You were lied to in school, in college, in your first job.
There’s no “You Are Here” marker on the map of life.
See, you were told that life is like Disneyland. You can choose from the ride of your choice, but you have to stand in line and put up with the strange people in the costumes wandering by. There’s a price of admission (college degree), but if you are willing to pay it, and then deal with the lines, the ride will be exactly what you had always hoped it would be. Then it would come to an end in a predictable way—somebody will hand you a photo of your smile as it winds down, and finally you can bask in your accomplishment.
Except instead of being Disneyland, life is the Alaskan wilderness. It is you being dropped in the middle of nowhere, with no clue where the hell you are, an incomplete map that isn’t even comprehensible, and the sudden realization upon looking around that you are surrounded by a lot of things that can kill you: bears, wolves, rivers, cold, thirst, starvation.
The ups and downs aren’t like a roller coaster. You don’t revel in the ascent and you don’t scream in the descent. No, in real life you are sweating on the way up and crying on the way down. Both cause you pain, but they are different kinds of pain.
There’s a reason your parents and teachers didn’t tell you this. They wanted to live their fantasy of the ideal life vicariously through you. They wanted to see the hope in your eyes, the excitement of looking forward to life. But they did you a major disservice.
Because while you think you are at Disneyland, you’re actually sitting in your tent at base camp on a bad LSD trip, waiting for the ride to start. The grizzly smells you and is closing in. You are running out of water. But you don’t know it because you keep taking the LSD.
Western Europeans used to think they were safe because they had the welfare state. Americans had the inevitability of progress and the American Dream. This is why the grittiest, hungriest, toughest people I know aren’t from those places. They don’t hail from first world cities where they received proper educations. They come from places where life wasn’t so easy. Where you actually worry about eating or not. Where you actually know the value of a dollar.
People who have only heard about Disneyland, but never visited.
There are no bridges. You have to figure out how to cross the rivers on your own. They are deep and swift. And cold.
You have to cross. You have to keep going.
They don’t tell you this in school, though. They don’t teach you how to be tough—they don’t force you to be tough. They don’t tell you how important it is to build real trust with other people who can help you along the way.
This is one of the strange paradoxes of life. With all the rhetoric about sharing, community, togetherness, we’ve forgotten that a bunch of weaklings are no stronger just because they are in a group. Baby deer would be no safer from the bears if they were in a large group of baby deer. There’s no inherent strength in community.
Community is only strong when it leads to the growth, strengthening, and betterment of its members. It’s only strong when it highlights weaknesses as a mechanism to minimize them, to work on them.
“I’m ok. You’re ok,” is not a benign white lie. It’s a devastating black lie.
“I’m not ok. You’re not ok. But together we can improve ourselves.” That’s the recipe for crossing those rivers. Those are the necessary preconditions for making it over that hill, and the next one, and the next one.
You don’t need community in Disneyland. You can go alone, or with a “buddy.” It doesn’t matter, because everything has been designed to keep you safe. Everything has been engineered to ensure you have the perfect experience.
But you aren’t in Disneyland.
You have to get tough. You have to get honest. You have to know where you are, what’s around you, and where the hell you have to go to keep on surviving.
Stability, predictability, they’re gone. Maybe you’re lucky and are in one of those last few bastions of modernity that is performing a bit better than everywhere else. You still think you’re in Disneyland. You think you’ll make it to the end, still able to believe the facade isn’t crumbling. You might be so lucky. But if you aren’t it’ll be a rude awakening.
It’s your life. It’s up to you how to live it. But living the truth is better than living a lie. Owning up to your reality is the only way you can improve it.
Theodore Roosevelt knew there was but one way to live life:
Still less room is there for those who deride of slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not exactly what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength. It is war-worn Hotspur, spent with hard fighting, he of the many errors and valiant end, over whose memory we love to linger, not over the memory of the young lord who “but for the vile guns would have been a valiant soldier.”
The truth is that sitting there where you are, doing what you are doing isn’t going to get you where you have dreamed of going. It’s just going to lead to more idle failure. All that planning of what you’re going to do someday is just going to lead to more planning.
You aren’t in Disneyland.
You have to get up, get out of your tent, get off your delusional trip, and see the stunning—and terrifying beauty of the wilderness around you.
Lace up your boots. Strap on your pack.
Start climbing, start crossing.