Make The Road By Walking
It was a beautiful late spring evening in New York City when my mother called me with the news that my father had suffered a massive heart attack, and been pronounced dead not long after. This phone call and the days that followed were unquestionably the most personally devastating moments of my life to date. And yet, even at the time, I knew I was lucky. Lucky because unlike so many others, the conditions of my life granted me the privilege of concentrating my emotional and physical energy on the memory of my father. He had helped revolutionize education reform, and I had always dreamed of working alongside him. I longed to emulate him when I too became a father. The time I had to grieve was a privilege because my mourning was not accompanied by the fear of debt, the anxiety of losing my job, or the hollowness of solitude. I had adequate money of my own, relative job security, and the support of countless friends and family members.
Nevertheless, I had long dreamt that I too would pursue a career in education, first as a teacher and eventually as a consultant at my father's company. With his death, that dream felt simultaneously all the more important and hopelessly further from reach.
During the six months that followed, a tremendous amount of my energy was dedicated to maintaining the traditional masculine fortified, calm, and tearless outer facade. I spoke about him, but only when asked. I refused to use his death as an excuse for missed deadlines, tardiness, or general disorganization (all of which I was certainly guilty of). On the surface, I believe I maintained my composure well. I didn’t lose my job or distance myself from relatives or friends, but beneath the surface cracks were beginning to form.
Within a few months, I had slipped into functional alcoholism, become addicted to cigarettes and gained thirty pounds. I passed my nights in the beds of women I barely knew, indulged in harder drugs nearly every weekend. I was unquestionably dependent on amphetamines to prolong my evenings, salvage my mornings, and survive each work day. But I’m not telling you all this as a cautionary tale of how drugs and sex almost destroyed my life, because they didn’t. Many of those drug-fueled days and nights were a tremendous amount of fun.
They were, however, shockingly efficient distractions. Very little of what I was thinking or doing during that period was goal or future-oriented. This was exacerbated by the fact that, in my mind, whatever semblance of a plan I had prior to my dad’s death was irrelevant because it necessitated him. Truthfully, however, I had shown little initiative and even less effort towards making this plan a reality during his life. I had majored in educational philosophy as an undergraduate student, yet following graduation I had failed to involve myself in any work or activities relating to the broader field of education. To forgive myself for this, I had been relying on the age-old excuse of “waiting for the perfect opportunity, one that is worthy of my skills and overtly relevant to my broader goals.”
But for those of us who do not find our ‘perfect opportunity’ right out of college (i.e most of us) the realities of life cast a longer shadow with each passing day. Not because we are working hellish hours, for little pay, in difficult markets, with little experience. But rather, because we grow exponentially more fearful that each of these days represents a step in a direction we never imagined traveling. Worse still, that each step is taking us further from where we want to be.
If any this sounds familiar, I assure you that you are not alone or beyond the point of no return. I cannot tell you exactly where you need to go from here, because each person and each life is immeasurably unique (I would encourage you to be highly skeptical of anyone who professes to know the ‘correct’ path for you). But what I can tell you, in my experience, is that it's not a path at all. It never was. Only a forest, that is life. One that you are obligated to wander through for as long as you draw breath. The conciliation is that ‘how’ and ‘why’ you wander are up to you.
More importantly, you can decide where stop for a night, a year, or ten. You get to decide when, or if, you settle into nooks of your own, and where that will be. There will inevitably be rough terrain, dangerous encounters, and impasses. But because there is no path, there is never a shortage of alternate routes. ‘You make the road by walking’ as the saying goes, even when that involves detouring, backtracking, getting lost and inevitably, distracted. At the end of the day, you are still in the same forest and there are a million potential paths that can carry you where you want to go.
If that destination keeps changing, or if you don’t have a clue where your destination is, the analogy holds true. The forest is life, and as long as you are in it, you are still living, doing, and trying. If you are wandering you are alive, and there is an overwhelming amount of beauty, glory, peace, quiet, adventure, thrill, joy, and contentment inside this forest. You can work towards a goal, ideal, or dream that you believe to be important. Immerse yourself in that pursuit by returning to the basics. Try and fail as much as possible. Meet fellow passionate and curious wanderers, ask them for help, and give help in return. Simply by ‘doing’ you are finding new paths to wander down next, as well as increasing the likelihood of someone calling to you through the trees and inviting you to join up with them. But, no matter what type of person you are, what type of place you are from, or what type of destination you have in mind, you must be willing to ‘wander’ a little.
That was precisely my problem, I had been unwilling to get started on anyone else’s terms or on any alternative routes. As a result, I was willfully neglecting the myriad of paths all around me. I refused to explore them, assuming they would be unproductive or simply because they were not my own. In essence, my ignorance, my distrust, and my arrogance were preventing me from getting started on anything. It was not my destination that was flawed, it was my entirely singular and self-centered notion of how to get there.
