A buddy of mine was relating to me recently the story of his friend, a girl born in Southeast Asia. ‘Thirty-something years ago her family had to take off,’ he said. ‘There was all sorts of fighting going on, people being killed, and they had to sneak through the woods for days to get away, basically with nothing to their name.’ Eventually they made it all the way to America and managed, in circumstances I couldn’t imagine, to create a new life for themselves. ‘She was really young at the time, I don’t know how well she even remembers it all. But I’ll tell you what, she is one tough girl. We go running, biking, whatever, and she refuses to not keep up with me. And she’s only like this big.’ He stuck his hand sideways against my arm, just below my shoulder. ‘Dude, she’s amazing.’
I told my friend that I envied her in a way. It wasn’t that I wished I’d had her childhood instead of mine. And yet, part of me wished I did. ‘We grow up in a nice, safe place, all comfortable and fortunate,’ I said. My friend listened, staring back at me, eyes brimming with his own brand of intensity. ‘And we have no concept of what it means to be tough, you know? That idea, that understanding of what it is to have to survive…literally.’
I couldn’t find the right words then, and I still can’t today. Being tough…may be a choice. ‘World, listen up, I am going to be tough.’ But this means nothing outside of an environment that demands toughness, a set of circumstances that evokes what fortitudinous spirit exists, forges in us that mentality of nothing can fucking beat me, ever.
I wanted to have lived through what she lived through for two reasons I can comprehend. One, she knows that she can walk through the woods for several days while there is a war going on around her and survive. Two, so what could she possibly think she couldn’t do?
On a snowy day many years ago I decided to bike across Alaska, or at least part of it. To qualify, this was not going to be at all dangerous or risky; I’d be in a large group with an even larger logistical support caravan following along. The worst I had to fear was crashing my bike – from idiocy or exhaustion, and either way I’d be taken care of. This was, however, going to be a chance to find out how far I could go on a bicycle. From there maybe I’d find out more.
Since then I’ve biked thousands of miles through a dozen different countries, which while not any great feat is more than I might have ever thought possible if I’d never joined that ride in Alaska. More than this though is the world all that bike-riding has shown me – a world of adversity…of people…of a kind of beauty my relatively comfy childhood, however blessed, never showed me.
No one chooses where to be born. Those whose childhoods are marked by poverty, by illness, by the ravages of war would probably have chosen different lives if they could. I probably wouldn’t choose these things either. Who of us chooses any of our hardships? But life happens – bringing with it the opportunity to be tough. We’ve all had those moments. We all deal somehow. And on the other side we find out who we really are.
So if fate drops us in the middle of the woods somewhere, so be it. Maybe then we’ll find out just how far we can walk.