Historically, I was never much of a risk-taker and more precisely, spent my teens and twenties doing pretty much what was expected in general terms – or at least giving the appearance of trying to. The youngest sibling by a long way, it was pretty hard for me to follow in the footsteps of my older sister and brother who had come of age in the late-seventies. By the time I reached adolescence in the mid-eighties, my dodgy hairdos, electric blue nail varnish and ripped jeans were no doubt underwhelming for my parents and probably greeted with a grateful “is that all you’ve got to offer?”. My brother’s homage to Jimi Hendrix, which he scrawled in black acrylic paint across his bedroom wall, was one example of teenage daring I failed to live up to. My parents were still attempting to erase evidence of the offending graffiti years later, so I can only assume that they were relieved that the wall was later covered with posters from Smash Hits when I later took up residence in the room, covering up the uneven plasterwork, if nothing else.
Although I wouldn’t necessarily categorise the years between leaving university and starting all over again in Lisbon aged 31 as disastrous, it definitely wasn’t a contented era and included many dead-ends and false starts, which I mistakenly believed at the time were leading me towards my destiny. The germination of the seeds of change occurred the morning after I returned to my singleton one-bedroom flat, having driven through the night from Knebworth in 2003. Along with three pals, I’d been to one of Robbie Williams’s Escapology shows. I had spent almost as long in a field-cum-car park, trying to leave rural Hertfordshire, as I had at the concert and although I arrived home feeling tired, I was also elated and, for the first time in a long while, I felt incredibly alive. It forced me to confront the question: why didn’t I feel this way more often?
In response, I later took a number of uncharacteristic decisions at the beginning of 2004, which basically involved deconstructing my safe, predictable existence; I metaphorically threw everything up in the air and watched to see where it would land. I later concluded that an apparently difficult decision ceases to be difficult when your subconscious is telling every fibre of your being what you should be doing – however scary or counter-intuitive that choice may seem.
When I arrived in Lisbon in late summer 2004, I had the notion that I’d arrived at a place I was destined to be. Equally, I liked where the shrapnel of my life was landing. In the fledgling days of my relationship with the man I’d later live and raise a family with, I encouraged him to take a risk on me, and us, and jump off a figurative cliff with me. In more cynical moments, he claims I didn’t ask him to jump, but instead grabbed his hand and dragged him over the edge with me. Whether this is true or not is debatable, but I think we both knew that his gigolo days were drawing to a close and his capacity to subsist, alone, on McDonalds and cheese sandwiches was unsustainable in the long-term. For my part, I suspected that many around me were waiting for my heart to get trampled on by Romeo, but I felt certain that pursuing him and our relationship was the right thing to do. We were cohabiting within three months and had welcomed our first child into the world within three years. Taking risks seemed to be paying off – and I was developing a taste for it.
It could be said that an extremely visceral way of making decisions has emerged in my modus operandi. If it doesn’t feel right, I don’t do it. Furthermore, when something ceases to feel right, I change it. No other logic could explain yet another “crazy” decision I took in recent living memory: leaving the language school I’d worked at for thirteen years and starting to work independently, in order to recalibrate my professional and personal life. In essence, I could see my children’s childhood vanishing before my very eyes and didn’t want what remained of it to disappear in a haze of incompatible timetables, outsourced childcare, and most importantly, short-fused exhaustion.
I have long had the sense that to be human is to over-estimate our importance in the world. So much of our existence is conducted within our heads that we forget that within the wider scheme of things, we’re no more than microscopic beings, no more or less important than ants, scurrying around this planet within a big black hole. The entire concept blows my mind, but a recent trip, en famille, to Lisbon’s Planetarium reinforced this sentiment. If we take this as a given, then what does it all mean anyway? And does any of it really matter? At moments like this, it’s tempting to wonder what the point of it all is, especially when there is still so much suffering in the world, aside from our own personal angst.
For me, I believe that the crux of the matter is this: Steve Almond (Dear Sugars) frames human life as “joyous and miraculous” in a podcast episode entitled “The Reckoning”. This being so, we might as well do all we can to make our time here count for something, however insignificant we are in the general scheme of things. He goes on to point out that within our experience, there will also be “dark moments that need to be faced “. Both ends of the spectrum form part of everyone’s lives to one degree or another; self-determination dictates what you choose to do with these experiences.
Of course our journey on this planet matters: to us personally and to those who surround us and love us. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t care, right? Almond wisely states that “the price of the examined life is a certain amount of sorrow”. This being true, I will gladly grapple with joy, sorrow, despair and anxiety (and every emotion in between) in order to maintain the momentum I gained in the dawning of a new day – and a new life – fifteen years ago.