Contrary to what my folks believed, I wasn’t audacious by nature. If anything I was an aimless young woman fueled by anger. My sole driving force was to be unique, to be different from my parents.
Dad never outgrew the role of mistreated farm boy. He was a bigot who ate meat and potatoes, drank Schlitz, and smoked unfiltered Camels cigarettes. Mom was the quintessential Good Girl from Kathryn, North Dakota, a rule follower, who watched life safely from the sidelines. Each time someone stuck his or her neck out and got slammed, she’d crow in vindication.
The Iranian graduate student I ended up marrying appeared to be everything my parents were not: exotic, adventurous, confident, and sophisticated. Clearly he was placed on earth to rescue me from this horrendous genetic fate. What I refused to see, however, was that he promised to be a lot of other things as well. It didn’t dawn on me that his country— famous for a hostage crisis, an Islamic Revolution, a dour Ayatollah, and an 8-year war with Iraq— might offer a whole host of “interesting” challenges to a rebellious girl like me. It took awhile to recognize that moving to Iran had been a tactical error. I had to witness several of my friends lose much of what they loved—their homes, their kids, and their sanity—before I could spot the setup for disaster in my own married life. What, I wondered, had ever allowed me to think, even for a minute, that trouble couldn’t befall me as well? A little wiser, a little worse for the wear, I eventually tucked my tail between my legs and slunk back home.
Not long ago, I was listening to a TED talk with JK Rowling. In a commencement address, she said:
“It is impossible to live and not fail unless you live so cautiously that you might as well have not lived at all. Then you fail by default.”
As justice would have it, now I’m the (roll eyes here) mother. It’s my turn to watch as my headstrong daughter, freshly graduated from college, ventures out into the great big world. Despite her having far more aim, far more purpose then I ever did at that stage, some of her plans don’t seem sensible from a parent’s perspective. Living in Cairo on a grant, for instance, despite the Middle East implosion. Forgoing a J-O-B in favor of touring India with her bestest buddy. A chip off the old block, my daughter will wind up suffering because, as Rowling notes, it’s impossible to avoid. Being young and dumb, like I once was, she has no way of measuring what she stands to lose. She has no idea what questions she ought to ask.
The problem is— and this is what you don’t get when you’re young, or reckless—some mistakes have too big a price tag associated with them. Some mistakes just can’t be taken back. Some mistakes change everything. And generally not for the good. But not to dare is the greatest mistake of all. The thing about life is that none of us gets away unscathed. We all suffer loss. We all fail. We all get betrayed. We all betray. We all die. How you choose to live your life— risk taker vs. Nervous Nelly— comes down to this one question: While you’re here, what kind of person do you want to be? Knowing that no matter what you do, no matter how well you hide, you’re eventually going to get nailed? Will you cower or blaze your own unique trail?
My experience in Iran, as troubling as much of it was, provided me a priceless education. It changed who I was. Had I stayed home where it was “safe,” I wouldn’t be this woman here today. What would I choose for my own identity-seeking daughter? A life of safety like her Grandmother? To never learn who she is by trial? Or one in which she takes on the world half-cocked? To risk God knows what? The answer, to me at least, is obvious.
Knowing that, in one form or another, you will fail, how will you choose to live your life?
Ann Sheybani, 48, is a high altitude mountaineer, ultra-distance runner, and blue water sailor. She is a speaker, coach and author of the popular blog, Things Mama Never Taught Me. Visit her atwww.annsheybani.com. © 2011 Ann Sheybani