On Rubik's Cubes, Jenga, and Shakespeare

Have you ever watched someone successfully complete a Rubik's cube? Notice both the italics and bold of the term, "successfully", as I don't mean the completion of a Rubik's cube that involved slamming it on the table, throwing it against the wall, or taking a chisel to it. Maybe some of you smarty pants out there have been the ones who have had the attention of others watch in eager fascination as you so gracefully completed a Rubik's cube, as if learning to ride a bike was more difficult.

Me, I was the slamming on the table kind of Rubik's cube participant. I was the suit and tie guy in the Pursuit of Happyness who continued to spin the cube to no avail, while everyone else, the Chris Gardner's of the world, completed it in a minute. Evidently, people who score an 890 on the SAT (890 being the first score, and the highest, after three tries), not only fail at word problems, but also at Rubik's cubes. And so it was, for years, I treated life as if it was a Rubik's cube.

You see, for years, life was a puzzle; something of a riddle, game, or problem to solve. I would move the puzzle pieces one way, until I would hit a brick wall, getting frustrated and setting it aside until I had checked out long enough to collect myself and try again, the goal all the while, to reach that completed puzzle; to be able to say, "Problem, solved." Whenever I hit those brick walls, I thought I was doing something wrong. Was it something I did? Something I said? I often felt like the little kid trying to get the square peg into the round hole. I never quite seemed to measure up. Anything less than a completed puzzle was a failure. This went on for years, throughout my childhood, adolescence, college, and well into entering the "real world". When it all came to a head just three years ago, my life unraveled, beginning with the passing of my father, followed by getting laid off from my dream job, and then a divorce. I had come up against yet another brick wall, and I quit. I calmly put the Rubik's cube down, unfinished, never to pick it up again.

“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” ― Søren Kierkegaard

I'm sitting in a coffee shop as I write this. However, this isn't your usual coffee shop. Out one window I see the shadows of puffy white clouds hitting the West Maui Mountains, while on the other side I see the Pacific Ocean. A few tears run down my face, of which listening to Mumford and Sons certainly has contributed to. No, these aren't tears of sadness, nor are they tears of frustration at an unfinished Rubik's cube. Rather, these are tears of shear happiness and satisfaction, as I think about the last three years, which really seem to culminate this week, with it being the final days of my twenties. So what is it that I've accomplished? What prize or title am I being endowed with? Nothing.

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” - Randy Pausch

The problem with problems, puzzles, games, and Rubik's cubes is that eventually, once it has been solved, then what? What happens after you've completed the Rubik's cube? Is it on to another problem, a bigger one? Is it just this endless cycle of problem solving? These were the questions that I faced three years ago and I wasn't satisfied with the answers that I was given. I didn't like these puzzles and games that the world had created, in which there was only one solution. When I reached a brick wall, I didn't want the only solution to be to turn around and backtrack until I found the "correct", predetermined path to the solution. So what did I do? When I reached the brick wall, I decided to climb over it.

If I got any comfort as I set out on my first story, it was that in nearly every story, the protagonist is transformed. He’s a jerk at the beginning and nice at the end, or a coward at the beginning and brave at the end. If the character doesn’t change, the story hasn’t happened yet. And if story is derived from real life, if story is just condensed version of life then life itself may be designed to change us so that we evolve from one kind of person to another. - Donald Miller

It was at that time, almost three years ago, that I began to see my life as a story, rather than a problem. It was a story in which I was the author and that I could largely influence the direction of, unlike a Rubik's cube or puzzle, in which there was only one correct solution. For years I had been pursuing a life of what I thought I was "supposed" to do and what I thought others wanted of me. I was in effect, living someone else's story. And the world was getting nothing from that. And almost immediately upon starting to live life on my agenda, writing a story of my life that I wanted to write (And to be told), life slowly started to look up. I began to see the world, life, relationships, and myself like I had never seen it. I slowly began ripping the layers away of a very insecure, immature boy, and when I finally confronted myself for who I was and what I had become (It wasn't pretty), I could finally start to love myself, and thus, love others and this world that I lived in.

So what about me? I’m about to write my own story. What will it entail? Not sure. But do we truly ever know? If we really knew where we were going to be months and years from now, would it hold the same allure and sense of adventure? I do, however, know that it’s going to involve moving; and more than likely out of the country, probably on the beaches of Central America. It’ll also involve traveling and writing about it, mixed with some volunteering. These are the things that I’m most passionate about in my life, and it’s about time I truly pursue those passions.

Those words above are the words that I penned nearly three years ago. I've since taken a 9-month trip around North America, lived in a beach town in Costa Rica, lived in San Francisco, written a novel (Mind you, for NaNoWriMo) backpacked across Europe, and moved to Seattle, Washington. Two and a half years! I don't have any concrete answers to the whys and hows, I've just done it. Many times it began with a desire, followed by a brief glance at my bank account, and then the booking of a one-way ticket. The first step has always been making a firm commitment, such as booking a flight, because with such a big purchase, I'd then know that I had to follow through with it. Somehow, I think I've made it alright.

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. - Howard Thurman

"Your responsibility is to make sure I don't unravel." Those were the words I texted my best friend soon after my mom passed away a couple months ago. Remembering the course of my life immediately following my father's passing a few years prior, there was a part of me that was scared. However, almost immediately after sending it, a calm confidence swept over me, as I realized that I wouldn't unravel, not even close. And I didn't. I've never had such love and admiration toward myself and my family. It, like all things, is part of our story. It isn't a problem or regret, but rather something of a major chapter, act, or scene of our life.

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!” - Hunter S. Thompson

My twenties were something of a multi-act play, with each act building on the other. There were some acts that were much better than others, with some leaving much to be desired, but each building on the prior. I don't have any regrets and don't wish to wipe any parts of it out. That would be like pulling one of the wooden blocks out of a Jenga tower. One single removal weakens the whole structure. With every passing day, week, month, and year, my story continues to evolve, bringing life more and more full circle. Sure, some luck has trickled into my story, yet I would be remiss if I didn't say that this is the story that I've chosen to write for myself. Some of you have been following me since the inception of The Traveling Philosopher, some of whom I call it a great honor to have you as friends. Thank you for coming along for the ride the last couple years. Thank you for the comments, emails, tweets, and encouragement. Thank you for being a part of my story, whether big or small. May this story continue to evolve and keep yours, and my, attention, on into my thirties. Sometimes, the guy who got 890 on his SATs, shot himself in the finger (Literally), and dropped out of the education department in his fifth year of college to take up philosophy, starts his own business, wins the day, eat pray loves the world, and gets the girl eventually gets the girl. Or so it happens in his head, in his story of life.

I got 99 problems, but a Rubik's cube ain't one. - Spencer Spellman