A Million Miles in a Thousand Years

By: Donald Miller

This is one of my favorite books of all time, a book I wish I'd wrote myself. The idea is simple: If we live good stories, we live good lives. Donald Miller beautifully chronicles his transition from writing good stories to actually living good stories and the profound effect it has on his life. Perhaps I love this book so much because I had a remarkably similar revelation while pedaling a bicycle across the United States myself. I've never found a message to ring truer to me and be so effective in improving one's life.

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The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either.
Robert McKee says humans naturally seek comfort and stability. Without an inciting incident that disrupts their comfort, they won’t enter into a story. They have to get fired from their job or be forced to sign up for a marathon. A ring has to be purchased. A home has to be sold. The character has to jump into the story, into the discomfort and fear, otherwise the story will never happen.
It’s true that ambition creates fear, it also creates the story. But it’s a good trade, because as soon as you point toward a horizon, life no longer feels meaningless. And suddenly there is risk in your story and a question about whether you’ll make it. You have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I’d be lying if I said it was all fun. I’d definitely lost a few hours of sleep imagining myself collapsing on the Inca Trail, but it beat eating ice cream and watching television. I was doing something in real life. I’d stood up and pointed towards a horizon, and now I had to move, whether I wanted to or not.
‘Why would the Incas make people take the long route?’ my friend from Alabama asked.
‘Because the emperor knew,’ Carlos said, ‘the more painful the journey to Machu Picchu, the more the traveler would appreciate the city once he got there.’
That’s the thing you realize when you organize your life into the structure of a story. You’ll get a taste for one story and then want another, and then another, and the stories will build until your living a kind of epic risk and reward, the whole thing will be molding you into the actual character who’s roles you’ve been playing. And once you have a good story, you get a taste for a kind of meaning in life, and you can’t go back to being normal; you can’t go back to meaningless scenes stitched together by the forgettable thread of wasted time. The more practice stories I lived, the more I wanted an epic to climb inside of and see through til it’s end.
It’s like this with every crossing, and with every story too. You paddle until you no longer believe you can go any further. And then suddenly, well after you thought it would happen, the other shore starts to grow, and it grows fast. The trees get taller and you can make out the crags in the cliffs, and then the shore reaches out to you, to welcome you home, almost pulling your boat into the sand.
I realized how much of our lives are spent trying to avoid conflict. Half the commercials on television are selling us something that will make life easier. Part of me wonders if our stories aren’t being stolen by the easy life.
But it’s like I said before about writers not really wanting to write. We have to force ourselves to create these scenes. We have to get up off the couch and turn the television off, we have to blow up the inner tubes and head to the river. We have to write the poem and deliver it in person. We have to pull the car off the road and hike to the top of the hill. We have to put on our suits, we have to dance at weddings. We have to make alters.
I took a lot of comfort in that principle. It wasn’t necessary to win for the story to be great, it was only necessary to sacrifice everything.
Bob and Maria couldn’t afford a boat and a house, so they bought the land, put a port-a-potty on it, and lived in a tent for two years, so they could afford to have a boat. It was one of the happiest times of their lives, Bob said.

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