How Committed Are You, Really?

by Brian on April 10, 2012

in Inspiration

They found a dead man in the New Mexico wilderness the other day, lying peacefully beside a cool stream. He went out for a run and never came back.

It probably wasn’t news where you live, but where I live in Colorado, it was top-headline material in the Sunday paper. It should’ve been an April Fool’s Day joke, but wasn’t. He was local, sort of, when he wanted to be. His name was Micah True, née Michael Randall Hickman, but a lot of people knew him best as Caballo Blanco, Spanish for White Horse.

I wasn’t one of them — don’t get the wrong idea. I knew of him only through the printed page, a book called Born To Run. I’ve raved about it ever since, as one of the favorite books I read last year, and among the books I got the most good out of.

Without Caballo Blanco, there never would have been a Born To Run. The events at the heart of this wonderful book would never have happened. He was the most indelible of a gaggle of indelibly larger-than-life characters, and probably — and, paradoxically — both the easiest and hardest to understand.

The Cliff’s Notes version: Two decades ago he dropped off the face of the civilized world, retreating to some of the most inhospitable country on earth, bonding with and learning from some of the planet’s most reclusive people, eventually becoming a kind of flesh-and-blood myth. He lived to run and ran to live. He made running the center of his existence. He sought out the people who do it better than anyone. He bridged worlds, with running as a common language.

By the end of the book, I was trying to imagine his future. It was impossible for me to imagine anything other than more of the same. He’s going to die out there — I really did think this, out there being Mexico’s Copper Canyons or someplace almost as remote. It wasn’t an ominous thought, just a nod to what seemed like a logical inevitability. But I certainly wasn’t expecting it to happen within a matter of months.

No, But If You Hum A Few Bars, I’ll Fake It

I began this thinking of Caballo Blanco as one of the most committed individuals I’ve ever heard of, but already I’m squirming away from that. Maybe it wasn’t so much a matter of commitment as it was an honest conviction that there were no other options, at least none worth considering. As presented in Born To Run, he seemed to be a character who recognized his unconventional path with such clarity that he was oblivious to the approval and good opinions of others. Even the people of the Mexican outback thought he was crazy, or maybe not even human.

At first.

He seemed like someone who’d heard his call, and heeded it, and kept heeding it while the rest of the world caught up to him.

And yes, of course that takes commitment. There are always paths of less resistance, and hills that aren’t as steep. But first it takes clear vision, and the willingness to see who and what you really are. It may take courage to accept that, and even more to shrug off the need for the approval and good opinions of others … especially the ones who have a ready-made box for you that they insist is just your size.

After that, well, what else is left but the journey?

I’ve told this before, but today it bears telling again. Pat Fish, proprietress of Tattoo Santa Barbara, who left a mark on me that goes all the way through, once told me how another legend-in-his-own-time, Ray Bradbury, gave her the one critical tool that helped her recognize just the road ahead.

“He came annually to speak to the journalism club at my high school, it was the Ray Bradbury chapter of Quill & Scroll, and he said one year something so profound it changed my whole life: that inside yourself you have an internal gyroscope that hums when it gets near the things you love, and leans you towards them. So if you learn to pay attention to this you never have to do a stupid job, you figure out what you love to do and then make it how you make money.”

All great journeys begin with the sound of a hum.

Which Came First: The Ending Or The Beginning?

I have long tried to live this way — to live as authentically as I can. I heard the hum, the One Great Hum against the background of secondary hums, and there could be no mistaking what it was.

And I take immense joy in the reports of others who say the same. I’ve lost track of the number of people — writers and otherwise — who’ve said that things began really working for them only when they put this singular ambition at the center of their lives. That what made the biggest difference was when they boldly committed their souls.

Yet, for all that, there are times I wish I hadn’t heard the hum. Or that I’d heard a different hum. Or that, while the hum was fine, I’d been more worthy of it. There are times when I wobble and doubt, and maybe listen for another hum that just isn’t there. There are days like that. We all have days like that … don’t we? Then it all comes around again, and something happens that leaves me glad I didn’t hear anything else.

It occurs to me that the most ineffectual times of my life have usually been when I’ve lost sight of this. When I’ve hedged or diluted, when I’ve let the focus blur and the center has not held. The flipside is true as well: that some of the greatest triumphs have come from sticking with something just a little longer than a better pragmatist might’ve taken to give up.

