Where Intelligence Meets News Analysis.

The Hungry Life

George Gray

I HAVE studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

          —Edgar Lee Masters


Different times a year my mind wanders through these lines of Masters’. I was a dreamy 17 year-old in a High School classroom when we first met … and though now 32, to me, these lines are still eternal.

For a bit of context; George Gray is one of two-hundred-and-twelve deceased citizens in Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. Published in 1915, it is an unabashedly candid collection of self-written epitaphs by citizens of a fictional town in Illinois called Spoon River. As you can read, George Gray, a one-time resident, attentively now broods over the matter of his unattended life.

And for several weeks now, my mind has wandered here more often than the usual, at times multiple times in the course of a week. I clearly think it is because this past year has been the most daring of years. With a certain level of audacity comes a constant craving, nagging almost, for a reminder of purpose. It is the mind’s palliative medicine to self in the overwhelming face of the unknown.

I have always felt the need to take risks, and I have taken risks. But nothing so bold as walking away this past spring from a secured full-time employment in which I earned a pay in the top 2% of folks my age. It goes without saying that it was the most I had ever made at any point in my life. Yet I only stayed in the job for six months. There was a debilitating restlessness within me. I felt I was on some enviable but unfulfilling autopilot. Granted, there was a sense of jittery and then that of accomplishment within the first couple of months of starting the job, but those soon faded away.

When I finally opted for an out-of-the office contract gig that would give me some flexibility to chase an idea, (an idea upon which I couldn’t help but brood), I put in my two weeks’ notice. I remember being asked by a program manager if it was about the money. I couldn’t even lie and say It was. And when I was asked if I could stay a month instead of the two weeks I had given, I obliged. The company had been good to me.

I began to put together the bones of my own company, together with three friends whom I had approached about the idea. Our first partner meeting, on a spring afternoon, was at a dark faux-oak table in my dining room. During the spirited discussions and debates, I thought I heard the walls reverberate with a million possibilities. Sorrow had knocked at my door, and I wasn’t afraid.

December came a few weeks ago and with it its winter, and somehow four partners (myself included) had in the course of months become three. In what seems a hectic dash across the nation in pursuit of leads, attending conferences, networking within the industry and knocking on doors, we were ending the year substantially thousands of dollars in the red without having sold a single commodity or service worth a penny.

Personally, I soon after a few months lost the contract gig I mentioned earlier; the demands of a startup didn’t give me enough latitude to be as readily available and focused as I needed to be. I spent the next three months of the year living off credit cards and savings and looking for a similar job to pay bills for which I just needed cold cash. It felt obvious; I had attempted to put meaning in my life but here I was, the conductor of a symphony that was turning rowdy, raucous and rebellious.

The year wasn’t all gloom and doom. Though as a small business my partners and I witnessed several expectations and goals go unrealized, we still made some tangible achievements. Chief among them were getting a state certification as well as a much treasured and sought federal certification.

In thinking of these, one of the biggest comfort I get is knowing that ambition called and I dreaded not the chances. It occurs to me that no greatly successful man or woman can truly say he or she never had a moment where the thought of quitting wasn’t live and well. Yes, I know, you will be hard-pressed to find one that will assent to this. But this I know for a fact: despite your talent and your charm and your best of bests of efforts, if you strike hard and often enough, you will come against certain mountains even these cannot move. What do you do then? I think what follows is what has made great men and women successful and not that they’ve never thought to quit.

It is choosing not to begin to breakdown or disband what you have built to that point, when all your senses are spent and you are conscientiously lost for new ingenuity. The uncommon sense to be passive in your fatigue for just a few. One may eventually have to dismantle to rebuild, but I have observed that that moment of passivity, of nothingness, is sacred and invaluable.

It is the vision I have of a man in a canoe at sea. He’s been paddling for so long and has become worn, demoralized and disoriented by the failure to reach the shoreline. Instead of summarily giving up by jumping into the sea to swim an endless stretch of water – leaving his fate to the sharks or an eventual drowning — he silently sits there and takes in his misery for another minute, another hour.

And somehow, when he finally agrees he’s spent and could go no further, he sees a big wave coming and the die-hard within him somehow mounts a sliver of hope – thinking maybe just one final time, one more try. And as he decides to ride the momentum of the new wave to shore, there’s a sudden rebirth. He’s encouraged by the stride of his new motion and somehow finds out that the gracious hand of providence gently lends an eager hand.

It is a new year and I’m raising still my sail to catch the winds of destiny – wherever they drive the boat. I am buoyed by these words of John Calvin Coolidge, America’s 30th president: “Nothing in the World can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent.”

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