Observations: Paths in a great nation

Published on: June 8, 2016


The plane is over Florida bound for New York City. My heart is leading me somewhere, I’m just not sure where yet. Mitch Traphagen photo.

The plane is over Florida bound for New York City. My heart is leading me somewhere, I’m just not sure where yet. Mitch Traphagen photo.

June 9, 2016 — In a wealthy nation, it seems that many people are equally blessed and cursed to have a choice in life between a path of convenience and a path of the heart. For a very lucky few, those paths coincide. For many others, certainly for me, the paths could not be more divergent.

Years ago, I heard the late singer Dan Fogelberg talk about the two paths, something he certainly knew much about. Like me, he was a child of the rural Midwest, where expectations tend to be different, more conventional perhaps. But Fogelberg chose to follow his heart. It probably wasn’t always easy.

By definition, choosing the path of convenience in life would seem to be the easiest course. Who doesn’t like convenience? The path may appear to be a smooth one, while the path of the heart sometimes appears to be an unknown with little visibility beyond the roots and other obstacles that can be seen only when up close, and after life’s dice have already been rolled.

Life is short, and dreams are oh-so-easy to squander. For all you know, the guy driving the garbage truck down your street is secretly an opera singer or a sous chef in his heart. The person bagging your groceries could well be someone pining to create art.

Yes, having a steady job, a comfortable existence and knowing where the money will come from to pay the bills is certainly a luxury that most people in the world could not even imagine. But then again, dreams unfulfilled could turn into regrets once divergent paths reach a point where there are simply no further options, no detours left.

As Americans, we are blessed with a culture that not only allows taking chances, it tends to encourage us to do so. Unfortunately, the outcome is up to us alone, along with hard work and, perhaps, a good bit of luck.

The late bestselling author Leo Buscaglia is quoted as saying, “The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn, feel, change, grow or love. Chained by his certitude, he is a slave; he has forfeited his freedom. Only the person who risks is truly free.”

The American culture of venturing out of our comfort zone in search of something better, to create more, to accomplish much, is rooted deep into our collective psyche. It is, perhaps a gift from the nation’s founding fathers, who risked both their wealth and their very lives to create the greatest nation in history.

There are people who, by default, have already risked or sacrificed for something larger than themselves: those who serve or have served in the military, law enforcement officers and other first responders, teachers, nurses and doctors, and many others, all can sleep at night knowing they are accomplishing something significant, not just for themselves but for others. And while each of the above carries risk, sometimes to life itself, and each no doubt carries frustration and sometimes anguish, each is also a path that must be chosen by the heart. The stakes are simply too high to not have your heart in it.

As is often the case, I’m writing these words at 35,000 feet and 600 miles per hour aboard a JetBlue flight from Tampa to New York City. In a week, I’ll board another JetBlue flight to return to Tampa. While I know the plane is bound toward America’s largest city, I have no idea where my heart is leading me. All I know is that at 53, I’m not done yet. But I do know it’s not an easy path, and I’ve tripped over more roots and branches than I care to count.

Tom is a flight attendant who slipped me two small gifts that, on this flight, are much appreciated. He even asked if I’d like a third. Tom may well be on his own path of the heart; a person who helps to smooth over the rough spots in the road less taken.

And then, along with another flight attendant, Dominique, they helped an elderly paraplegic woman into a special wheelchair designed to fit into the narrow aisle of the plane and gently, respectfully took her to the forward restroom.

Think what you like about airlines as soulless, money grubbing machines, but their face isn’t that of a corporation; it is that of people like Tom and Dominique. They could do nothing more human and more humble than helping that woman into the restroom.

To me, that is the path of the heart. Perhaps Leo Buscaglia was too coarse and brusque in his quote. Risk simply for the sake of risk isn’t romantic, nor is it necessarily admirable. Risk can simply be doing what is right and what is needed despite all else.

If the guy driving the garbage truck with dreams of being an opera singer is sacrificing to ensure his family is fed and clothed, there is nothing convenient about that. He is, in fact, following his heart with his family — the greater dream. And that, my dear reader, describes so many life stories, particularly among those born in the Greatest Generation. Sacrifice, and the love that drives it, comes from the heart.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t reach for the stars. That doesn’t mean we can’t crash through the trees and the brush forging our own paths. Whatever it is that you do, reach for a little more, try a little harder, look farther on.

It’s what Americans do. We don’t need anyone to make America great again. As we throw off the chains of certitude, as we reach beyond the confines of certainty, it is up to us to keep it great. We don’t follow, we choose our own paths.