My friend sets down the magazine, crinkling his nose in disgust at some physical feat that he simply cannot comprehend. And how often do we all feel this way? The words escape as we read an account of a runner whose ultra-marathon habit leads him across hundreds of miles of rocky, mountainous terrain; or of a solitary traveler’s months-long journey through the feral jungles of the Amazon; or of a man whose determination to scale rock walls comes to fruition at the end of a rope-less climb to a remote peak. We scoff at the irrationality of these people, publicly wonder how such streaks of complete lunacy manifest themselves to convince an otherwise normal human being that idiocy is a good idea. We profess contentment with security, with knowing that our routine life and our routine job and our socially acceptable hobbies will not lead us to what seems to be certain death. We live at the eye of the hurricane, the center of life, incredulous at those who would brave the maelstrom outside the perfectly calm circle.
We grew up with dreams, to be ballerinas, football players, actors, even dinosaurs . . . We clung to these as we played with our toys, invented invisible worlds for ourselves in which life was happy and exciting and full. We nurtured our imaginations and fostered new ideas, finding and making friends based on the games we created with nothing but random sticks we found in the woods. Though unaware of everything the world had to offer, our childish minds wanted it all, wanted to see and smell and learn and stretch every possible moment before afternoon nap to include new scenes in our dream world.
Then somehow our brains organize themselves, shrink themselves to a more compact and orderly mass, fitting everything we know into a perfect box with perfect cubby holes. New ideas and original desires, instead of making for an interesting friend, are reason to become an outcast. We are young, and want nothing more than acceptance; for this we sacrifice our innermost hopes and our imaginary worlds, even as they blossom into mature dreams and goals. We wear the right clothes, watch the right shows, tell the right jokes and suppress anything that might make us “weird,” that might destroy this secure little box that we have painstakingly created for ourselves. It truly is our box – for we attempt to fit into the same space, every perfectly swept corner identical to all the others.
A unique few manage to retain that childlike core that is their true self, their deepest, darkest secrets and the bands of light and color that paint their souls and bring uninhibited joy. It is joy unmarred by piles of generic “feelings” suffocating one thing inside of them that is truly and purely beautiful. These are the nerds, the outcasts, the teenagers who dye their hair and bury themselves in non-mandatory books in between high school classes, speaking only to the rare few who harbor that same devotion to their very essence. They have abandoned a desire to belong to others in favor of belonging to themselves, and they watch, not with the judgment of those who fit in the box, but with the humanity of those who wish their wisdom and resultant happiness extended to every wretched creature they encounter.
We look back on those days and think what children we all were, to exalt acceptance above all else, to look at the girl with glasses and the bizarre skirt and think not about her unique qualities and how the world’s beauty depends on a mosaic of colors rather than one uniform gray stripe across a canvas. Life has taught us so much; we are so wise. We pat ourselves on the back for no longer acting like teenagers, and then we pick up a magazine with a record-setting skydiver on the cover.
And we agree because it’s the right thing to say.
My small soul longs for the epic. I hear, “That’s insane,” and think, I could do that. I could live at the exhilarating edge, battered by the wind and the rain and tossed like a tiny sailboat in the great Atlantic, but with every bruise and every tear that springs from my stinging eyes, I would know in my small soul that I was alive. I would know that those imaginary worlds I created as a child might not be imaginary after all; life might become whole and real instead of hollow, ringing with conformity. And as I emerge from the very depths of the storm, my scars will make me stronger, any disappointment more determined, the fear more aware of the precious, fleeting nature of life itself.
I long for the epic because that is life, in its most complete and fulfilled sense. The mountain passes call to me, impossibly bright hues of a blue lake set against the ancient gray of stone crags, the solitude unattainable in daily life embodied in the jagged peaks that stretch to eternity. A dark asphalt road, free of honking horns and frantic pedestrians, unfurls against a stormy sky in the distance, visible for hundreds of miles over the rolling golden threads of a Midwestern prairie, whispering the unbridled elation of a cross-country bike ride. I can feel my raw hands burning against a sandstone facade, my muscles shaking as I cling to the rock, inching my way with blatant disregard for gravity, blinking away the red, earthy dust that coats my eyelashes and tints my clothes.
I long for the epic because I want to taste my own humanity. I want to sprint with my lungs burning and my legs aching and I want to touch my own limitations, take them in my hands and quash them in utter defeat. I want to hear, “That’s insane,” and feel the swelling of my heart as I silently revel in the knowledge that I’ve been there, I’ve braved the terror and exhilaration of the hurricane and emerged victorious. A tiny pull at the corner of my mouth will be the only outward acknowledgment of such a life. I long for the epic because it requires no words of validation or explanation. I long for the epic because it is vibrant existence. It is, without embellishment or ornamentation, enough.