A couple weeks ago I had a troubling conversation with my father about choices. Well, actually, the conversation was initially about road cycling, but that conversation led to a more spirited debate about life, death, and how our choices affect those around us. It was one of those conversations that blindsided me and left me shaking my head. It’s amazing, really, how we can all be made up of the same matter and yet approach life differently.
The conversation started out simply enough. We were having a family dinner and my father asked my sister and I to explain our new dedication to cycling. I bought my road bike last year so my husband and I could do some distance bike events; then, this year my sister followed suit to keep up with her current boyfriend who is a triathlete. At first I thought his pondering derived from that generic, “I don’t really get it” kind of curiosity.
So, I explained to my dad that ever since I decided to stay home with my boys rather than work full-time I have been looking for something to give me a sense of accomplishment. I mean, I have a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Master’s degree in Writing, both of which do nothing for me currently but adorn a wall in my office. Okay. Okay. My degrees do assist me in coaching my sons on their homework, but that’s not much of a payout given the six years and 80-page thesis I put in to earn those framed beauties. And, I guess you could say that it’s an accomplishment raising two energetic and savvy young men. Sadly, however, on many days I feel frustration at my lack of progress. I am trying to bail floodwater with a teaspoon because no matter what forward movement I make the house is still dirty, the laundry pile grows exponentially, and the homework is there again the next day. It’s a wonderful but largely thankless job, which is why I enjoy a truly physical challenge (like completing the MS-150 bike ride with its two 75-mile days of riding) to bolster my shellshocked ego.
As I am explaining this to my father, I see no spark of understanding in his eyes and I realize there is something more to his questioning. He proceeds to tell us about a friend who died not too long ago; while riding his bicycle on a two-lane highway, he was struck by a semi and killed. It’s a horrible reminder of what is always a possible outcome of one of my bike rides. I acknowledge that cycling is not without its risks, but I also note that I am in better shape now than I was at 21 and I believe the benefits of cycling outweigh the calculated risks. Then, my father finally got to his point.
“Sometimes it’s not about you. It’s about the people whose lives would be affected deeply if something happened to you.”
I sat there for a few seconds in stunned silence. What he was getting at was that I should not ride my bike because he is worried about something bad happening to me. I suppose a more feeling-oriented person would acknowledge the fear of pain that my father spoke of and work to reassure him. Unfortunately for my father, however, I am not a person who acts from feelings; I am a person who acts from logic. And, while this primarily intellectual approach to life has caused me my share of trouble, it’s also given me the capacity to live with a fair amount of certainty in my actions. I’ve never once decided to ditch my bike ride just because it could leave me dead. I suppose it’s possible that I will die while cycling, but I also know it’s not really any more likely than dying while driving my car home from the grocery store. I’ve always considered every single thing in life a calculated risk, and I am at peace with that knowledge.
I admit that my annoyance at my father’s comment got the best of me, though, and I acted a bit more emotionally than I usually do. I closed my laptop with a deliberate thud and let loose.
“Listen,” I said with a much louder voice than I had intended. “I’m not going to stop doing something I truly enjoy because it might upset you if I unintentionally die while doing it. If you want to live your life for someone else’s worries, you go right ahead. I only get one go around, and I have no intention of getting to the end of my life only to realize that I lived someone else’s life instead.”
He looked at me blankly from across the table. At which point, his wife took the reins. She began crying about a student she lost years ago during her teaching career, telling us how much it hurt to lose someone in a tragic accident. It was time to let the argument go. Clearly there was going to be no rational discussion under these circumstances. I spent the remainder of the conversation dumbfounded and silent, but the entire incident stuck with me.
Then, the other day I remembered a bumper sticker I saw once. It said: “There are God’s plans and there are your plans. Your plans don’t count.” Isn’t that the heart of life? We can have the best of all possible plans and intentions. We can live with purpose, take care of ourselves, look out for others, and do everything right. We’re still going to die. And, let’s face it, most of us won’t have any control over when that exact moment arrives. So, I have to wonder why anyone would expend energy worrying about how the inevitable might happen. Yes. I might die at 42 in a tragic biking accident as I travel 30 miles an hour down the backside of the dam I ride over weekly. That’s entirely possible. But, then again, I also might be sitting in a home for seniors when I’m 92 like my grandmother and rereading what I’m writing here today. Either way, I won’t be enjoying life much now if I’m preoccupied with concern about things I cannot control. I must keep going forward, making my own way, trying new things, and squeezing out every last little experience I can get from life while that’s still an option for me.
I feel a twinge of sadness for my dad and his wife. They are surrendering precious moments of their lives to fear. Wouldn’t it be more productive instead to focus on what we can control -- how we choose to imagine ourselves and with what level of fervor we pursue joy in our lives? I hope they find another outlet for their fears because I have no intention of worrying while I’m pedaling up a beautiful and winding, two-lane canyon road on a perfect fall day. I only get one go around, and if it’s all the same I’ll probably keep going around on my bike. What God’s plans are for me, I can’t say. But, I do know this: whatever they are, I’m not going to worry about them now. I’ve ridden over 1000 miles this season, and it’s not over yet.