The two categories of personal challenge

October 2008

By Dodge Morgan

There are two fundamental categories of personal challenge: those we choose and those that choose us. There is an immense difference between the two when first they are engaged, but they become curiously alike over time. The difference at the outset is that one is intensely anticipated, very well defined, and uplifting, while the other is simply a surprise with all the upstart questions that go with surprises.

I have had a lifetime of both challenges – chosen and be chosen. The marquee chosen challenge was the solo, nonstop circumnavigation with American Promise. The most significant challenge that chose me has been cancer. There is a long list of other chosen challenges, including flying fighter planes, my two and a half years of voyaging on the old schooner, the capital-vacant company start-up, a couple of betrothals, and two children.

As for my being the chosen one, my memory owns literally hundreds of very minor events, not really worth mentioning. But I’ll mention some anyway: A storm at sea, an athlete’s-foot attack, cluster headaches, temporary loss of virility, observing my audience succumb to slumber, scoring a basket on the opponent’s side of the court, getting caught in a lie, losing the spring-stay in heavy weather.

I spent 18 months intensely preparing for the circumnavigation, and only five months doing it. The planning stage was especially exciting, and the execution stage was a porridge of celebrations and intimidations. As oxymoronic as this may sound, it is accurate to state that I carried a clear confidence in the voyage’s success while living in the shadow of potential failure. I carried an imbued awareness of how inadequate to the challenge I truly was. The coping tool here was an honest humility laced with laughter. In the course of the voyage, I made good friends with the reality of death, and this paid off beautifully in my cancer battle.

I had no preparation time for the cancer news. Bang! And life’s priorities are instantly rearranged. I weighed the alternatives of living the time left with audacious gusto and then striking out like a lightning bolt or taking on the chances of life-sustaining treatment. Curiously, I was more fearful of the treatment than of death. But I chose treatment anyway, mostly because I really want to see how many people and events will turn out. Once in the treatment, I was fascinated how similar the challenge became to the circumnavigation – the one chosen acting quite like the one choosing.

Both are totally encompassing, mentally and physically. Both leave almost no room for activity companions. Both are holistically humbling and yield willingly to little excepting positive thinking and genuine laughter. There is no better use for a joke than to balance a challenge. A guffaw displaces pain and fear at least while it is under way.

When I was coping with the cyclone Ima in the Southern Ocean, 70-knot winds and 50-foot seas, it was a struggle to actively comprehend that it would end. When I was undergoing radiation to my head and neck, it was a struggle to comprehend that it would end. During my circumnavigation, I became aware of how insignificant much of life’s events really are, and then I realized the very same awareness during cancer treatment. The Dow average? The Super Bowl game? The politics of Russia? Paris Hilton? Why would anyone really give a damn?

The smile on the face of that person beside you? Now that is worth giving a damn.

Dodge Morgan lives on Snow Island, Maine.