Somewhat notoriously, William Faulkner stated that writers are congenital liars, convinced they “can create much better truth than circumstance can.”

Fine. Lie to the rest of us, lie for the greater good, lie for the sake of a better story…

But don’t lie to yourself. Not about who you are and what you’re here to do, if you’re lucky enough to have seized upon these things.

“Begin with the end in mind” — common advice, but you always hear it small-scale, on a project level. For the sake of argument let’s stretch it out for a lifetime.

Imagine the great end, whether it comes to you in your bed or rush-hour traffic or beside a cool New Mexico stream. Then imagine what comes next. The gatekeeper at the delivery door checks the paperwork from the original order and frowns at what he sees. You know how these clipboard guys are. Everything has to match up just so.

“Are you sure?” he says. “This is you? No, this doesn’t look like you at all.”

Who wants to hear a thing like that? How about this, instead:

“Yeah, yeah, come on in. And put your ID away. I’d know you anywhere…”

It’s a start, anyway.

[Photo by Falashad]

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

C. Hope Clark April 11, 2012 at 9:37 am

Completely awesome post. Living authentically is remarkably freeing and empowering. Excellent writing. Thanks.

C. Hope Clark

Brian April 11, 2012 at 10:59 am

And thank you, Hope. Not to mention, it helps free you from the muddle of having to stop and ask, “Who am I again today…?” :-)

Helen W. Mallon April 11, 2012 at 1:11 pm

It’s actually a little scary. I think it has to be. If the runner had played it safe, jobwifekidsscrewbeermondaymorningagain, he might be alive today. Crazy. That’s the thing. But yes, it’s the only way.

Allison Hawkins April 11, 2012 at 6:52 pm

Just what I needed at this moment. I’ve had a unconventional life, by choice, and if that means finances are sometimes dicy month to month, it’s never boring and I am never complacent. Many moments of the day I feel ALIVE, and to me, that’s the point of living.
Though recently I applied for a more conventional 40hr a week, benefits, 401K, cool job no less, and have put A LOT of energy into visualizing at least an interview. Today I found out I was not selected to interview. Very disappointed, but reading your post perhaps is a sign that something better, yet unusual and perfect for me is just around the corner. Plus, the job would interfer with my writing goals. So thanks. I felt the authenticity of your words.

Scribe April 12, 2012 at 11:31 am

My wife has just accused me of wanting to be a writer more than a husband. It’s an awful thing to have to choose between isn’t it?

Brian April 12, 2012 at 3:19 pm

@Helen: Well, you just never know, so there’s little point to living a life governed by constant trepidation and fear. No guarantees and potentially lots to lose. The ironic aspect about Caballo Blanco’s death is that, at the time, he actually was playing it safe, by his standards.

Christopher McDougall, author of Born To Run, writing for the BBC, begins a kind of eulogy piece this way: “The mysterious thing about the disappearance last week of Micah True … was that for once, we knew where he was.”

None of the everyday perils of Mexico’s Copper Canyons — the extreme desolation, the brutally unforgiving landscape, the narcotraficantes, etc. — were a factor across the border at an American wilderness park in New Mexico. He exhibited no signs of trauma. They said it looked like he just fell asleep beside the stream and never woke up.

@Allison: I’m glad to hear that the timing on this was spot-on for you. Sorry, though, to hear that the interview didn’t pan out. But then, as you imply, sometimes these things only take shape in hindsight. I had a similar experience shortly after graduating from college: went through a long selection process for something, and was ultimately tripped up for a completely benign reason: my liver produces 3 – 4 times the normal amount of an enzyme called bilirubin. I kid you not, that was how it played out.

A crushing blow at the time, but in hindsight, I’m glad.

@Scribe: Tough one, and it can’t have been easy to post that. Two questions come to mind, not that I’m directly asking for answers.

(1) Do you?

(2) Whose position is it that it has to be a choice?

I agree, it is an awful dilemma to have to make such a choice, but there are legions for whom following a demanding path and having a close intimate relationship isn’t an either/or choice. If it is, it’s either a bad match or requires work so that it no longer seems like a choice.

For some time now, I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a post that’s like a survival guide for writers and their partners, and this seems like the right nudge to go ahead and do it.

Scribe April 13, 2012 at 6:41 am

Thanks, Brian. I would certainly find a post like that useful.

Brian April 13, 2012 at 10:27 am

I hope it is. It’s underway.

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