II. “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” – Howard Thurman
Shortly after I returned from trekking to Everest Base Camp in my early thirties, I went to an event where Beck Weathers spoke. In 1996, Weathers was climbing towards the summit of Mt. Everest but turned back from his attempt because of a problem with his eyes. A storm blew in, Weathers became disoriented in the descent and then collapsed not far from tents of camp 4. By then the storm was raging and he lay there for more than 12 hours. Then he woke up. He came to and he walked the short distance to the tents where he received some haphazard help – partially because of the storm and partially because he was so close to death that no one thought he’d survive. But he did, though he had several more days of walking down the mountain, with heroic rescue attempts from both climbers and a helicopter pilot who dared to land at 21,000 feet and carry him down. Even though I knew the ending, I sat in the first row of the audience completely transfixed as he spoke. The drama of his story was captivating but it was the awakening to his life that was inspiring. It was impossible not to see his reconstructed nose and the arm that they had to remove from the elbow down and be unaware of the physical recovery that he underwent. The most touching part, however, was his emotional recovery. He saw the bigger pattern that he had been running from depression for most of his adult life, using climbing as a distraction and facing that reality really made him come alive again. My take away wasn’t only about the danger he faced on Mt. Everest, but the danger of forgetting to face life head on instead of going numb and forgetting to live. I couldn’t foresee how it would apply to me, not then anyway.
About the time that I heard Beck speak, I got my first dog, a beautiful mastiff named Samantha. She was 150 pounds of pure sweetness and love and most of that weight seemed centered in her head where her enormous brown eyes had the power to hold me in place. I’d had plenty of attachments before — boyfriends, jobs and even owned a house, but Samantha was the first love that I felt responsible for. She walked me through the transition from carefree young adulthood into the rigors of real life. My consideration for Samantha affected the decisions I made about where I went, when I came home and even what work I did as I had to factor in her care and capabilities in the choices I made.
I soon added many more responsibilities– business partners, a husband, employees and clients. When my business partner told me of my husband’s infidelities, so much of the structure of my life fell apart after eight years of marriage. I was so stunned and shattered that it took quite some time for me to realize I was frozen and half-dead, maybe even three-quarters dead, from all the responsibilities I had signed up for. Even in retrospect, I’m not sure exactly how I became so numb though it was some combination of work that had too much interpersonal drama that I couldn’t solve and not enough of what I loved, which was solving customer problems and a marriage in which I was too focused on facilitating someone else’s passions instead of following my own, not to mention the bottle or so of wine I was drinking every night. In the complex mix of personalities and agendas both at work and at home, I started feeling unheard so I stopped showing up with my truth. It wasn’t work or marriage in and of themselves that drained away my life force but the pieces of myself that I swallowed to stay in situations that weren’t healthy for me. Unlike in my relationship with Samantha, I didn’t have responsibilities – I had excuses for not participating in life.
Beck Weathers’ story provided perspective now on coming back from the dead and on how to recover by facing the core of what wasn’t working for me. Responsibilities, not excuses for engagement, are the core of living. I think of Howard Thurman’s words now and ask if what I am doing serves what I or the world needs. The answer helps me find my way to being responsible and being fully lit up. It reminds me we have an obligation to be alive, which is more than just keeping appointments; it means truly showing up.