In July of 2000, I got on an airplane in Japan, and stepped off another airplane in Florida, ending what was probably the most formative year of my life—my year as a Rotary Youth Exchange student.
That was almost five years ago. A lot has happened since then. I've been through more escapes than I can count. I slipped into Falun Gong through the back door and tried to find enlightenment by spinning a giant swastika around in my belly. I put on a uniform and made an honest effort to become an officer in the United States Air Force. I forewent a meaningful education to work on a minor in high school teaching while writing a few hundred nodes about Japan on E2. I flipped burgers for spending money. I never quite figured out what the hell was going on with my life. It was one unrequited love after another, many long nights spent wandering around campus, drinking vending machine coffee and browsing websites in computer labs filled with tweaked-out architecture students, wondering about tomorrow, worrying about whether I would have a tomorrow at all. I broke down at a few points and thought about quitting and leaving it all behind. At one point, I went to see a psychologist, who referred me to a professional head-shrink off campus. I never went.
In the summer of 2003, I conned an internship on a short-lived presidential campaign, which eventually turned into a web design gig. I started paying less attention to class, less attention to work, and less attention to noding. I started politicking for fun, along with one of my best friends. Long nights spent alone in computer labs were replaced with long nights telling jokes over bottomless coffee at Denny's. I met a girl at a function who soon replaced long nights at Denny's with long nights of passionate sexual release. That was over before long, but there were other fruits: a key position on one of the largest legislative campaigns in 2004, followed by a scholarship at a decent law school despite a crappy GPA.
I know I've had some favorable divine intervention along the way, but it's come from something changed within... a new freedom built on denying all the fears I had built up through my life.
One friend of mine in Osaka, L, flew home to his small town in the southwestern US. A year or two later, he started having an online relationship with a girl he had known in Japan. She had been through a horrific struggle: raped by a neighbor, afraid to stay in her home, and needing someone to turn to. So she flew over for a few weeks, and by the end of their fling, they were married. As the story unfolded over countless IM sessions, I got the idea to start writing a novel based on it, where a character based on L and a character based on me would go back to Japan and end up in a vast adventure-like series of plot twists.
I started writing the story, but never finished it, because L's life outimagined me. As time went on, he became obsessed with returning to Japan to be with his wife. He went to school to study more Japanese, but eventually lost his trailer, and ended up living in his car and spending his days in libraries. His wife became less romantic and said she wouldn't let him move to Japan with her unless he showed his worth by getting a real job. Now, he's staking his existence on flying back to Osaka with a few hundred dollars in his pocket, in hopes of finding a job that will pay enough for him to stay. He isn't happy with where he is or where he has been; he's only happy with what he imagines—what he hopes—is on the other side.
Meanwhile, a friend of a friend told me about a little law firm in Tokyo that was looking for an American law student to summer there. I wrote to the hiring partner, sent a resume, and had a job offer within 48 hours. The pay isn't great, but I have what I've wanted for the last five years: a hook to go back.
The funny thing is, it's a hook I don't need any more. I used to fantasize about my return to Japan because it was better than dealing with the present. But now that I'm less afraid of the present, what good is an escape? I don't look forward to Japan as much as I look forward to a change of scenery, a new city to romp around in for a while, an excuse to learn those parts of the language I've long since forgotten, and a line on my resumé that will poke recruiters in the eye. Of course, anything could happen along the way, but why die before I'm dead?
I read quite a bit about politicians while I was in college. Abraham Lincoln was one of my favorite stories. He was a man fighting a thousand losing battles... a poor, funny-looking guy from the middle of nowhere, who never did anything quite right. Yet, before he died, he made it all the way to the White House, and now, he's among the most revered figures in the history of the United States. He didn't get on the five-dollar bill through fear; he got there through pressing ahead. His big failure of a speech, the Gettysburg Address, is now cast in stone a hundred feet high as a monument to faith in freedom.
Not long after that, Theodore Roosevelt was a scrawny kid who always seemed to be destined for a short and nasty life. At some point, he gave up on that line of destiny, and started exercising his body and mind. He volunteered to get on a horse and ride into cannon fire in Cuba. He became the most powerful man in the Western Hemisphere while climbing trees and swimming in the Potomac at random.
Someone once asked Teddy how he could be so damn fearless. Teddy had a simple reply: "Acting as if I were unafraid, I gradually ceased to be afraid." After a while, I figured out what he meant.
There was a girl I went to high school with, who went overseas on exchange at the same time I did. We were friends, but she was a bit older than me, and we were going down different routes in life. As I finished high school, she was studying at a language school in France. I started college out of town as she started college back in town. She left the country again to study abroad in Europe.
So as we both fluttered around through life, we would only see each other a handful of times every year. She and I would go somewhere, maybe take in a movie or have dinner together, but there was never any touch of romance. To me, she was almost intimidating—smart, classy, very good-looking. After a while, I started telling myself that "this time, I'm going to take her hand," but it never actually happened. The anti-Teddy in my head would always remind me that discretion was the better part of valor.
I found myself at home in Florida for a week, the gap between classes and finals. I called her, and we decided to see a movie together. Standard procedure. She showed up that afternoon, we drove to the theater, we had dinner. We came back to my parents' house, which she had never actually entered. And I kept thinking, "Something's gotta give."
I walked her out to her car, and then we negotiated our next hang-out time. Anti-Teddy shut up. I touched her hand. She smiled. She asked me if I would come to her house later in the week, and I told her I would.
That day, I drove to her house. We sat for hours talking about everything and nothing in particular. I played with her dogs, and played with her hair when the dogs ran off. We went out for some food and came back as some of her relatives were coming over for a family event. I figured it was time for me to go; I had a flight to catch in the morning. So she walked me out.
I took her hand as the front door closed behind us. In the driveway, she put her arms around me. "I like you, I really do," she said. Without further comment, she put her hands around my head and kissed me... the kiss I had been waiting for all those years. And just like in the movies, we were surrounded by fireworks and the London Symphony Orchestra, although nobody knew it but us.
"Free your mind," Morpheus told Neo. Back in 1999, I thought of shunning reality altogether. But now, I think of it differently. Teddy's younger cousin spoke of "freedom from want and fear." That freedom is out there, but it doesn't come to us unless we're willing to give up our want and give up our fear.
So many people, young and old, hide their fears under shadows of want. They're right here on E2. Hell, I was one of them not too long ago. But the future does not belong to want, and the future does not belong to fear. If the future belongs to anything, it belongs to freedom.
Go free your mind. While you're at it, free your heart. Before you know it, you'll free your soul, and you'll thank God for it. All it takes is a little step in the right direction; one hand unafraid to hold another.
thanks to John Kerry's speechwriter for the node title
Postscript: She disappeared on me, then we got back together, then I shagged her brains out in a hotel room in Tallahassee, then she disappeared again. So, um, yeah. But the point is, I'm not afraid. And that's why I've hooked up with someone even better since then.