There are few people in the world with a better grasp on how to handle the absurdity at the heart of life than Alexsander Doba. Doba, for the uninitiated, is the epicly-bearded septuagenarian who made a name for himself by crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a kayak, alone — not once, not twice, but three times. His incredible — some would say foolish — achievements were profiled in The New York Times by writer Elizabeth Weil. It’s an extraordinary piece that I come back to time and time again, and it features one quote in particular that’s stayed with me through the years.
In Polish, it reads like this: “Nie chce byc malym szarym czlowiekiem.”
In English, it means: “I do not want to be a little gray man.”
This is apparently a common expression in Poland, “and a good motto for us all,” as Weil puts it. She’s right: none of us should desire to become that little gray man. You know the one I’m talking about: the wrinkled old sod sitting in a recliner, mindlessly watching television, constantly bitching, never taking chances, wasting away on several levels, and refusing to fully embrace the rare gift of life. The little gray man is a symbol of mediocrity, of — if not defeat — a succumbing to the crushing pressures of possessing free will. When confronted with the overwhelming array of possibilities that life presents us, it’s easier not to choose — to slip into a cocoon of non-action. But not choosing is still a choice, of course, as our friend Hamlet knew all too well. A person ages into a little gray man by deciding to meld into the recliner (literally or metaphorically) instead of thrusting one’s nose into the guts of life.
The little gray man is a symbol of mediocrity, of — if not defeat — a succumbing to the crushing pressures of possessing free will.
The trouble isn’t understanding, in theory, that we don’t want to become that little gray man. The hard part is taking the proper actions to stave him off. Humans are wired to follow the path of least resistance, to sink into creature comforts and risk-aversiveness in the name of self-preservation. But over decades of repetition, this over-cautiousness makes us wary of trying anything new and interesting. Day after day, we remain in our safety zones, retracing the well-worn paths in our mind, until eventually we convince ourselves that the way we are living is the way we were meant to exist. That’s far from the truth, of course — the world is full of alternate possibilities. But the only way to discover these other modes of being is to deliberately destroy the little gray bastard before he gains a foothold.
“You can be made small by life or rage against it,” as Weil puts it.
Drunken poets of yesteryear understood this sentiment, too. Just ask Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Or Charles Bukowski: “Your life is your life. Don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission. Be on the watch. There are ways out.”
The common thread between these three quotes is action: Weil and Thomas use the word rage, while Bukowski talks about being on the watch. The elimination of the little gray man can only occur through proactiveness: we must fight back, lest he devour us.
Doba seems to comprehend the necessity of combat, as it were, on a cellular level. He’s chosen to rage in the most extreme, preposterous manner possible: by committing to an undertaking so dangerous and “meaningless” that it becomes profound: one man, rowing across a vast ocean of nothingness, for no other reason than to do it. It’s Gumpian in its simplicity: one day, Doba felt like kayaking. So he started kayaking, and hasn’t stopped since. The meaning of the thing resides in the doing.
Another admirable characteristic about Doba’s approach to life is the way he leans into suffering instead of avoiding it at all costs. As Weil writes, “what most of us experience as suffering he repurposes as contrarian self-determination, and that gives him an existential thrill.” This idea is Buddhist in nature: that by embracing suffering, we put ourselves on a path toward enlightenment and, hopefully, a more fulfilling existence. There seems to be a lot of truth in this: I’ve noticed that the happiest sensations I’ve ever experienced have occurred either within or after times of intense struggle. For example, I faced my crippling fear of heights by climbing a ladder to the fourth story of a building (multiple times, without a safety net) during firefighter training. The sensation of breaking through imaginary walls of worry — walls that, for many years, I believed to be real — gave me a heady sense of euphoria; I was raging, in my own way, against preconceived notions of who I was and what I was capable of doing.
Throughout my life, I’ve tried like hell to branch out instead of folding up like a rollie pollie, even when every fiber of my being tells me to play it safe. I often fail — I am, after all, lazy by nature — but that doesn’t stop me from trying. I moved halfway across the country, to Austin, with little to recommend it other than new experiences. I spent virtually all of my (admittedly meager) savings to take a cross-country road trip with my wife (it was her idea, and I’m glad we did it). And then, most recently, I decided to change careers — from journalist to firefighter — because I thought it would be a great way to challenge myself while making a living for my family. But now I’m 31 years old, an aging millennial who’s unsure of what challenge to tackle next. I want to do something interesting — something at least a little drastic, to shake things up — but I don’t know what that will be.
This uncertainty is making me anxious. Because to do this — to rage — again and again, day after day, as the little gray man fights for breath inside of us, is difficult and, frankly, exhausting. And while most of us (see: none of us) will ever possess enough courage (or blissful foolishness, however one wants to look at it) to kayak across the Atlantic Ocean, we can identify our own personal oceans, so to speak, and discover ways to navigate them. We don’t need to rage on the Herculean scale that Doba has chosen — he is, after all, the logical extreme, or the Platonic ideal, of a human being who acts defiantly in the face of the abyss. But we can wage small fights each day to beat back the dying of the light.
What do these small victories look like? I’m far from an expert on the matter — I have my own hang-ups, my own shortcomings — but I believe any time we’re able to recognize the fleetingness of life, and exercise our free will in a manner that shows an appreciation for our ability to choose, then we’re on the right track. For some people, that may be creating: writing, painting, or playing music. For others, it may be running marathons, or fishing, or cooking delicious meals. It could be leaving a crappy relationship, or quitting a job that’s been slowly killing you. What your personal “raging” looks like matters less than the fact that you’re raging in the first place; that you’re choosing action over non-action.
Identifying how and when we need to push back against the dying of the light, however, can be a difficult undertaking: When must we push forward, past our comfort zone and preconceived notions of who we are, and when do we need to simply chill and appreciate the small, seemingly insignificant moments? Perhaps these two seemingly disparate worldviews aren’t at odds: like a great boxer, we should rage when it’s necessary, then return to our corner to regroup and plan the next big move. For every yang there should be at least a little yin, lest we become bone-weary by constantly throwing punches.
Even Doba, extremist that he is, recognizes the virtue of slowing down. At one point during his profile in The New York Times, he parks his minivan in a lot beside his apartment building and points into the woods. “Sometimes we have the great adventure of going out there to drink a beer,” he tells Weil. The great adventure of drinking a beer. Here’s a man who risked his life to accomplish something no one else has ever done, and he’s still able to garner a childlike enthusiasm for the mundane act of drinking a brew in the woods. Or maybe there’s another way of looking at it: maybe the reason he’s able to drum up a sense of joy over such a commonplace activity is the fact that he’s journeyed to The Edge — that thin, permeable border between life and death — and spit in the little gray man’s face. Because of that, a beer for him is a celebration instead of a hindrance — or, as it is for some people, a grim reminder that instead of shunning the gray man, they’ve invited him in to stay — for good.
Be like Doba: refuse to become the little gray man.
And then enjoy a beer.
America, the vast and simultaneous.
I grew up believing the world was a nurturing place. September 11 obliterated that worldview.
‘Given what I’d done, and the speed with which they were pursuing me, my only reasonable course of action was to disappear into the woods.’