life I studied rocks.
I suppose if you live long enough these phases of life happen on their own. We grow up and leave things behind. We turn left and then, unhappy with the direction, we decide to turn right instead. Or maybe we sit down and wail for awhile. Or maybe we leap off the cliff. But when I was younger the notion that life could be so complex and filled with change that people could have multiple identities or careers felt so foreign to the story I was used to hearing.
On that spring morning back in April I looked down at the 3,000 kids graduating (with another 3,000 set to graduate in the afternoon) and I thought about the message that I would share if I was in Tebelelo Mazile Seretse’s shoes. I decided my message would be this: That I hope they find within them the courage to leave behind the things that aren’t right for them. I hope they try it all, that they leave no rock unturned. I hope they are true to themselves but I hope they know that, when they find themselves in a place that is no longer true, that the act of walking away is not failure or weakness or giving up but an enormous act of bravery.
I sat in the bleachers, so high up that the graduating class were a mass of black robes and nervous energy, an anthill of anticipation. Their names rang out in a chorus as they marched across the stage. I watched and I wished that one day when they look back on the story of their lives they are able to say, as many times as they need to, “In another life I was…”