By Ethan Maurice | July 22nd, 2019
Last week, I was talking on the phone with my brother. Discussing selling points for a book proposal I’m working on, he told me that whenever he describes me to someone I’ve never met he tells them:
“He does what he wants with his life and somehow seems to not feel the pressure that everyone else does to do certain things.”
Self-awareness is difficult. I never really thought of myself in such a way. My ego held onto the compliment like a pretty pebble from a stream, taking it from my figurative pocket and turning it over and over in my hand for it’s smooth, pleasant feel.
I do feel a lot less pressure to do “certain things” than I used to and suspect most people do. In reflecting upon it, I began to recall other instances of this curiosity. Last summer, someone who had just earned his private pilot’s license and reads my blog offered to pick me up at a nearby airport and take my flying. We’d landed in Bozeman, Montana for lunch and sat down across from each other in a booth at KFC. He looked at me, took a deep breath, and said:
“Dude, I’m sure you get this a lot, but I don’t get it and I have to ask: How do you just do what you want? I mean, aren’t you concerned about your future?”
It’s funny, I don’t have to explain what those concerns are for you to know exactly what he was talking about. We’re all well aware of the cultural script: a successful career, marriage, nice car, big house, fancy things, saving for retirement, etc.
Most people are in the direct pursuit of those cultural checkpoints, those symbols of success, and are not exactly taking the scenic route to get them. Yet, there’s Ethan out there mucking around! Pursuing curiosities, exploring nooks of the world months at a time, working for money but a small fraction of the year.
It’s curious to look back at. What happened? How’d I go from a top of the class Biomedical Science undergrad with his sights set on medical school (read: in hot pursuit of the cultural definition of success), to someone who appears impervious to the pressure that spurs everyone else along in life?
How did I learn to float against the tide?
It began with a radical shift in my definition of success on a cross-country bicycle ride. A month and a half of pedaling had passed since my brother and I left the Atlantic. An internal change was afoot. I was falling in love with free-floating existence and questioning the rigid path through life I planned to take that felt as if I could project forward as long as I lived.
Beyond cultural influence on the quiet backroads of America, I was beginning to get in touch with this curious, internal sense of self. And it kept whispering of dissent — of leaving the logically best path for something unknown, a movement towards something yet to be discovered. On those long days in the saddle, I’d confer with that inner voice. I’d even scheme with it sometimes. But I also felt I didn’t have the guts to follow it. When I returned home once again felt the cultural pressure, I figured I’d cave and continue on the path towards a safe, “successful” life of medicine.
At dusk on July 12th, 2013 my brother and I were stealth camping (secretly pitching a tent somewhere you’re not supposed to) a hundred yards off the highway in the woods north of the town of West Yellowstone. And a man appeared. Looking back, it seems almost a dream, like he might not have been real, but rather a culmination of all that I secretly ever wanted to be and I might have just imagined him. But he was real, my brother saw him too.
He was from New Zealand, a kiwi. A fit, ex-collegiate math professor, mid-thirties perhaps, that somehow pulled off a sophisticated look with dreadlocks. I wandered over to say hello as he staked his tent a minute’s walk from ours. He’d lived in dozens of countries, designed anti-piracy systems for cruise ships around Africa, taught teachers of infrastructure in the rapidly developing cities of India the last six years, and was on a two-year walkabout before heading up to Canada to be a bartender in the polar north for a while. He’d just spent the last two weeks wandering around Yellowstone on foot with a backpack with no permits, pass, or anything. He’d been hitching rides and camping out in the spacious backcountry.
He was living the life I dreamed to live but felt was impossibly unrealistic.
After a while, he deliberately turned the conversation to me: What was I doing out here riding a bicycle across the United States? Why? What did I plan to do with my life? I told him all about our ride, the sense of adventure and freedom and all that wonderful jazz.
And then that I planned to go to medical school.
His sentiment changed when I said the words: “medical school.” He told me the story of his best friend’s dad, who had recently died of cancer — a general practitioner of medicine who on his deathbed told him that he’d wasted his life living it for success in the eyes of others, and urged him to keep living the way he was living. He asked:
“If you wanted to continue having these sorts of adventures, to be out in the world, to explore and learn, why choose such a focused, demanding career?”
