The earliest memories I have as a child are feeling completely overwhelmed by the world. I felt out of place, unanchored, alone. It was too big, too scary, and I felt like I was drowning in it. One memory I have in particular is in Kindergarten and crying and clinging to my mother’s leg as she left me in the classroom for the first time (this happened every day for weeks; I would eventually work my way to the teacher’s aid’s lap, and finally to my desk with the other children). But internally this wasn’t the normal “first day of school jitters” that most children feel. I felt absolutely destroyed. Abandoned. Devastated. This feeling, in some ways, has never really left me.
I’m sure nature over nurture played a part in my reaction to the world. Maybe I was built more afraid, or more attuned to my fear? Regardless, the world was for me as Wordsworth observed, “ too much with us.” Everything seemed to evoke fear and anxiety. Despite my loving parents and a nurturing home life, the world felt like a hostile place much of the time. At school I essentially didn’t talk or interact with other kids. I sat in the corner, silent. However, at home I was an absolute trickster, always outgoing, communicative, energetic, fearless, and annoyingly extroverted. The moment I walked out of the house...paralyzed.
This tendency, however, did not change that much after childhood and I limped into my 30s still feeling absolutely ill-at-ease in the world. I played small. I hid. I was the proverbial nail that didn’t stick up for fear of being nailed down. Apart from my passion of working out, poetry, philosophy, spirituality, movies, and art, I did not take any risks. I pushed myself in training, my writing, and academics, but that was pretty much where it ended. I was in arrested development, my emotional development ignored almost completely.
And it showed. I did not get into a meaningful relationship until I turned 30 (and it was the disaster you probably imagine). I avoided relationships and friendships almost entirely until then. I was basically a monk who read, wrote, and worked out. I made room for nothing else. To do so was too scary. The risk too great.
Of course, this stemmed from many more issues than my innate fear. I lost my left eye as a kid in a bb gun accident and was for as long as I can remember struggling with what I would later learn was Body Dysmorphic Disorder. I felt like a freak in just about every way imaginable. Who would ever love me? Like me? Nobody wants a fat, one-eyed, ugly guy as their boyfriend. No one would ever want to have me as a friend.
Perhaps my reaction to the world in the beginning is different than most people experience, but everyone feels ill-at-ease in the world at first. Change is always difficult. We feel threatened because it forces us to change. You may not have lost an eye or are struggling with BDD, but everyone deals with fear and anxiety. When we don’t mindfully confront it, we run the risk of never fully developing ourselves. Our stories go untold, our songs unsung, our voices silenced. In a sense, we never grow up, and worse, never grow into who we are meant to be.
Joseph Campbell’s idea of the Hero’s Journey applies to us all. It is the framework for almost every popular myth cross-culturally. It is as if human beings throughout the entire world have found the underpinning of the shape of all our lives. If it were music, it would be almost as if every culture throughout the world started singing the same song.
The beginning of the Hero’s Journey is the Call to adventure. It’s typically “a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, super human deeds, and impossible delight. The hero can go forth of his own volition to accomplish the adventure, as did Theseus when he arrived in his father's city, Athens, and heard the horrible history of the Minotaur; or he may be carried or sent abroad by some benign or malignant agent as was Odysseus, driven about the Mediterranean by the winds of the angered god, Poseidon. The adventure may begin as a mere blunder... or still again, one may be only casually strolling when some passing phenomenon catches the wandering eye and lures one away from the frequented paths of man. Examples might be multiplied, ad infinitum, from every corner of the world."
The call is ever asking us. In every moment in every day. It does not have to be Obi-wan Kenobi running into us in the desert or Gandalf knocking on our doors. The world is ever asking us to accept the call to adventure. How often do we ignore it, or train our ears not to hear it? For many of us fear has turned the call into white noise. We have become so locked into our fears and anxiety that the music of the call becomes a traumatic song that we turn off because it reminds us of all we are not becoming, all the potential we are not using. It was certainly this way for me. And so like many of us, I refused. Again and again I refused.
"Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or 'culture,' the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless—even though, like King Minos, he may through titanic effort succeed in building an empire or renown. Whatever house he builds, it will be a house of death: a labyrinth of cyclopean walls to hide from him his minotaur. All he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration."
All that was in me I ignored. I sat on a whale and fished for minnows for a decade. And so, nothing happened. I was, in some ways, preparing for the call. I worked on myself and worked on myself until finally the pain of remaining who I was was too great and whatever potential hell awaited me on the other side was far more bearable than remaining the frightened and small person I was. I accepted. I embarked. It was baby steps at first. Baby steps are sometimes the most important steps and aren't small at all. In the very beginning each step is unsure, and therefore, courageous. We take them knowing everything is against us. I started seeking out those things that made me afraid. I started dating, I started seeking out friendship, I practiced to become more extroverted, I accepted a teaching position to overcome my fear of public speaking, I ran up mountains, and as always, I wrote and trained.
It was only through the ownership of my body (and so, my life) that I carved out a life that strived to overcome my weaknesses despite my fear. I delved deep. I threw myself into myself and lived out the Hero’s Journey as well as I was able.
A decade later I am still on that journey. I have written two books (one of which took 4 years), built a personal training business, ran over 36,000 miles, benched nearly 400 pounds, squatted 500 pounds, deadlifted 450 pounds, pushed over a thousand pounds on the sled, got a real estate license, earned two Bachelor's degrees and one Master's degree, became healthier, more emotionally mature, and hopefully become wiser. I have learned more about myself than I ever would have otherwise. And that’s the point is it not? We’re here to learn who we really are. After the clutter of culture, society, and arbitrary expectations have been pushed away, we are left with the space to become who we are. It is the only journey there is.
As I say at the end of my book, “The 21st century Body: An Essential Guide for the New Millennium,” “Finally, far too many people are slaves searching for masters, whether in their relationships, employers, governments, or religions. The demands of liberty are great, but it is far far worth meeting those demands on your feet, than meeting the paltry and unworthy demands of slavery on your knees. I can’t promise that you will always be safe on this journey, for that’s not mine to promise, but I can steady you with the knowledge that in your deepest moments when you are so far from the good opinion of others that their voices barely touch you anymore, you will find a solace you never knew existed. And within that solace, you will find your whole life.”
Every one of us has the potential to live extraordinary lives no matter who we are. It is a privilege to be alive and have the opportunity to live out our lives according to our ability. Don’t not take the risk. Everything awaits you on the other side of fear. Learn to just keep going, no matter what. And even if we fail, it will have been a far better life than remaining on the sidelines. As Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
Live in the arena. It is the only life worth living.