A couple of columns ago I wrote about what I termed the pain of giving up a comfortable life ashore to set off on an open-ended cruise. More than one of you have since wondered why, if Olga and I find the transition so distressing, do we do it? It is a fair question—one we ponder every time we find ourselves setting off on the road less traveled.
Our families and friends ashore, the ones we leave behind, wonder the same thing. The inevitable separation resulting from our departure is just as painful for them, perhaps more painful as it is not of their making. “Your life is so good,” they say. “Why are you doing this?”
For me, perhaps the best and certainly the most colorful explanation was formulated by a dockside philosopher of the first order, the late Dick Bradley. Some of you will remember Bradley from his pithy columns in Motor Boating & Sailing a couple of decades ago. When our friends ask why we are making such a wholesale change in our lives, our attempts at making them understand nearly always includes Dick Bradley's take on the question. More than anything else, we say, this small gem of insight seems to turn on the lamp of understanding. It deserves a contemporary audience, so with appropriate attribution, allow me to share with you Dick Bradley's Rickety Card Table Philosophy.
According to Bradley, sometime early in each of our lives, God sets an old card table in front of each of us. This is not the octagonal-cherry-wood-and-green-felt kind of card table. The kind of card table Bradley had in mind is an old fashioned folding card table with leg hinges of questionable integrity—a rickety card table.
Once the rickety card table is in front of us, God dumps an incredibly difficult jigsaw puzzle onto the cardboard top. The puzzle is made even more challenging by the fact that there is no picture on the box, just a note that says “Assembling all the pieces correctly will result in a clear picture of why you are here.”
Some of us start on our puzzles right away, while others wait until life takes a turn or two we don't understand. Sooner or later, though, we all begin to spend a lot of time trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Eventually each of us holds the last piece in our hands and there is only one remaining hole in the puzzle. With great satisfaction we snap this last piece in place, stand back to view the resulting picture, and say, according to Bradley, something like “Oh, now I understand!”
|"Comfortable, at least the way we use the word to describe the lives most of us construct, is nearly the opposite of stimulating."|
By the time we put that last puzzle piece in place, most of us have reached middle age. Bradley observed that most of his friends were, at that point, content to have life “figured out.” While there might be some nostalgia for the rush of making progress on particularly difficult sections of the puzzle, few had any interest in doing it all again. They had 50 or more years invested achieving this state of understanding, and they were not about to start over.
So most people spend the rest of their lives protecting that rickety old card table, their arms outstretched as they try to keep it from getting bumped. They panic when the flow of life jostles the table, fearing that one of those sorry legs will buckle and spill the puzzle to the floor, taking with it their clear picture of their lives.
Bradley could see this in his friends because when he was around 50, they began to congratulate him on getting his own puzzle assembled. “You've got it made now, Dick,” his friends would tell him. “You can just sit back and relax now, boy.” But Bradley wasn't thinking about the pretty picture on his completed puzzle. He was thinking that it was finished, and now what? Dick Bradley was bored.
So instead of protecting his own rickety old card table, Bradley did something that shocked most of his friends. He stepped back from the table and gave the bottom of it a mighty kick, scattering the pieces of the puzzle “all over hell and gone.” Then he looked up and said, “OK God, shoot me down another puzzle.”
For Olga and me, kicking the card table every so often keeps life interesting. The world is so big and so full of interesting people, places, and experiences. Comfortable, at least the way we use the word to describe the lives most of us construct, is nearly the opposite of stimulating. As for security, you cannot hide from bad times. They will find you sitting on your porch in a rocking chair. The good times aren't nearly as outgoing. The best times, at least for us, nearly always happen when we don't already know what tomorrow is likely to bring.
So we periodically abandon the conventional life to thrust ourselves out into the wider world. It isn't easy, and by conventional measures it sometimes looks downright dumb, but we find the courage (or perhaps imprudence) to make the leap. Invariably we are rewarded with experiences that we come to value above all else. Quite often we share many of those experiences with new friends—friends forever lost to us had we elected to stay at “home.” We also are able to share our new experiences with our old friends, who travel vicariously with us.
As for the pain of transition, it is soon no more than an indistinct memory. This is better, I think, than for excitement to be an indistinct memory. To keep life interesting, maybe you want to give your own card table a kick.