The other day I heard a story on This American Life.
There was this kid. A kid who knew he was going to be in the NBA. In grade 8, he heard that the highschool across town had a good basketball team. So he begged and pleaded. And, he must have had good parents, because he got his wish.
It was a 40 minute commute and you had to cross a sketchy park, but for this kid, it was worth it. He was so excited to go to school, he showed up early everyday.
He didn’t make many friends at the new school, but all he could talk about was the upcoming basketball tryouts.
It was his “road,” his destiny.
But when the big day came, he choked. He missed layup after layup, freethrow after freethrow.
He didn’t even make the first cut.
And, predictably, that was it.
The kid’s performance at school suffered after.
He begged to be transferred back to the school in his neighbourhood. But they wouldn’t do it until the following year. That is, unless it was a “safety” transfer — if he was somehow in danger.
Most of us would leave it at that. Wait out the year.
Instead, the kid finds the kind of person you normally avoid eye contact with — while walking through the park on his way to school. And he stares at him, until he’s provoked the guy enough. Enough so that the kid is surrounded by this guy and his gang. And then of course they demand the kid’s stuff.
When it becomes clear to the kid that surrendering his hat is not enough to mollify the group, he bolts. And actually manages to make it to school safely.
Just like that, the kid got his transfer back to his old neighbourhood.
And — a lot changes in just a few months when you’re that age. The girls in his old neighbourhood tell him he got taller and hotter. The kid said he was just following his road, even if it took him back to where he started.
And that’s where the story ends.
I’m not sure why, but the story stuck with me. On the surface, the kid was the picture of teenage heedlessness. He literally risked his life to transfer a few months earlier. And yet, I don’t know.
I have been afraid all my life. At one point or another, afraid of dogs, of dancing, of women, of my own success. Of doing, of life.
At its worst, it’s this visor grip on your spine, a cage around your chest. Fight-or-flight response is in full-gear, but there’s nowhere to go. (Maybe it’s why I love travel so much. It satisfies my need to keep moving).
In fact, sometimes it feels like my entire life has been one long war of attrition between me and my fear.
When I was younger, I tried to calm the anxiety with rational thought. A social event wasn’t going to kill me. A math test was survivable, even if I hadn’t studied enough.
And at the lowest points in university, being rational kept me from even darker places — suicide never really made sense, neither did hard drugs.
But it took me a while to realize the approach had limits.
Life is not necessarily a straight line, or even a rational process of A leads to B to C to D.
Often, you’re staring at a fork in the road. It’s A or B. C or D.
And just as often, you can make a rational argument to take both paths. And really who knows where each path ultimately leads.
After you’ve laid the rational groundwork, there’s a lot to closing your eyes and just believing. Taking a leap of faith in yourself.
The kid had it right. It doesn’t matter where “your road” goes, even if it circles back to where you started. Because by then you won’t be the same person.
The This American Life podcast can be found here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/527/180-degrees
(I’ve relayed their story from memory, so I might have gotten a few details wrong.)