There is a great river in Africa known as The Zambezi. It’s one of the top whitewater rafting spots in the world, and it’s replete with crocodiles and hippos. In other words, there are more than a few ways to die on the great river, and in that it’s a lot like life. When faced with the wild majesty that is a human life, there are two maybe three ways to play it: you can stay your arse on the shore where your odds of being eaten by a crocodile or charged by a hippo are relatively low. You can dip your boat in the river but try to stay close to the relative safety of shore. Or, you can raft the darn thing, with all the glory and risk that entails.
I’m the raft the river type. I asked my mother, once, what she thought of me when I was a child. She said, “I thought you were adventurous, and tried my best to rid you of that. I was afraid you’d jump off the roof.” What she didn’t know is that I may have been young, but I had good sense. Not once have I jumped off a roof. I’m more the cliff jumping type. I jumped off the cliff into the creative life, and I’ve never regretted taking the leap of faith. Life, my life, is about the adventure, it’s about the journey we take through the rough terrain of a human life.
The Buddhist’s say it’s a great fortune to be granted a human birth. I don’t want to stand on the shore watching my life go by. I don’t want to hang out in the shallows dreading the currents at the center, the wild and rough and unpredictable currents upon which we are carried to our true lives. Of course, if you jump into the center of the rapids, you might lose your life. That is the risk we take when we live fully. But if you do not venture onto the waters at all, you will have missed your life, no matter how long it is in years.
In the end, life cannot be measured by the number of days we get — though who among us wouldn’t ask for one day more? What are those days for, though? That’s the question. We want one more day so that what? So that we might live it. So that we might truly and fully live it.
There is a hypothetical floating around. You’ve heard it. “What would you do if you knew this were your last day on Earth?” What you wouldn’t do — I’ll bet my life on it — is play it safe. You wouldn’t stand on the shoreline and watch the rafters go by. You wouldn’t climb aboard a boat in the shallows and linger there. You would raft the center of that river one last time.
Each day is our one last time. This day you are living is your one last time. As they say in the African-American community, in the American South where I am from (and no doubt in all the “up South” places where the African-American diaspora can be found), “tomorrow isn’t promised.”
Rafting the Zambezi isn’t easy, not the actual Zambezi, nor the metaphoric Zambezi’s that we are all invited to raft upon by virtue of our human birth. You may lose everything. And, yet, if you will take the risk, you also stand to find the sublime, the life beyond the small, visible, temporal life, your personal Grail. Your Grail awaits you “out there.” It is the vessel through which you experience the things of this world and the things of the other world, the one that animates this one as the soul animates the body. You will find — if you go looking, if you will hurl yourself into the tumultuous waters — the unexpected verse that only you can contribute to the song of our collective life. We are, after all, writing this song, this story, together. We are making our world with the lives we live, and with the stories we tell with these lives. And the best stories (we know this intuitively, even if we don’t dare live it) have plot twists and turns that we do not expect. Heck, some of them we don’t even want. But our wounds, also, make our stories true.
In the story of Jesus the Christ, it is the wound in his side, the final wound of the crucifixion, upon which the Resurrection narrative rests. In the Old Testament telling, he was pierced with the lance of Longinus to ensure that he was dead. In the Gospel of John it is written that blood and water poured from the wound. From this, we who love story can gather that he was real, that he was flesh and blood, and he died, and , if we believe the resurrection story — as fact or, as I do, as narrative, as metaphor, as esoteric rather than exoteric (or literal) truth — he arose from his small human life to a greater life. This is what we risk when we step into the rapids of our own personal Zambezi. We get the opportunity to die to the small, to the temporal, to the safe, and easy, and secure, if often unsatisfying life that we know to a higher life where the unique talents, passions and gifts we were born with may find their fullest expression. It isn’t for the faint of heart. There are no guarantees. Some people die on that river. It’s been known to happen. But, then, we all know people who, apropos nothing, died to young, or to randomly. So the question, as Eminem would put it, is will you seize your one chance, your one opportunity. Will you make what you can of this human birth? Will you step into the river and let it lead you to your destiny?
For years I’ve been drawn to the Grail Legend. Like the Christ legend, and this little story I have to tell about rafting the (real or metaphoric) Zambezi, the Grail Legend isn’t just for our entertainment. It is, as all great storytelling is, a compass to help us orient ourselves in the wild terrain where we live and where we will die.
Today I was thinking about the Zambezi because Africa is my spiritual home — it’s the place where I first stepped into the wild stream that is my true life, where I first encountered the Zambezi of my imagining, and because I am on that river still. Life, at its best, is lived on that river. It is a place of mystery. Where it will ultimately take us, we do not know, though if we are wise, we live life as if we do know, we live it, in other words, with purpose. But, living upon the river as we do, we allow the course of the river to change, we allow it to take us to places we cannot see until we step away from shore and let ourselves get caught up in the rapids that we do not, cannot, control.
Like the hero in a movie, we embark upon a life — we set our course, we choose a goal — and as we move in the direction of the chosen, we encounter obstacles and opportunities, enemies and allies, and if we will meet them where we are, the narrative will unfold. At some point — at the end of Act Two, in the language of screenwriting, we will find ourselves at the moment closest to death, when all seems lost.
And if we will accept where we are. If we will let ourselves be in the middle of the Zambezi with an overturned raft and crocodiles circling, we will find out what we’re to do next. And what we are to do — what we are always to do — is get back in the raft and continue down the river towards our goal.
Only, now, our goal will look different, it will be bigger, it will mean more, it will be touched by our destiny, which we first went to meet when we got upon the river, even though we were scared, even though it required us to risk everything in order to find out who we are. And in our third act, we find exactly that. If we’re Bill Gates, we find philanthropy and we innovate at the intersection of technology and education. If we’re Cheryl Strayed (author of the bestseller Wild), we show other people how to walk through the wilderness of loss and lostness and come out the other side. We find purpose, in other words. We raft that crazy river to our purpose and it will be worth it. I am here to report back, to say that the adventuresome life that my mother longed to protect me from is risky, yes, but it is sublime.
Each of us is made for a life like that, each of us made for a journey that we alone will travel.
We are each made to travel a journey that no one else will travel, and to come back from the lands we visit with The Grail, with the great gifts that humankind is needing, whether that’s humankind on the grand scale, or the human lives that most immediately surround us.
The Grail Legend has been told in many ways by many authors. The authors of the Vulgate Cycle, a major source of The Arthurian Legend written in French, used the Grail as a symbol of divine grace. In this version of the legend, Galahad, the illegitimate son of Elaine and Lancelot, renowned for his spiritual purity and gallantry, is destined to achieve the Grail. But Galahad, like the Jesus of the Christ Legend, is not exceptional. He is who we each might be if we will but embrace the purity and gallantry that we, too, were born with. This purity is what I call authenticity. We each have an authentic self. And the gallantry is simple courage. Courage to live our real and singular lives. So bon voyage, safe journey, my friend.
PHOTOGRAPHY via National Geographic
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.