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Family Cruise: Joe on Ambition

HUANHINE, Society Islands – We're between Tahiti and Bora Bora, in the middle of the South Pacific. It's about 10 a.m., and we've just stepped ashore on this tiny island. A fellow named Teva is behind the "desk" at a shack renting bicycles and kayaks. He's about my son's age, shirtless, and more laid back than a Lido deck chair. He rents us our rusty bikes and tells us to return them whenever we'd like. As we pedal away, I glance back to see Teva getting re-settled on his stool for another lazy day.

As we cycle the island, we see numerous examples of the same lethargy. Even though it's mid-morning on a Wednesday, people are dozing in their yards as if it was a Sunday afternoon, post pig-roast. At first glance, it's difficult to tell if the dogs here are alive or dead; they are so absolutely languid. Even the palm trees are slouching.

These islands are renowned as paradise. But I can't decide whether the general lack of ambition that coats this place is a prerequisite. As the son of an ex-Marine, I have all but hooked an IV of ambition to my boy. I've promised him that if he gets a college degree, a steady job, and a 401(k), he will eventually find paradise. But the sobering reality is that we just hopped a ship, steamed a few thousand miles, and found ourselves in the midst of an earthly nirvana. And guess what? There's not a drop of ambition or accomplishment anywhere.

Indeed, one of my goals in bringing Paul on this trip was to showcase the results of ambition. The manifest of the ship is a who's who of successful entrepreneurs and executives. Lifetimes of work and diligence have brought them here. They are testaments to the American work ethic. I believed that witnessing this would be the incentive Paul would need to survive the decades of sacrifice and commitment that lay ahead. But now I can see I'm risking it having the opposite effect. He doesn't need to wait to realize paradise. He can have it now, just like Teva, by saying to hell with my world and its work ethic. Life is short, its necessities meager. Why not find a menial island job and settle into a hammock?

Paul and I stop to buy mangoes from a roadside stand. We sit in the shade and eat until we are full of simple goodness and as relaxed as the island's dogs. I mention how this beats the hell out of sitting behind a desk for 23 years, as I did. Paul mentions how great it feels to spend an afternoon of nothingness after carrying 23 credits his final semester

And with that I stop worrying. Before you can fully appreciate sweetness, whether in homegrown fruit or life, you need to have tasted the bitter. It's the contrast that makes paradise paradise. He already knows this. Without work, there can be no vacation; without stress, no do-nothing contentment.

Eventually we arrive back in town. Teva is still on his stool.  A thin stack of receipts suggests another quiet afternoon. I look at him, and I look at my son. By every measure Teva is living the dream, but Paul…Paul, I am sure, is still dreaming of living.

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