I was stunned.
I mean, what was going on here? This guy who was basically my spirit avatar had just appeared in the woods, proving his existence, and then told me my counter-story, the story of my life lived by society’s definition of success instead of my own. I wholeheartedly knew the doctor in his story was the future me if I continued on that path.
I can’t remember what I said, but I was reeling and attempted to cordially end our conversation. I walked back over to my brother and our little camp feeling like I’d seen a ghost. Five minutes later, he came over and apologized for being so direct and explained that he didn’t know what was best for anyone else. I thanked him, told him he’d hit the nail on the head, and uttered aloud the message my inner voice whispered day after day in the saddle.
Night fell and he walked back towards town to meet an old friend. We had to get on the road early the next morning. I never saw him again. I don’t even know his name.
That’s a wild story, but the point is simple: that night, I fully grasped that the cultural definition of success was not mine and that I must come to my own conclusions. That what seems right for me is more important than what I have been told is right. That night, a kiwi in the woods north of West Yellowstone gave me the gift of gifts: personal sovereignty. I still have a great sense for cultural pressures and just like everyone else, feel the fear that guides, but I simply no longer believe it will take me where I want to go.
That’s probably half of it. I think another big part of my seeming ability to float against the tide is the fact that I’m very aware of the temporary nature of life — that everything we see and do and create and achieve and share are but sandcastles on the beach of time.
Many people find the transitory nature of life scary and saddening and try to live as far away from that truth as possible. But thanks to nearly dying from a mosquito bite induced stroke at sixteen, I’ve had the opportunity to grapple with mortality a whole lot. I discovered the paradoxically powerful effect of death on life.
It also turns out that I’m not the first person to think remembering that you are going to die is a good idea. From Christians to Buddhists to Stoics, so many people who’ve come and passed actively contemplated mortality. Today, I carry a coin around in my pocket with a skull and the Latin phrase for “remember death” engraved upon it to constantly stoke my awareness that all of this is, in fact, temporary. I’ll send you one if you’re interested.
If there’s anything to lean on for confidence in going your own way, I cast my vote for the contemplation of mortality. Temporariness and the mystery of the miracle that all this is somehow happening also makes finding wonder and awe in every aspect of existence very possible. I see it as a large part of cultivating lightness, of honing an ability to float. Circumstance can pull us under, but we’ll always bob back to the surface, to float again eventually, if we can see that every circumstance is an absurd, beautiful gift.
Lastly, for further buoyancy, I think it also helps to understand that even the worst, most seemingly negative happenings have gifts hidden within them. Today, I paradoxically consider nearly dying from a stroke the best thing that ever happened to me, for its gift of perspective. Having my heart-curb stomped by the abrupt end of a relationship and swimming in darkness of its wake illustrated the value that can be built between two beings and that, in time, we will come back to the surface and see all the light of the world again, as long as we’re willing to look for it.
When you begin to see that all negatives come with positives and that all positives come with negatives, you begin to worry less about what’s going to happen in the future and can begin to cultivate a greater focus on and enjoyment of the present.
Many of these perspectives were incited and refined within me through books. From conferring with minds much greater than mine. The words of Marcus Aurelius, Joseph Campbell, Robert Pirsig, Jack Gilbert, Hunter S. Thompson, Eckhart Tolle, Richard Bach, Peter Matthiessen, Herman Hesse, Victor Frankl, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Paulo Coelho, Ed Abbey, and so many others have helped me cultivate a lightness that I sense rarely glimpsed by most.
However, words are only words. They are not the real thing — just a description of it. True, deep-seated understanding comes from experience. Only through the act of living it will we internalize and truly integrate something into our own lives.
And that, that is probably why I feel so comfortable with the exposure of exploration, why I seem to float against the tide, and why I don’t succumb to this fear of not getting one’s life together, secure, tied off and tied down, as fast as possible.
Because in exposure, in pain and unknown, one learns. And if one is learning the truth, one is only becoming lighter — more spiritually buoyant.
True security is not achieved by building walls and safeguards, but by tearing them down and cultivating a calm, comfortable contentment in swimming amongst the ebb and flow of the world.