A vacation is what you take when you can no longer take what you’ve been taking. ~ Earl Wilson
I seem to have taken a little hiatus from writing of late. It’s almost like I’ve taken a summer vacation. Almost. Sadly, I’m not good at taking vacations and have almost never done it. I’m one of those people who has always needed to take someone else along who was better than I at deciding how to have fun, how to decide what it is we need to do next. Well, decide what it is I need to do next. I may not have realized it then, but I’d already handed over the living of my life to other people – people whom I felt knew better how my life should be lived. Up the that point, I was pretty sure I’d already failed miserably at that task.
I had a great time at Six Flags once. I was probably nineteen and already had no idea how to fun. Fun, loosely defined, meant taking a risk and I was already pretty much done with risk by that point in my life. Not a dangerous physical risk, you understand. The risk was in looking stupid, looking childish. It meant trying not to offer myself up to ridicule by looking silly in the pursuit of enjoying a moment too openly. My friend would say, “Let’s ride the roller coaster.” I didn’t want to do that. Roller coasters are scary. They’re controlled danger, designed to raise the adrenaline level while, at the same time, keeping you strapped safely in place. I rode the roller coaster anyway and had fun.
See, there’s an equally disturbing second part to having fun. Not wanting to stand out, I agreed to do something I wasn’t sure I wanted to do in order not to look frightened or to appear to be too much of a stick-in-the-mud. Of course, I knew I was both. Life’s complicated, isn’t it? I knew I might actually have fun if I got on the roller coaster but couldn’t take that first step of my own accord. I needed some help to step outside my comfort zone and gamble there might be a reward in doing so. By comparison to the continent of the Americas, my comfort zone had already shrunk to the size of Rhode Island.
Years later, I took what was to be essentially my last vacation. I was still in my thirties. Here’s how it went:
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know, what do you want to do?”
“I don’t know, whatever you want to do.”
Now, imagine a week of that. Rule number one for taking a vacation when you’re uncertain how to do it? Make sure you’re going with someone who isn’t equally afraid of making a decision about what might be fun. Either of us could have been wrong, you see, and neither of us wanted that to happen.
As I recall, every other trip that might have been called a vacation could also be called a working vacation. Those were a little easier. Those were the type of vacations my family took when I was growing up. Too often, I suppose, we tend to do what’s familiar. We continue because it’s easier than taking a risk. Working vacations mean there’s less actual free time for which you have to take responsibility. Mary Crosby said, “I can enjoy a vacation as well as the next person, as long as I know it’s a vacation and not a premature retirement.” I suppose that’s always been another of my worries. I’m afraid to go away because someone might discover I’m not indispensable.
So, as apprehensive as I may have been about going on a mission trip with my church, I went. I suppose it could also have been seen as a working vacation. We had jobs to do when we arrived and there would be some off time to do as we would. I could choose to spend that time with others in the group or spend some of it for my own quiet time. I did a little of both. What I’d already learned by then was that how that trip went depended entirely on me. Entirely. I could open myself to new experiences and grow or I could spend a week in fear and do as little as I could get away with. Hopefully, I chose the former. But I knew how I perceived the week was dependent on remembering that I don’t and can’t control the actions of others. As long as I remembered to take care of my own little piece of Rhode Island (me), I could allow others the same courtesy without (too much) judgment.
I hadn’t taken a hat along with me for the mission trip because I was supposed to be working indoors. Besides, I hate hats. Well, hate may be a little strong. What I really hate is how I think I look in a hat. There, that’s a little more honest. And yet, I ended up one day working on the labyrinth one of the teams was building. I spent a lot of the day shoveling crushed concrete in the full sun.
It finally dawned on me that I should probably at least put on a little sunscreen. Later, I realized I hadn’t put any sunscreen on the back of my neck. I always seem to burn there worse than anywhere else. So, I finally decided to run back across the street to grab another one of my t-shirts. I put the neck of the shirt on my forehead and allowed the rest of it to drape over the top of my head and down my back. Some of the missioners thought I looked a little Egyptian that way. Rosa, another friend, said she was thinking more along the lines of Mary.
Bottom line? I didn’t care. I could laugh at Rosa’s comment because I knew there was no malice in what she said. In the past, I would have assumed malice and taken offense. I’ve found, however, life’s so much easier when I don’t do all the thinking for others. Oh, sure, I still do part of it for them, but not so much as I did in the past. And besides, Rosa’s comment was funny. Why wouldn’t I laugh? It’s a part of what having friends is all about.
But, I’ve been occupied with some real-life issues since returning from that trip. What is it, I wonder, that makes them real-life issues? I mean, as opposed to what? Unreal-life issues? It’s interesting sometimes to wonder where some of our expressions come from. It’s a little like reality TV, I think. If reality TV shows are what we believe are actual reality, no wonder we’re in deep trouble. They seem more designed to make us feel better – dare I say superior – to others. We can sit back with our beverage of choice and laugh at the antics of the characters. At the characters, not with. Another reason I don’t watch reality TV.
It’s not good, however, to look too closely at the things at which we are laughing. If we were to take a good, honest look at ourselves, we’d too often find our laughter is like the little boy whistling in the dark. He’s trying to distract himself so he won’t be as afraid. Can it be we’ve become a nation of people who need to look down on others in an effort to elevate ourselves?
Anyway, back to those real-life issues. Mission trip helped me see that I can move forward. I can keep fear in its place. Fear is a good thing in small doses. It helps us protect ourselves from real danger. Taken in too big a dose, however, it tends to freeze us in place. We can’t move forward for fear of what we may find a little way up the path. I’m finding that taking a little bit of fear out of the equation allows me to step forward a little bit and peer into the future. Unfortunately, perhaps, that means also peering into the past.
As long as I remain unwilling to look a little forward and a little back, it’s likely my present will look today just like it did yesterday. If I continue to be afraid of the answers, I will never ask the questions. And not just safe questions. At least in my case, I’ve found the only way to determine what I need to do next is by asking the dangerous questions. The but-what-about-that-scary-stuff questions that have frozen me in time for many years.
So, it’s time to ask questions, then really listen for the answers. If I ask the right questions – and those are simply the ones whose answers can frighten me the most – I can begin to see what I need to do in order to move out of a place of fear to a place of faith. It’s not like I haven’t done it several times in the past few years. It’s that more questions are revealed once I’ve acted on the answers I’ve received to the previous questions. It seems each new set of questions triggers yet another round of fear on my part. The difference, I hope, is that I’m beginning to learn that not asking the questions is more detrimental to me than asking them.
So, vacation’s over. It’s time to sharpen my Number 2 pencils and drag out my Big Chief notebook. There will be a test, of course. There always is, don’t you know? Fortunately, it’s not the grade I get that matters. What matters is that I came, I saw, and I surrendered. Conquering has always been a useless enterprise for me because the reality is that we never really conquer. The result is always that we discover we’ll need to conquer something else, then another something else, ad infinitum. Surrendering means never having to say “I’m sorry” to yourself. It opens my eyes to what’s real and allows me to take a step forward where others too frightened are still trying to conquer.
I’m finding there’s no need to apologize to myself as long as I know I’ve done the best I can do at any given moment. God asks nothing more of me. And I should never think less of myself for having tried. As long as I do what I can, I’ve not failed. If I wake up in the morning, I have another chance to find out who it is I’m supposed to be. That takes questions, answers, and the willingness to act on the answers to the questions I didn’t want to ask.