Casual Friday – How Long Have You Been Alive?

Empire State BuildingTony Campolo tells a story about how he challenged his students at Eastern College by asking them, “how long have you been alive”? They responded by reciting their birthdays, almost without thinking. Then he turned to them and asked again, “how long have you really been alive”? He went on to tell of a time that as a child, he stood on the Empire State Building and for a few brief moments, as the wind whipped his hair and the panorama overwhelmed him, felt fully alive. Then he turned to his students again and said, “now, how long have you been alive?”

Some years ago I went skydiving with my friends Fergus and Wendy in Fort McMurray, Canada during an impending rain storm. It was one of those days when you could see the vistas of the horizon and watch the heavy grey clouds roll in like a blanket. It was undoubtedly not a pristine skydiving opportunity but we were anxious to get in a jump, despite our best interests. As we rose to meet the sky the clouds extended over us like a cotton canopy. We leveled out at approximately 6500 feet and flew just under the clouds. I climbed out of the door and held on to the top rim. The wind in my hair I watched the plane skim just under the unbroken cloud. On a whim I reached up and wiped my hand through the fluffy billows, splaying them behind me. For that moment, I was truly alive.

So much of life I have not lived really alive. Days meld into days without end, seasons come and go. It is easy to just exist but not really live. The older I get the more I understand that my life is so short. It’s very easy to live day after day like time doesn’t matter, wasting hours, even months doing nothing notable, nothing meaningful, taking people and situations for granted.

I had a pretty brutal car accident last year. I was in Saskatchewan, visiting friends and attending a wedding. I broke a few ribs and totalled one of best friend’s cars. Everything initially seemed to work out fine. It was a little later that I realized I was quite shaken by the experience and afraid to drive. I had to use some of the cheesy stuff I teach patients to work through it. Things are fine now but I was left with a pervading sense that I am mortal. Last month when I had a grand mal seizure I was again reminded that we are finite beings and need our lives count. Like you, I still have some things to do and want to make my life count for something.

I want to be awake and alive. I want to fan my had through a few more clouds.

If I close my eyes I can see myself clearly from a distance, standing in the doorway, the solid bank of clouds, looking up – then pushing my hand into the solid mass. There is joy on my face. Truly alive.

Casual Friday: The NTLA

Many years ago I belonged to an exclusive men’s club called the NTLA.

I won’t tell you just what the initials stand for yet so it’ll give you something to do for a few minutes. The members of this club were passionate about canoeing and not just any kind of canoeing – whitewater. We would pattern our whole year around the NTLA. We would plan and share pictures. Whenever a few of us and our wives were together that’s all we would talk about. The NTLA.

It was like being in a room with a bunch of teachers. Many of my finest friends are teachers and they are awesome people… alone. But put two teachers in the same postal code and you can pretty much leave the room. You know who you are.

Teachers love to talk about teaching. In Fort McMurray my three best friends were teachers, and if we were all together… it was so boring. I could pretty much leave the room and they wouldn’t care. I would try to enter into the conversation and they would all turn to me, give me the little patronizing smile, and pat me on the head and say to each other… “oh, isn’t that cute. He thinks he knows something about teaching.” They would throw me a cookie and go back to talking.

There were no women allowed in the NTLA. Not that any of our wives were interested. By the time the NTLA would come around, they were begging us to go away – so everyone was happy.

It was called the “No tan-line annual”, the NTLA. 6 guys, 3 canoes, beans, testosterone, burping, farting, and no toothpaste, no bathing suits.There was a cardinal rule. No bathing. I used to wear the same clothes pretty much the whole time we were out there. It was guy heaven. If we would have had access to a remote control it would have been perfect.

We were passionate about the NTLA. We collected all the info, planned overly, prepared anally. We were into it. It was important to me. To all of us.

Then one year it fell apart. It was the year I first found out my wife had breast cancer and I was an emotional wreck. I phoned my best friend at the time in search of emotional support and before very long it denigrated into a conversation about how he didn’t feel that we should do the canoe trip anymore. I couldn’t understand why, and my emotional state did not aid in my comprehension of what was really going on.

A few months later, on a whim, I phoned my best friend to see how things were. His wife answered the phone and said in a slightly surprised tone, “Aren’t you with him? Why aren’t you on the canoe trip?”

Seven years before that phone call I had started this canoe trip. For years it had been the center-piece of my year. I had taught the participants how to paddle, read maps, make wet fires, shoot whitewater (usually the Churchill River), look for a campsite. Now they had gone on a trip and did not want me there. I was crushed. Later on the phone with one of the guys he explained that I was too intense, they wanted a casual trip not an adventure every year. He said that they did not value my friendship, that there had been personality and leadership conflicts. They simply didn’t want me around.

Five guys whom I had considered close friends. One whom I thought of as a brother. I felt beaten. My feelings of self-worth plummeted. Not only could I do nothing to help my wife during her hardest battle of her life; now I began to realize my friends wanted nothing to do with me. Many of my hand holds were being stripped away.

Most people love you conditionally.

Philip Yancey tells the story of Dr. Paul Brand who has devoted his life to treating leprosy patients in India. In the course of one examination Brand laid his hand on the patient’s shoulder and informed him through a translator of the treatment that lay ahead. To his surprise the man began to shake with muffled sobs. “Have I said something wrong?” Brand asked the translator. She quizzed the patient and reported, “No, doctor. He says he is crying because you put your hand around his shoulder. Until he came here no one had touched him for many years.”

Many years have come and gone since the NTLA. I have grown up, become much more self-aware, and understand more about life than I once did. I continue to learn what it means to be authentic, as much as I am able.

As I look back on that time in my life I have come to understand that there are few people who will be there for you, no matter what. Most people have the best of intentions but struggle to understand the true cost of ‘unconditional love’. I have also come to appreciate the few people in my life who I cannot shake, cannot surprise, cannot impress, and cannot chase away. Those individuals who love you in spite of who you are, not because of what you can do for them. They inspire me to want to be a better person, to walk the walk – not just talk the talk.

I spent some time this morning with a close friend, someone whom I would like to believe I care about unconditionally. This article came up during our conversation. I was struck but the gravity of what I was proposing; loving people without judgement, without agenda, without walking away when everyone else does. It forced me to confront my own premise and ask myself what Cory would have to do for me to abandon him. It would be nice to write glib sentiments about my willingness to “lay down my life for a friend”. It’s another thing altogether to live that commitment when I am busy, or self-absorbed, or hurting.

They say a friend will help you move, a real friend will help you move a body. I would hope if it came down to it, I would be willing to take the wet end.

If you liked this article you might want to check out – Lowering Your Expectations