This Is Not A Test

We don’t seek the painful experiences that hew our identities, but we seek our identities in the wake of painful experiences. We cannot bear a pointless torment, but we can endure great pain if we believe it’s purposeful. Ease makes less of an impression on us than struggle. We could have been ourselves without our delights, but not without the misfortunes that drive our search for meaning.
— Andrew Sullivan
Image source: Pexels

Image source: Pexels

I had a dream recently in which I found myself scaling a sheer rock wall with nary a rope to keep me from plummeting hundreds of feet to my death. This is not something I am wont to do.*

I was alone, and was wedged into what I suppose rock climbers (which I am not) would call a chimney. The backpack I was carrying was filled with things of portent. Though I didn't know what was in it, the contents were important enough that I didn't ditch the bag even as it snagged on the rough walls of the rock chimney I was inching myself up.

Despite being very aware, in my dream, of the precariousness of my situation I was surprised at my equanimity and calm.

I was in no a rush, yet I was not tarrying. I moved with intent, mindful of every inch of sheer rock wall I gained.

I didn't know where I was going, but it seemed important that I get there, important enough for me to climb straight up a rock wall, alone, without any ropes or protection of any kind.

I didn't know the nature of the "baggage" I was carrying in my backpack, but I knew it had to come wherever I was going. I was responsible for it with my life.

But most importantly: I was not afraid.

Upon waking from this dream I lay in bed for quite some time thinking about this virtual experience birthed by my subconscious metaphor machine. I came to the conclusion that my unconscious mind wanted to show me a glimpse of my best self, the version of Dick Sloane I always aspire to be but which I all too often fall short of.

I admit with some shame that I have typically spent far too much of my mental energy managing my baser instincts, hoping that the better angels of my nature will prevail in the battle for my heart, mind and mouth. I have gotten better though I am not yet Superior.

There's always tomorrow though. Which is why I always "welcome it as the very best day of all," as Seneca exhorts.

Because every day has the potential to be the best day of all, even when things appear bleakest. Even when something unexpected or annoying or uncomfortable or even awful happens, something that wasn't part of the script but which forces a reckoning you cannot ignore. These are the challenging times that beget growth, that mold our character, that enable us to endure. When you can feel gratitude for such opportunities you know that you have become Superior.

Everything I've been through during my passage into middle age -- cancer, career stagnation, the end of my marriage and then believing in love again -- prepared me for the ascent of that rock wall. Those singular and life-altering reckonings led me, like a trail of existential bread crumbs, to the base of that cliff. How did I know I was ready for the journey? I didn't, but up I climbed anyway. Fearless, confident, with purpose.

The thing about the wall: I knew that there was only this one chance. There weren't going to be any do-overs or second chances, no changing of the mind. This was where I was, at this specific point in my life, and the only direction available to me was forward. And up. I wasn't thinking about what would come next while up on that wall. There was just the wall, and I knew what I had to do.

This life, the one that we're living right now, is our one chance.

Be bold. Be brave. Take chances. Make mistakes.

Embrace the challenges as they arise, without running away, without hiding. Be prepared to endure pain and maybe even heartbreak. Remember that discomfort is not terminal.

This is the way to become the best version of yourself. This is the way to become Superior.

* I had this dream before I saw Free Solo, the incredible film of Alex Honnold's rope-free climb of Yosemite's El Capitan, but not before I read about it, with much awe, in in the June 2017 issue of National Geographic.