Radical Aliveness

Michael - Denver, Colorado
Entered on September 19, 2008
Age Group: 50 - 65
Themes: carpe diem

As a psychotherapist I often ask clients, “What do you want most out of life?” The answer that has most resonated with me was from a man with AIDS who said, “I want lots of adventures and experiences, so when I’m too sick to get out of bed, I’ll have lots of great memories and stories to tell.” I have been involved with the AIDS crisis since the beginning, helping people deal with their illness, and in the first two decades, deal with their impending death. During the nineties I was attending a funeral or memorial service every month. I have known over eighty people who have died from AIDS related infections. So the fragility of our lives has been very much in the forefront of my awareness; and had a great impact on what I have come to believe about life.

Helen Keller said, “Life is a grand adventure or nothing at all.” Like my client with AIDS, this reflects a carpe diem philosophy where you grab the gusto and go for the gold. But even with disabilities and limitations life can be an adventure. More than one person I’ve known who is a “short-timer,” or person with only weeks to live, has said to me that their wish was for just one more good day, with enough energy to go outside, or experience one more thunderstorm or sunset.

When I was in the midst of all these people dying I decided not to put off until I retire doing what I really wanted to do. I don’t have HIV, but it was clear that I might not make it to retirement. Life is fleeting and fragile. So at forty years old I began my own “bucket list”. The first thing I did was take up scuba diving, which was something I’d wanted to do since my high school years. At this point I’ve done over 150 dives, with the most interesting being in the Galapagos Islands accompanied by lots of sea lions, and hundreds of hammerhead sharks.

My interests have shifted to on-land international trips. I’ve had an enduring interest in photography, as well as other cultures. My early aspirations to be an ethnographer were squelched in college with the responsibilities of a wife and daughter, but now in my later life this interest has been able to bloom again. My last several trips have been focused on photographing indigenous cultures in China, Tibet, Nepal, India, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Vietnam. In all my travels I have visited about two dozen countries.

I’ve had wonderful encounters with people in the process of photographic interactions, especially with the ability to give them Polaroids. In remote areas where people rarely get pictures of themselves I would typically gather a crowd, tugging on my sleeve, “Take my picture!” they’d say in languages that I understood only because of the context.

In Tibet I sat with a group of monks for a half hour as a senior monk strong-armed shy acolytes in front of my lens. In India I had a haircut on the banks of the Ganges next to two goats, a sadhu holy man, and a beggar with leprosy. In the Gobi Desert I was able to trek the sand dunes on a camel while humming the theme song from Lawrence of Arabia. In Russia I motioned to a Russian Orthodox bishop, pointing at my camera to ask for his permission to photograph him. “Oh sure!” he replied, “Is that a Canon Digital? Lets go over here where you’ll have a better background!” He turned out to be American, and we later exchanged some email. In Vietnam I sat with a village healer from the Flower H’mong tribe, who beat on a drum, chanted and went into a trance for forty-five minutes. So I have many memories of adventures, and many more places on my list. My next planned trip, for instance, is to Chengdu China, to use my skills as a psychotherapist to train their mental health people about how to help the earthquake survivors.

One of my HIV clients coined the phrase, “radical aliveness” and took up motorcycle racing until broken bones forced him to stop. I don’t know who said it, but this client surely could have expressed similar sentiments: “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty & well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, totally worn out & proclaiming, “Wow, what a ride!”