Seeing the same horizon every day will keep you stuck where you are
People always spill their guts to me. I can be at Home Depot buying paint and the cashier will suddenly tell me that she needs her house painted but her husband died two years ago and she doesn’t know how to do anything on her own and she misses him so much and wishes someone would come along to take care of her and do I know any single men, they don’t even have to be good-looking, just decent and reasonably clean, with a driver’s license and a job.
I don’t know why this happens – how I’ve become the repository of spontaneous confessions, pleas, and stories from strangers – because I am not a people person the way many of my friends are. I prefer to keep to myself and that means I usually don’t seek conversation or invite it. Yet, it finds me. All the time. And often, it’s exhausting.
Several years ago, on a short flight from Buffalo, NY to Charlotte, NC, the woman next to me kept sighing deeply, her exhalations so powerful they ruffled the top-hairs of the person sitting in front of her. I was already on high alert: she’d made eye contact when she sat down, at which point I smiled and turned to look out the window. And I kept looking out the window until I felt a knot in my neck.
As we taxied down the runway, I watched how the scenery changed so quickly once the plane left ground. I love watching the horizon, how it shifts and expands, from the straight line of the runway to the blue curve of the earth.
Soon we were at our cruising altitude and my seat companion added aerobic fidgeting to her repertoire of attention-getting devices. She wanted to talk to me something fierce! But my heart was stingy – I had my own problems to work out, so I continued to stare out the window or, alternatively, pretend to be asleep. I heard drinks being offered. She took a beer and proceeded to spill it on me.
“Oh!” she cried, “I am so, so, SO sorry!” And then there was the obligatory offering of napkins and histrionics and self-deprecation. “I’m such an IDIOT!” she said.
The thing is, I could tell she wasn’t. I took the napkins, blotted myself dry, looked at her and smiled. She flung herself back in her seat and wasted no time getting to it:
She wanted to be an artist. She was good at painting and musical instruments. She’d actually performed with some respectable chamber groups. But then she got married, and against her better judgment allowed her husband to talk her into having children, something she wanted to postpone. “That was the end of my career,” she lamented, “and the end of my marriage, although I’m still married. But I’m not happy. The crazy thing is my husband mocks me for not following my dream!” She was silent for 15 seconds. “Why does he do that?”
I didn’t answer.
“Well,” she said, “I got myself into this. I just have to live with it. There’s no way out for me.” Then she assumed the brace-for-impact position by pressing her forehead into the seat-back in front of her, and went to sleep.
Encounters like these sometimes feel like an assault. There you are, minding your own beeswax, when an emotional hijacker holds a can of beer to your head and threatens to pour it on you unless you pay attention. But as I watched her sleep – a tight, desperate escape – I realized that it wasn’t her husband or her children who were holding her back. She’d chosen how to define her horizon. And in her world, that might as well have been the end of the earth.
Meanwhile, the horizon outside of the airplane window was changing again. The sun was setting, turning the clouds above the plane a furious pink-streaked orange. We began our descent into Charlotte, and the horizon became smaller. Once on the ground, I could only see the remnants of the sun as it launched its last few torches of color at the clouds. It was a very different view than the one I’d had only moments before.
The horizon is not where the sky meets land. The horizon is completely situational and how it looks depends on the angle at which you view it. It’s neither definitive nor limiting. Many people, sadly, make it both.
But then there are the remarkable, against-all-odds folks who see no horizon at all. All they see is forward. In my mind as we landed was Zach Anner, whom I’d met on this trip to Buffalo. Zach is the son of Susan Anner, a playwright and friend of mine from my years living in western New York. You may remember Zach from his TV show, “Rollin’ with Zach.” If not, here’s Zach in a nutshell: Born with cerebral palsy (the sexiest of the palsies he insists), confined to a wheelchair, he nevertheless decided he was going to pitch a travel show to Oprah, and got it. Now there’s a person for whom the horizon is infinite. Zach – who cannot walk -- has gone on to making hilarious exercise videos, and now he’s acting in TV sitcoms. He also wrote a book, If at Birth You Don’t Succeed.
It takes imagination to think this way, and courage, too. Only if the world were flat would the horizon be immutable, frozen in place, and a dangerous edge to navigate. After all, you’d fall into…what? Who knows, except for sure it would be no ride at Disneyland. We can be pretty certain if you fell off the edge of the earth there’d be neither dark chocolate nor adult beverages, and definitely no Chippendale dancers to help you while away the long eternity. But in the bubble of upper North America, no edge currently exists where these necessary staples do not. Whatever you think your end point is, think again. If you’ve stuck a pin in that horizon, then all you have to do is climb a ladder, a tree, or a mountain to see that the horizon you’ve defined for yourself is simply a dot on a much larger map. The higher you go, the smaller it looks, and the more infinite the landscape around it.
I’ll admit I’m sometimes guilty of defining my horizon: I’m “too old” to learn something new and complicated; too “physically wrecked” to try a challenging new sport; trying to re-learn French is taxing on my not-so-fast brain. But perhaps the gift of strangers unloading their burdens upon me is a reminder that defining our horizons is self-limiting. It is much, much easier to say “I can’t learn to water-ski because I have a bad back,” (a fixed horizon) than to do the work to get in good enough shape to at least try (a limitless one). These days when I think "I can't do that," I think of Zach, and then I reframe: "Oh yes, you bloody well can."
I’m currently making a list of all the things I want to do but have previously decided I can’t because of age, lack of talent or stupidity. And guess what, I’m going to try and do them. My horizon is now a moveable destination. I don’t need to tiptoe as I approach; I can head to it with full steam because – thanks to the dozens of strangers who’ve shared their cautionary tales, and one incredibly optimistic young man -- I’m quite sure I won’t fall off the edge when I get there.
What about you? Are you stuck in an unchanging geography? Are you ready to redefine your horizon?