Holly and I were standing in line at our local bookstore several days before Christmas, waiting to pay for the usual armful of Christmas gifts, when Holly spotted one of those little books that had been strategically placed near the point of purchase. It was titled How Far Will You Go: Questions to Test Your Limits. One of us picked it up, and we found that it was simply a book filled with questions, each of which contained an adjective or adverb in the superlative degree--words like best, least, most, dirtiest, worst, highest, wildest, biggest. For a small book, its questions probe life with surprising power. Here is a sampling:
In what ways are you least understood?
In what situation would you most enjoy being temporarily invisible?
What would you most readily die for?
When have you come closest to meeting the devil?
What kind of power do you want most?
What was the most difficult choice you were ever forced to make?
When were you most disappointed in yourself?
What one experience do you most desire that you haven't had yet?
What is the most sacred thing in your life?
What's the most daring thing you've ever done sexually with someone of the gender you don't prefer sexually?
What was the hardest you ever fought for something?
In what area of your life are you neediest?
What about the world would you most like to change?
What is the biggest risk you have ever taken?
The purpose of the book, say authors Evelyn McFarlane and James Saywell, is to ask the question: how large is your life? They believe that the answers to these questions can help us discover the edges of our lives, the outer and inner limits that we have already experienced, or have yet to find. If the size of one's life can be measured by the distance between its extremes, they conclude, these questions can help reveal the surprising breadth of each of our lives.
In a sense, it's like asking about the range of a singer's voice or the extent of a bird's migration. How large is your life emotionally, physically, vocationally, spiritually? Do you take a minimalist approach, merely seeking the next task to be done at work, hoping to meet the minimum requirements as a spouse or partner, only looking to do what is good enough for a volunteer?
Or does your approach to life reveal what the English teachers among us might call a strategy of comparative degree: the better choice with your kids, the harder task at work, the more challenging option in your relationships. These are people who risk coming closer to the edge--not closest, just closer.
But then there are those who are willing to put everything on the line. It's life in the superlative degree or no life at all. These people are the ones who take the biggest risks, fight the hardest battles, desire the most in return. They give to others without measure, love without caution, hope without limit. Sometimes they fail, of course; sometimes they lose. But that's a risk they are willing to take. If life were a brokerage account, these are people who would check "most aggressive" as their preferred strategy.
The fishermen described by Sebastian Junger in his recent bestseller The Perfect Storm certainly fit into this category. As many of you doubtless know, the book tells the tale of the monster storm that hit North America's eastern seaboard in October 1991. The story focuses on six crew members of the swordfish boat Andrea Gail, all of whom were finally lost 500 miles from home beneath roiling seas and high waves.
But the part of the book that most caught my attention was Junger's description of wave formation. Oceanographers have calculated that the maximum theoretical height for wind-driven waves is 198 feet; a wave that size could put down a lot of oil tankers, not to mention a 72-foot swordfishing boat. Put simply, the height of a wave is a function of how hard the wind blows, how long it blows for, and over how much of the sea it blows. Oceanographers refer to these three factors as speed, duration, and fetch.
Gale-force winds over Lake Michigan, for example, could generate wave heights of 35 feet after ten hours or so, but the waves couldn't get any bigger because the fetch--the amount of open water--isn't great enough. On the other hand, a gale blowing across a thousand miles of ocean for sixty hours would generate significant wave heights--that's the average of the top third of the waves--of 97 feet; peak wave heights would be more than twice that. Waves that size have never been recorded, but they must be out there. It's possible that they would destroy anything in a position to measure them.
Unfortunately for mariners, the total amount of energy in a storm doesn't rise linearly with wind speed, it rises to its fourth power. Thus the seas generated by a forty-knot wind aren't twice as powerful as those from a twenty-knot wind, they're seventeen times as powerful. Which is why is pressures of up to six tons per square foot have been measured in breaking waves. One wave lifted a 2,700-ton breakwater and deposited it all in one piece inside a Scottish harbor. Another wave blasted open a steel door 195 feet above sea level at a lighthouse in Scotland.
The power of a wave to do the work of waves is determined by the speed, duration, and fetch of the wind: how hard the wind blows, how long it blows for, and over how much sea it blows. I believe our power to do the work we have been called to do in this world can be calculated in much the same way. The scope of the difference we can make is a function of our speed--the intensity of our passion and the force of our purpose. It's also about duration--how much making a difference matters, about a long commitment in the same direction. And, perhaps most important, the power to make a large difference is about fetch--about the scope of our work, the size of our imagination, the extensiveness of our calling.
