Saturday, June 21, 2008

Another Lens for the Flying Dutchman

Could you give up everything you know in life and start over? Ian Usher, a man in Perth, Australia selling his life after an undisclosed incident of his marriage ending, is planning just this. Pondering this led me to think of "walking the earth" to find oneself, then to the movie Forrest Gump, in which Forrest dropped everything to run back and forth across the country. Then, I thought about a movie that Gump beat out for the Best Picture Oscar in ‘94 -- Shawshank Redemption. The main character was wrongly imprisoned after his wife and secret lover were murdered, eventually leading him to detach from the world and switch to a life of paradise on a tropical beach. Then Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, came to mind--since his exile from his homeland of Tibet, he has since become a figurehead, author of many books, spiritual role model, and all-around influential person the world over. The idea of taking up root and starting over is simultaneously romantic and scary.

" must wander around the world, on probation, as it were, in search of adventures, so that by bringing some of them to a happy conclusion, one gains such fame and renown that when one does go to some great monarch's court, one is known as a knight by one's deeds..." -Don Quixote

Walking the Earth
"Basically I'm just gonna walk the earth. You know, like Caine in Kung Fu - walk from place to place, meet people, get in adventures." – Jules in Quentin Tarentino's Pulp Fiction

I see a few explanations why people could answer yes to the question posed at the top:

  1. Acute suffering - Some aspect of living the current life has become so distressing that the person wants to start over, just be free from the stressors that bring about the suffering.
  2. Desire to find oneself - A mild version of this is a mid-life crisis, when a portion of your identity is lost, and there's a strong need to understand the self. Desire and fear are ultimately 2 facets of the same gem -- fearing that you don't have what you need is a desire, and desire comes from a quest for status or completion, hence fearing that you're not high enough in status or not whole.
  3. Boredom – “A restless sense of boredom is often what people express they feel when they are trapped but haven't been able to pinpoint the source of the problem. Many people turn to escapism to run from a life they don't know they have the power to change…” Gaelen Billingsley’s “3 Steps to Freedom”
  4. Epiphany - A change in the self so profound that one reaches non-attachment and feels compelled to see the world and share in it.
  5. Non-attachment - You are able to appreciate the life that you lead, but realize that it is not what is truly important, so you are not attached to the structure of it, you do not identify with it, and thus can move on from it.

These reduce to really 2 things: incompleteness (1-3) and perfect completeness (4-5). The incompleteness tracks are chosen when one is so mired in pain that it cannot be coped with under normal circumstances, it’s a coping mechanism or a search for completeness. I wish for everyone that these travails lead to nonattachment rather than detachment.

In the perfect completeness case, it is that the roots in the material have blissfully withered, and the person is free to walk by choice. “Possessions delude the human heart into believing that they provide security and a worry-free existence, but in truth they are the very cause of worry.” [Bonhoeffer] Possessions are prison. Possessions are shackles, and when one is free of the shackles, one is free to roam.

A New Lens: A Gift, Not a Curse
Similar to walking the earth, Wagner's Flying Dutchman trope describes a person forced to wander the world. Similar concepts, the difference is that in the former it is done by choice while the latter is viewed as a curse.

But a curse is just our mind choosing to punish us, to look at the glass as half-empty, or in John Milton’s words: “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.” I am grateful to Gaelen Billingsley for offering me new lenses (great metaphor for a new way to look at a situation) to view struggles that I go through, things that I may have viewed as unfair or curses. One powerful lens is to look at a curse as a growth opportunity. An unfair situation is a precious gift, a chance to learn, to grow, to be free; Albert Camus put this beautifully: “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was within me an invincible summer.” The physical world offers several such metaphors; it reveals the truth to us. A curse is a forge, in which intense heat and pounding can yield a glorious blade. In the heart of a volcano, undisciplined carbon transcends it’s chaotic form to be a diamond.

Post Script - Good luck, Ian Usher! May you find peace and joy on your path.


  1. Having undergone a "starting over from scratch" (admittedly I was only nine years old and was not exposed to all the challenges that a starting over later in life would have involved) I can answer yes with one condition. As long as the starting over involves only abandonment of material and geographic connections and not the personal ones. My personal starting over was made easier by the fact that my entire family was involved and I although I could imagine another such beginning I cannot imagine it if severing ties with loved ones were necessary.

  2. Giving up your old life and starting over from scratch to a greater or lesser degree is the story of every immigrant who has come to America. Nowhere in the world is it easier to get a second chance at life than here.