The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss, but that it is too low and we reach it. – Michelangelo
For most of my life, I have been afraid of heights and small enclosed spaces with no windows. Last week, as part of a work related tour of bridges and tunnels in New York, I overcame both fears to stand on top of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. A beautiful and clear sunny day, the temperature a mild 51 degrees, I stood atop the Brooklyn side tower with my arms outstretched. As I breathed in the slightly chilled air above the New York Bay, I embraced the Manhattan skyline and enjoyed a bird’s eye view of Brooklyn and Staten Island. Life offers a fresh perspective from such heights. The world looks a little different from up there; it opens the mind and forces one to take stock of life. Standing atop the Verrazano, I understood the wisdom of Thomas Carlyle, who said, “The tragedy of life is not so much what men suffer, but rather what they miss.”
The opportunity to climb the Verrazano was presented to me by chance and without planning, as part of a security assessment my firm is conducting for a government agency. Accompanied by a police captain, a maintenance worker, and a colleague, we stuffed into a very small, very old Otis elevator, with rusty metal gates, the kind of elevator one normally avoids at all costs. When I asked if it ever broke down, the maintenance man replied in earnest, “Just don’t jump up and down.” It was at about this point that my palms began to sweat and my lungs contracted. I questioned my sanity. Feelings of panic set in as the elevator moved slowly, creakily, upward, ascending into an abyss of heightened darkness. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, imagining the rescue efforts required to excavate us from a metal box dangling 1,200 feet above the channel where the Hudson River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. I was fairly certain that my cell phone would not receive service from up here, though I was not anxious to test it.
After what seemed like several long minutes, the elevator came to a stop. Naively believing we had reached the top, I quickly realized after the metal gate opened that our ascent was only partially completed. We now had to step into another small, tightly-constricted enclosure and climb four stories of metal ladders affixed to the wall of the tower. Each ladder led through a small tank-like hole. As there were no open spaces or windows, I had no idea precisely where we were at this stage. I sensed only that we were very high off the ground with but one way down. After climbing the ladders and pulling myself up through the fourth hole, I was relieved to find open space expanding the full width of the tower. My claustrophobia slightly receding, I breathed easier as we walked up four normal flights of stairs before reaching yet another ladder and hole. We finally reached what I thought was as far as they would allow us to go, where I glanced through a small window and looked out onto Staten Island, the roadway and New York Bay a long distance below.
The police captain then unlatched a door that opened onto a small ledge with a metal railing. Stepping out onto the ledge, suspended high in the air, I experienced a sensation simultaneously exhilarating and frightening. While peering down the cables that held up the bridge, I became slightly faint and quickly remembered my fear of heights. I stood there anyway for a few moments longer, staring at the wide expanse of the horizon with the Manhattan skyline in the foreground, acknowledging the uniqueness of the experience.
Mistakenly thinking that our “climb” was completed, I was somewhat surprised when the captain led us to yet another ladder, this one thirty feet high and leading to another small hole through which, I was told, was the top of the bridge tower. Did I mention that I am scared of heights? My disdain for tall ladders? I thought good and hard about sitting this next phase out, but after witnessing the 55 year-old police captain and my colleague climb up the ladder, I did what any self-respecting, stupid, testosterone-filled man would do, and I said, “Fuck it.” So, up I went, refusing to look down and tightly gripping each prong of the ladder as if my life depended on it. To eliminate the concern over my sweaty palms, I had put on a pair of work gloves that the maintenance man had offered to me. Finally, I reached the top, climbed up and through the last hole and pulled myself to the platform. I stood straight up and looked all around, in wonderment.
The view of New York from atop the Verrazano is breathtaking. From there, one experiences a panoramic view of all of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Coney Island, and Staten Island. I looked around and soaked it in, feeling fresh and alive. Although my knees were weak and I could hardly believe I was doing it, I savored every minute of the experience, recognizing the rarity of this once-in-a-lifetime moment of overpowering proportions.