It seems to me that one of the consequences of trying to live a large life and make a large difference is that we have to learn how to deal with failure. With any boundary we try to push back--emotional, spiritual, moral, or physical--chances are that we won't be able to do it on the first try or the second. Maybe not even on the twentieth try. The real question is how we deal with those twenty failures. Do we accept them as opportunities to adjust our approach and try again, to risk trying to learn, to grow, to develop in new ways? Or do we take our failures as crushing blows to our character and give up, settling instead for small, safe lives?
I was always a good student growing up. I made good grades in high school and college, and most of my teachers liked me. They always wrote me good recommendations. Which is why, when I decided to go to seminary--what a Mennonite young man with some talent was expected to do in those days--I applied to and was accepted by Princeton. Three years later, I graduated, first in my class. The question was: what to do next. I decided, after a brief period of thought, that I wanted a Ph.D.--not in anything in particular, just a Ph.D. But in what?
I didn't think theology was quite the answer. I already knew enough about theology and Biblical studies. Perhaps classics was a better choice. In college, I had switched to a classics major midway through my sophomore year, and had liked it a lot it. Homer, Thucydides, Euripides, Virgil: what could be better then another four years of reading the classics? So, I applied to about a dozen of the best classics programs and was accepted by ten of them.
There was a problem, however. My classics background was appallingly meager. I had taken four years of Greek; eight was the average of the other applicants. I had taken only two years of Latin; ten was the average. I had not taken even one classical history course. Many of the other applicants had spent a semester or two teaching classical history at an academy in Rome. Why was I accepted in the first place, you ask? Heaven knows. It might have been my essay, which apparently successfully argued that my lack of preparation was actually an asset, rather than a liability.
In any event, I decided to stay at Princeton--after the director of the graduate program agreed to give me an extra year or two in the program to get up to speed with my languages and history. But then, three weeks before the program actually began, he died suddenly of a heart attack. It turned out that his replacement, a recently tenured Latin professor, would honor no prior deals as to extra time. He looked at the language placement exams--my performance was dreadful, of course--and suggested that I resign immediately from the program. After a dismal first semester and a chat with the Dean of the graduate school, I reluctantly did just that. After a lifetime of academic success, I had failed. Spectacularly. Of course, I had put myself in a position to do so, though I had no appreciation of what I would eventually gain as a result of that failure. To make a rather long story mercifully short, the result of that failure eventually led to a change of course and career that led me to All Souls.
To put it a different way, success is not something we can usually approach directly. Success in the superlative degree is usually an indirect consequence of our desire to make a large difference and our willingness to accommodate significant failure. Any worthwhile expansion of life's domain or value involves risk, and requires persistence and imagination.
Thomas Edison, midway through the more than 10,000 experiments which eventually led to the invention of the light bulb, was asked by a journalist why he persisted in his experiments after having failed so often. "Young man," Edison reportedly replied, "You don't understand. I have not failed at all. I have successfully identified 5,000 ways that will not work. That just puts me 5,000 ways closer to finding the way that will work."
What kind of a difference do you what to make in this world? Do you want merely to ride the waves, or do you want to make them? It's your call and mine; it always is. Speed, duration, and fetch: passion, commitment, and imagination. Perhaps the most crucial factor is the last one. Fetch is the one thing you can't make up or discover as you go along. A storm on Lake Michigan will always be a tempest in a teacup, relatively speaking. Big waves require vast fetch; big differences require boundless imagination.
This is not about whether you and I imagine ourselves curing cancer or ending world hunger or bringing peace to troubled lands, although God knows all those things need to be done. It's about having the vision to see our work in its largest dimensions--and about not letting our failures stop us. The difference between people who fail and people who ultimately succeed is that successful people never let their failures stop them. They keep on trying, pushing back the boundary, exploring new ground. Whatever our vocation, we have been called to make waves that matter in the ways that matter most. The fetch over which we move is the domain of lost souls, hungry hearts, and troubled minds. It's the place where injustice thrives and strife looms large. Our work is to imagine making a difference in those places, then to respond with passion through a long commitment in the same direction.
The question is this: how far are we willing to go? What risks are we willing to take to love our children, to excel at our jobs, to show up for our friends? How close to the edge are we willing to walk to fight injustice, to combat racism, to speak out for those who have no voice and to stand up for those who have no power? How hard are we willing to work to extend the domain of beauty, and peace, and love in this world? How large is your life, and mine? How far will we go?