A friend of mine has dreamed of visiting Antarctica for as long as she can remember. When she became a mother, she dove head-first into mommy-land, leaving her own dreams to drown in the morass.
Several years ago, she met Robert Swan, the first explorer to reach both poles on foot, and he invited her to join his annual Antarctic expedition. Although she was happy about the invitation, her knee-jerk reaction was “No way”.
Robert Swan responded to her chain of excuses with “so what?” after “so what?” and eventually, she realized that all of her fears had been self-generated - In fact, her kids were old enough to be taken care of by her husband for a couple of weeks. In fact, she could arrange for someone to temporarily take over her duties at work. In fact, her poor eyesight would not impede her ability to have an enriching experience. She saw that her worries were immaterial and that she was responsible for living a meaningful life beyond her identity as a mother. And now she’s on her way to achieving her Antarctic Dream.
My friend’s story reminded me of an epiphany I had almost 2 years ago at a 10-day meditation retreat. As usual, the retreat was kicking my ass. For hours a day, I cursed the unbearable pain in my legs and back. Despite not really “doing anything”, I was exhausted, both physically and mentally.
Evening sessions were especially harrowing because I had spent most of my energy trying to sit still and focus on my breathing all day. One evening, a few minutes into sitting, I felt my mind wandering away, and I was too tired to stop it. But this time, rather than fantasizing about sex or sailing or an orgy on a sailboat, my mind progressed in a productive direction. I started thinking about a recent kitchen-table conversation with my parents. Thinking about my younger brother, who had just finished his first semester in college, they had asked me if I would make different academic choices if I could do it all over again.
I pondered for a minute and replied that I would have studied biology or zoology, and then gone to grad school and eventually become a field biologist. I told them I believed that, like my friends who pursued PhDs to study topics about which they are passionate, I would have done well in academia. But that was all hypothetical, I remarked. Now I had to focus on how to develop my future career – nature conservation, rule of law, China. I still hadn’t figured out where that would take me.
As my mind fluttered toward the memory of that conversation, it kept asking me “why not?” Why not apply to grad school? Why not shoot for academia? Why not become a field biologist? Did it matter that I would be a bit older than my classmates? No. Would I have to worry about making money during grad school? No. Was I in a hurry to buy a house? No. Was I in a hurry to retire? No. Was I in a hurry to settle down in one place? No. So why not? I realized that the only thing holding me back was my worry that my parents, friends, classmates, and society in general would think that I was changing careers too late in the game, that I would fall behind, never catch up, and ultimately die a huge loser. As my mind inexorably repeated the mantra of the night (“why not?”) I saw that my worry was immaterial.
Few people would judge me badly for going to grad school, and why should I care about those who did? I’d be doing what I wanted to do since I was a kid, I’d be enjoying it, and I’d be contributing to society.
How else should I be spending my time on earth?
Before I came to China, I practiced law in Silicon Valley for a few years. The only decoration in my office was this poster:
Though the last three years in China have discouraged me, hardened me, sickened me, and left me a jaded shell of my former self, I am still proud to be an idiot.