I am not going to pretend that I arrived at this realization on my own. That would be profoundly disingenuous and it would fail to account for the most important factor in all of this... other people.
I didn’t ‘get started’ when I decided to quit my job, pack a bag, and book a flight to Vietnam for my first (volunteer) teaching job. I ‘got started’ a year beforehand, 2 months after my dad's death. I had reluctantly agreed to join my friends at a music festival during a time when dancing, socializing, and laughing sounded exhausting or even downright impossible. However, it not only was it the first time in those two months that I remember feeling truly happy and present, it was also where I met my partner.
She lived in Florida, I lived in New York. We managed the distance as best we could for one year. When she graduated from college I did not want to move to Florida, and she did not want to move to New York. We had a huge decision to make: what next? We decided to travel and consider the question along the way. We applied for a volunteer, no experience required, kindergarten teaching position at a non-profit in Hanoi Vietnam. We were invited to work for 2 months, during which we would be living in a converted living space, with limited privacy, and no pay. We figured meaningful work, and room and board, would provide structure to an otherwise reckless adventure. It meant leaving behind my friends, my siblings and extended family, at a time when we needed each other most, as well as my job, my routine, my connections, and just about everything that resembled ‘home’. But, I knew I wanted to be with this woman. That was the only instinctual part about all of this decision, and if being with her meant sacrifice, uncertainty, and risk, then so be it.
What I realize only now is that this decision proved, both to her and to myself, my capacity for love, understanding, and sacrifice. It forced me to set a course and commit to it. I sent out a message that echoed long and loud throughout the forest of my life for others to hear: I was choosing to explore! I was choosing to trust, and to consider someone other than myself, regardless of the perceived relevance to my goal. And only by doing so were other paths revealed to me.
Two weeks after we arrived in Vietnam, we met a college acquaintance of Sophia's for drinks at a crowded bar in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, on a particularly lively Friday night. As it happened, he was an administrator at an English language center in Hanoi that was desperately in need of new teachers. Two days later we were hired. One week later we made the deposit on an apartment. Two weeks after that we had completed training and were preparing to teach our first classes. In less than a month, we had gone from nomadic volunteers, to full-time teachers sharing our first apartment.
During that year we made many incredible friends and traveled extensively through south-east Asia. We had our habits, routines, and worldviews overwritten. We learned a tremendous amount about education, even more about ourselves, as well as the intricacies of living with a partner. The work itself was undoubtedly difficult, and came with a surplus of redundancy and a profound lack of independence. The school itself was just one piece in a massive, factory-like, for-profit education corporation that was the antithesis of what I wanted from my employer–but it was a start.
I absolutely loved teaching, but the restrictions, priorities, and protocols of my school bordered on soul-crushing. So with a year of teaching under my belt, it was time for a change. We began the search for a new home, and eventually landed in Mexico, albeit for reasons entirely unrelated to work. We wanted to learn Spanish, and my brother was marrying a woman from Merida. We decided to come for the wedding and simply stay. Also, it seemed an appropriate form of civil disobedience given the political climate.
So here I am, a year later, teaching at a non-profit language and cultural center. It is run by a tremendously kind and wildly intelligent group American and Mexican educators, all of whom are experts in their field. The mission of the school is to integrate the arts and humanities into the study of language, and at its core, it is an effort to make all forms of education more impactful, personal, and accessible. I share these beliefs and hold them to be a worthy pursuit for all educators and people. So, although this is certainly not where I imagined I would be, nor is it my final stop, I am confident that the work I am doing is meaningful in the present, and will illuminate other promising paths for me to consider taking in the future, all while forcing me to learn, improve, and explore.
But what is the moral here? That falling in love at a music festival solve all your problems? Or that you need to quit your job and move to the other side of the world to find your purpose? No, it’s neither, and I fully appreciate that such options are undesirable for many, and impossible for many more.
The moral is that there is literally an unquantifiable number of people, places, and things that can lead you where you want, or need, to go. I am a successful and happy teacher with a wealth of prospects, and an ever-solidifying sense of purpose, because I met a woman and decided to do what was necessary to be with her. “Getting started” does not mean knowing your end goal, nor does it require abandoning everything you hold dear. But it does necessitate a willingness to expose yourself, to try and to fail, and to try some more.
Freeing yourself from your own expectations, as well as those of your parents, friends, colleagues and culture, can be the hardest part of beginning this process. It can be downright terrifying, but you can start small. Try to be a better partner. Try to improve your health. Try something new. Try to give back to your community. Try anything and you will be on your way. Inevitably you will start to question whether or not you are heading in the ‘right direction’ because not all directions are equal or worthy of your time and energy. When these thoughts begin to gnaw at your resolve, remind yourself that goals are fluid. They can change with the opportunities you stumble upon, the people you meet and the personal changes you will inevitably undergo. Whether you have committed yourself, or simply hope to discover something along the way, fortify yourself with the belief that there really is not one ‘right direction’–there are millions of them!