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October 20, 2013

Step Across This Line

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I’ve written before that when you’re busy living the changes in your life, it’s hard to see them for what they are, until one day you wake up and realize that what you thought were small changes were not small at all, and that without noticing you’ve become a new person.  That writing was about the small changes.  Today, I want to write a little bit about the big changes we make in life, because you – my most loyal and (I assume) extremely good-looking reader – are about to embark on a big change in your life.  You’re about to go to college.

In early 2002 – so early, in fact, that the shadow of the World Trade Center still stretched heavily from lower Manhattan to New Haven – the British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie was asked to deliver one of a series of lectures on ‘human values’ at Yale University.  In his lecture, titled ‘Step Across This Line’, he retold the following story by the Sufi poet Fariduddin Attar.  Reader, bear with me here, because it’s good writing and you’ll be better off after you read it:

Once upon a time the birds held a conference. The great bird-god, Simurgh, had sent a messenger, a hoopoe, to summon them to his legendary home far away atop the circular mountain of Qâf, which girdled the earth. The birds weren’t particularly keen on the idea of this dangerous-sounding quest. They tried to make excuses—a previous engagement, urgent business elsewhere. Just thirty birds embarked on the pilgrimage. Leaving home, crossing the frontier of their land, stepping across that line, was in this story a religious act, their adventure a divine requirement rather than a response to an ornithological need. Love drove these birds as it drove the mermaid, but it was the love of God. On the road there were obstacles to overcome, dreadful mountains, fearsome chasms, allegories and challenges. In all quests the voyager is confronted by terrifying guardians of territory, an ogre here, a dragon there. So far and no further, the guardian commands. But the voyager must refuse the other’s definition of the boundary, must transgress against the limits of what fear prescribes. He steps across that line. The defeat of the ogre is an opening in the self, an increase in what it is possible for the voyager to be.

So it was with the thirty birds. At the end of the story, after all their vicissitudes and overcomings, they reached the summit of the mountain of Qâf, and discovered that they were alone. The Simurgh wasn’t there. After all they had endured, this was a displeasing discovery. They made their feelings known to the hoopoe who started the whole thing off; whereupon the hoopoe explained to them the punning etymology that revealed their journey’s secret meaning. The name of the god broke down into two parts: “si,” meaning “thirty,” and “murgh,” which is to say “birds.” By crossing those frontiers, conquering those terrors and reaching their goal, they themselves were now what they were looking for. They had become the god they sought.

“They had become the god they sought.”  I had drinks the other night with my friend Rachel (she’s the one I ran the 5k with a few weeks ago, remember?), and she said something that stuck with me: “I am the person now that I wanted to be five years ago.”  That’s a hell of a statement.  And the first step down that path, if you ask me, is to step across that line.  Do the thing you’re scared of.  Do it even though it scares you.  Do it because it scares you.  At the end of the day, you’ll be a better, stronger, more complete person.  You might even have a story or two to tell at the end.

I don’t know your life.  I don’t know the things you’ve done, what you’ve been through, or what you’re likely to go through in the next few months.  But I do know that the only way to keep moving forward is to keep taking chances, and push yourself beyond where you thought you could be.  As you think about college over the next few months, try to find a place that’ll push you outside of where you are now and into a new self.  Maybe that’s Clark for you.  Maybe it’s not.  It’s been Clark for me.

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