* * * *
There are times in one’s life it is important to take stock, to examine how one’s journey is progressing. Standing on top of the Verrazano, I thought of the many things I desire to do before I die. Travel to Israel and pray at the Western Wall; tour the Vatican and stroll quietly through the many small towns and villages of the Italian countryside; visit with my distant relatives in Denmark; view the Northern Lights on a clear night in Iceland; go whale watching in Alaska; spend a night at a medieval castle in England; learn to play the guitar; walk atop the Great Wall of China; and hit live batting practice at a major league ballpark. Although climbing Mt. Everest is not (and never was) on my list, I can at least find satisfaction that I “climbed” the Verrazano.
With the possible exception of live batting practice, there is no reason I cannot eventually do all or most of these things during my remaining time on earth. But for most of my life, something has often stood in the way – obligations of school and work, the strictures of time and family, and the many other distractions and excuses that so often prevent us from ever achieving that which we most desire to accomplish. But perhaps there is more to it than that. As nice as these experiences will be, how essential are they to a good and meaningful life? How important a contribution do they really make to a life filled with purpose, connection, and fulfillment?
When I returned home last week, still flying high from my experience on the Verrazano and having just parked my car in the driveway, I received a call from my very good friend who was distressed over another friend’s sudden illness. I knew his friend, Jerry, as someone I had worked with many years before in Washington, D.C. A former college basketball player and, until about two weeks ago, a very active and healthy person, he woke up one day unable to walk, and he quickly lost his ability to stand, sit, or even talk. Suddenly bedridden and fed intravenously at the hospital, the doctors completely mystified as to the cause of his condition, he confronted the possibility that he may be paralyzed forever, that he may no longer be the man he had always been, and could not be the father, husband, and man he wanted to be. “All I could think about,” Jerry said a few days later, “was how am I going to live my life in this condition?” Thankfully, Jerry has since recovered most of his physical capacities, and he is now walking (with the assistance of a walker), and trying to rehab and regain his full strength. The doctors still do not know what caused his sudden demise, but I am in awe of the immense courage and strength Jerry demonstrated in refusing to give in or give up. For the rest of us, “There, but for the grace of God…”
A very wise person once stated, “The real measure of your wealth is how much you’d be worth if you lost all your money.” Hearing of Jerry’s health problems and learning of the many tragedies and heartbreaks that people face every day, I regret not the failure to achieve certain of life’s goals, my bucket list of sorts, but in having failed to pursue a more perfect life, one full of love and laughter, passion and joy. One that constantly strives, in some small way, to assist others in finding the strength to imagine a life filled with inspiration and hope. I would like to believe it is what motivated me to start this blog and to publish my book, Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart (Bookstand Publishing, 2011), to build a lasting legacy that will remain long after I have departed from this world. But I am never satisfied that I have done enough, because I know that I can always do more, that I am constantly constrained by the practicalities of life and the strictures of conventional thought.
“We all have two choices,” said Jim Rohn, “we can make a living or we can design a life.” When my friend told me of Jerry’s physical ailments, he confessed to his own spiritual crisis of sorts. The demands of his career, his long commute to New York, and his everyday obligations, left him with little else to give. “I’m existing, but I’m not living,” he said. It is a statement that strikes at the heart of the American conscience, a soul wrenching crisis that most of us, at some point in our lives, must confront. How often do we truly make a difference in someone’s life? What have we really done for others, for those less fortunate than ourselves, for the lonely, the sick, the poor? How many simple acts of random kindness have we initiated? Is it only when things are going well, when we are in a good mood that we do for others? How committed are we to our cherished principles and values? These are difficult questions to ask and even more difficult to answer.
“Everyone who got where he is,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, “has had to begin where he was.” It is a comforting thought, for it explains a lot and lessens my own disappointments in not achieving greater things. When I think back from whence I came, I am often astonished at how far I have traveled – college and law school, a career as a trial lawyer and federal prosecutor, a managing director in a worldwide risk management firm, living and succeeding in two major metropolitan areas – not too bad for a small town kid from central New Jersey. And yet, I think back on the many things I probably could have accomplished, and the places I could have been, if only I had the courage and insight to follow my heart and pursue my dreams. “If we did the things we are capable of,” wrote Thomas Edison, “we would astound ourselves.”
Justice Louis Brandeis once said, “Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.” As the year comes to a close and a new year embarks around the corner, I vow to examine my life more carefully, to better understand my sense of purpose, and to appreciate the everyday blessings that have been given to me, my health and my family. I vow to live and not simply exist. As Diane Ackerman wrote, “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.”