As I grew up in small towns, the diversity I could be exposed to was limited and the diversity I was exposed to was almost non-existent. It wasn’t until I entered middle school that I began regularly interacting with people from different Christian denominations. It wasn’t until high school that I had opportunities to develop “non-Christian” and racially diverse friendships and it wasn’t until I graduated college and moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where I truly became immersed in diversity of background, thought, and belief.
Growing up in a monoculture is simpler than its alternative. Beliefs are more readily reinforced, dissent is discouraged and disappointingly appraised, and divergence from the accepted mold is engrained as terrifying, risky, and potentially damning. From my experience, many people stay within the stream of experience and tradition in which they were born, only sometimes tentatively exploring the banks of their shore, if at all.
What causes some to question their surroundings while others remain content and steadfast?
What forces compel some to crawl up the banks of their given stream and search for new vistas, new rivers, the ocean?
Is it rebellion or temptation? Enlightenment? Contrarianism?
Is it a deeply felt urge to seek out “more”?
I began experiencing these curiosities in my teen years – maintaining one foot within my inherited stream while the other tentatively edged the banks of the shore, searching for a foothold. What might be peculiar, even difficult, to understand is I fervently believed in my inheritance while simultaneously, almost subconsciously, rejecting elements of that inheritance. I embodied cognitive dissonance.
I prayed and cried while singing beautiful songs in church. I listened to creationist apologia. I checked out books from the library on hypnosis and lucid dreaming. I stumbled upon Enya and Yanni and Adiemus and Loreena McKennitt, Shirley MacLain and Eckhart Tolle. I never drank in high school (unless we count the time I tried to make a cocktail with cooking wine). I compulsively lied for a number of years. I watched movies I “shouldn’t have watched” at youth group gatherings. I went on mission trips to distant countries.
A defining turning point came in high school when I recounted a dream to my girlfriend:
“…And then I found myself standing on a sand dune, looking out over the pyramids in Egypt as the red sun set…”
She interrupted, “Have you read The Alchemist?”
I had not.
She ran to her room, pulled down a well-worn copy from her bookshelf, and flopped open the pages, pointing with a smile to the words:
When he reached the top of the dune, his heart leapt. There, illuminated by the light of the moon and the brightness of the desert, stood the solemn and majestic Pyramids of Egypt.
I was dumbstruck. Have you ever felt like the cosmos aligns, if but for a moment, just for you? Synchronicity. This one was for me. I felt it. Or, at least, I imagined I did; just like Santiago in the story, my “personal legend” was born.
That weekend, I drove half an hour to the nearest bookstore and purchased my very own copy of The Alchemist. I kept it in my bottom drawer below old sweat pants – next to ragged copies of National Geographic depicting life in Sumatra and other far-flung, exotic locales for a kid growing up in farm country.
I devoured the words and allegories of Paulo Coehlo – a refreshing, mystical, and dangerous voice calling from beyond the walls of my experience. My stomach dropped when I stumbled upon this line:
He had to choose between something he had become accustomed to and something he wanted to have.
I flung the book across the room as if it were a searing hot baseball.
This was a defining moment in my life journey. I felt it happen. Everything changed after that dream, that book. I had experienced the numinous – and not while sitting in church. To this day I credit her for, unwittingly or not, cracking open my mind to the ineffable, the beyond. Little did I know just how drastically my life would change when that spark grew in strength and intensity, compelling me to venture outside the boundaries set for me – and those I had set for myself.