Friday, May 25, 2007

The Vicarious Life

I suppose most kids start thinking about how they want to live their lives from a fairly young age. My granddaughter Caroline, for instance, goes through spurts of wanting to be this or that when she grows up. (This week, it’s a farmer.) As for me, I was content enough enjoying my childhood in a loving family environment, and I really never gave serious thought as to what my life would be like once I became an adult and had to make my way in the world. I was satisfied to let life unfold as I went along.

If I had made specific predictions, I never would have envisioned marrying an alcoholic/later sober man who would become a pastor, living in Maine, being a medical transcriptionist, or even playing the harp. The way my life has revealed itself has been much more interesting than I could have ever imagined.

Now that I’ve lived over half of my life expectancy, though, I do notice a trend. It has been too tempting to experience life vicariously. There’s a reason for this. Secondhand encounters are safe. They can be controlled. They make it possible to experience the enjoyment of something without the work and the risks.

Many people don’t realize that I have traveled all over the world. Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia - I’ve been to them all. I’ve watched them make cheese in Switzerland. I’ve ridden in the gondolas of Venice. I’ve even stayed in the best hotels. Maybe here I should mention my traveling companion, Samantha Brown. She works for the Travel Channel, and every time I tuned into her show, she took me somewhere new and exciting. I didn’t have to apply for a passport, buy luggage, or go through airport security.

That’s not my only use of vicarious living. I vicariously garden, too. I love to look at other people’s flowers, maybe even buying some to sit on the table. I didn’t have to get down on hands and knees in the dirt and dig, weed, fertilize, and water. I let someone else do that. I just reap the results. I have been known to do the same when I drool over others’ quilts while mine sits waiting to be finished, and when I marvel at intricate cross-stitch when I haven’t picked up a project for years. I’ve perfected the technique of exercising vicariously, too. I can put in an aerobics DVD and sit down and watch it with impunity and a bowl of ice cream.

Unfortunately, that last example doesn’t do anything for me, darn it. Where is vicarious living when you really need it? Sometimes I feel like the Little Red Hen’s pals. “You do all the work, and I’ll reap the benefits. Deal?”

The key word in vicarious living (besides the lazy part) is the safety of it. By not traveling, I don’t involve myself in the risks thereof. By not gardening or quilting or cross-stitching, I don’t have to watch myself fail to live up to my own expectations (or others’). I can be a cheerleader. I can root from the sidelines. I can feel good about appreciating everyone else's hard work, but at the same time, with enough introspection, I eventually feel a little disappointed that I’m not personally playing the game enough myself.

Every once in a while, I will come out of vicarious living and do something or create something, an experience which always makes me vulnerable to failure or danger, but gives me enormous thrill and satisfaction. Take the sea kayaking last August with Audrey, for instance. The whole idea freaked me out. I could have watched a DVD of kayaking, or even watched Audrey go kayaking, but instead, with her encouragement, I stepped out of my vicarious mode and just did it with her. I sat down in that kayak, feeling the hard plastic under my legs. I felt the salt water spray on my face. I worked muscles I didn’t even know I had as we paddled along. No vicarious living, that. Every nerve, bone, blood vessel, and brain cell was working overtime. I was in the moment.

It would be nice if one could really lose weight vicariously, or really feel the immensity of the Grand Canyon from a 25-inch screen, or feel heavenly rested in a 5-star hotel bed just because Samantha told you what it was like. Life doesn’t work that way. I can enjoy the flowers someone else grew, or the meal someone else cooked, or the quilt someone else made - but deep down I realize that the actual process of growing or cooking or quilting was as much a pleasure as the final product. The bug bites, steam burns, and needle pokes are just part of the experience, for without them, you might as well watch someone else do it. The discomfort (whether physically or emotionally) is just part of the package. There’s nothing like an unexpected needle poke into your finger while hand quilting to bring you into the present moment. To that I can attest.

The older I get, the more I feel the need to push myself a little. Oh, I’ll never go rock-climbing (and nobody better try to talk me into it!) or do something that would terrify me enough to send me to the mental hospital, but as I age, I find myself content with less risks. Why bother? Why indeed?

I read a magazine article recently about a women who lives in the country and started her own business of selling organic food, then expanded her catalog offerings to include everything about her country life, including home decorating accessories. She said that she realized there was a whole customer base out there that wanted the fantasy of living in the country on a farm without really living in the country on a farm. She said she was happily willing to fulfill that need. For her, though, she loved the reality of actually living in the country on a farm. There are apparently thousands of people out there who are vicarious farmers. (Take note, Caroline.)

I have had some rich experiences in my life, but some I passed up. In college, my music professor asked me to try out for the touring choir. I was too scared I wouldn’t make it that I didn’t even audition. He wanted me in it (he was the decider), and he did everything he could to get me to try out without guaranteeing I would be accepted. I just wanted that guarantee that I would not fail. I never did participate in touring choir. Oh, well, they went overseas and that would have scared me, too.

This week my dear friend Sally passed the Certified Medical Transcriptionist exam for which I have been so earnestly studying. I joked with her that maybe she could add my name to her test, and I could get the reward without the hard work. Alas, it was not to be. I’ll still have to take the test myself. But that will make the pleasure of passing it (I don’t even want to consider the alternative, but it’s there, of course) all the greater.

Ed and I are seeking contentment. Every once in a while, the contentment becomes too easy and it’s time to push ourselves again. I really don’t want the word “vicarious” to be in my obituary. (However, if you do put it in, you’d better at least spell it right.) If you ever feel I need a little shove, feel free. I've got a lot of livin' to do.

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