Where Are You Going?

For many years, I have kept a photograph that was taken of my father and me back in 1958. I was only two years old. My Dad is dressed in a suit and tie, looking very dapper. This was unusual attire for him, since he was a cabinet maker by trade and I can only remember him in overalls covered with wood dust. I was also dressed in a formal outfit that made me look like a miniature Sherlock Homes (a very English looking coat and hat). It’s no wonder I have taken such a liking to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mystery writings. My Dad was holding my hand and we were walking away from an airplane that had its single main engine exposed. I later learned that the picture was taken at the then-existing USA Air Force Base in Stephenville, Newfoundland. Every time I look at the picture, I ask myself a very important question: Where am I going? My Dad is taking me somewhere, but I have no idea where. It is clear, however, that even though I do not know our destination, I fully trust him and am no doubt as excited about it as any two-year-old could be. 

Since the picture was taken, that question has stuck with me: Merv, where are you going? 

Gone are the days when visiting someone’s home, one or two photo albums would be placed on the living room coffee table for guests to examine. I always enjoyed studying the situations or places where people have been. The review always provided great conversation, many interesting stories of unexpected adventure and laughs about the aging process. While technology has made it easy to take and store pictures digitally on smartphones and computers, the accessibility is less inviting than it was in times gone by, which is a great loss in the company of family and friends. People are not so inclined to sit around a computer or crouch over an iPad together to study digitally enhanced photos. Nonetheless, after such conversation I often ask, “Where are you going next”? 

While it is good to consider where we have been, we can’t stop and reside there forever. We must keep moving, we must keep going, on a road to somewhere. Unfortunately, many of us can’t. We either live in the past, want to stay in the present or do what we can to avoid the future. Why? 

In exploring this state, I’ve come to realize there are three basic factors that prevent us from moving forward and taking advantage of all that life has to offer: fear, comfort and unfamiliarity. 

For many, there appears to be a great fear of leaving the past. The old ways seem to dictate how the future will be defined. We must respect and honour traditions and past practices, but old paradigms must not prevent us from embracing new opportunities. Of course, this is not easily done in some cases. I recently purchased a new car. It has the ability to parallel park without driver assistance. When the salesman demonstrated the new technology, my immediate response was, “I’ll stick with the old way of parking.” I was really too afraid to trust the car to do this without my assistance. In the not-too-distant future, driverless cars will be the norm. I must learn to embrace the future and its potential to make my life better. To be paralyzed by fear of change and believe that the past will always be better than the future, is really unfortunate. 

The comforts of home are sweet, and it is very difficult to duplicate what has become familiar. There are times when I believe we have been so comfortable in our current state that any disruption is a great inconvenience. I have enjoyed travelling to many countries. Each trip to a different place certainly has its challenges. Language barriers, food preparation, customs clearance, driving habits, perceived social abnormalities, dress codes, unusual hotel rooms, levels of security, etc. All of these cause at least some degree of stress. But if I was not willing to step outside of my comfort zone, I would never have enjoyed the people, culture, beauty and history of Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa or even the USA. How much, then, of life are we missing because we have become so comfortable in our current state? How much opportunity is lost because we consider totally unacceptable any situation that is not exactly what we are accustomed to? 

Unfamiliarity breeds contempt. Twice a year, I give a lecture at Wilfrid Laurier University on diversity. After a brief introduction, I ask the students to describe who I am based on what they perceive me to be. I am always amazed at their descriptions based on limited knowledge and mere perception. The rest of the lecture deals with the contempt we have for the unfamiliar based on what we perceive to be true. Our unfamiliarity with different people, places and practices and our willingness to believe most everything we are told even from the most unreliable sources (e.g., media) causes us to live in a reduced state of learning, fellowship, exploration, personal growth and adventure. However, when we embrace diversity, the window of opportunity is limitless. 

So, where are you going? I hope the answer is anywhere and everywhere because if you and I release our fear of the future, are willing to go outside of our comfort zone, and embrace diversity rather than contempt for the unfamiliar, what a trip it is going to be!