What No One Ever Told Me About Dreams (and the danger of the comfort zone)


“I am in the ER with chest pain, it hurts really bad…” read a text message sent by my wife. Lindsey continued on to assure me she was okay but had admitted herself to the emergency room. I work down the hall from the E.R. placing me just a two minute walk away, and for two minutes I was alone with my thoughts. All the likely suspects raced through my mind, heart defects, blood disorder, cancer, antibiotic resistant tuberculosis, arrhythmia, and in my mind the most likely suspect, a pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lungs). I know I was overreacting, but that didn't stop my racing thoughts. Walking down the hall time slowed for a moment, and the natural conclusion was this might be fatal. For the first time in my life I let myself imagine that this might my wife's last day on earth. What overwhelmed me was not fear of losing her, but knowing that if I did lose her I would be guilty of preventing her living out one of her biggest dreams.

Lindsey entered my life after a chance encounter working in the operating room. While running the x-ray machine during a surgical case, we kept stealing glances at each other. Behind the surgical mask I could tell she was smiling at me just by seeing her eyes. After some interesting experiences with prior girlfriends' definitions of what a relationship meant, I loved that she rolled her eyes at the surgeon’s jokes about the futility of monogamy. As a testament to our immediate connection, some of our first phone conversations lasted until dawn, surpassing my typical phone tolerance by 100 fold. Completely out of character  I impulsively proposed after eleven months, feeling waiting for our one year anniversary was too long. When you know you know. We started a life together a few years earlier I would have thought impossible. We each had a career in medicine, a home, dogs, and made the most of our vacation time to travel, yet we dreamed of more...

Sea Lions on the West Coast Trail

Sea Lions on the West Coast Trail

Our travels has taken us to see leather backed turtles in Trinidad, hiked to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu in Peru, walked among the moving stones in Death Valley, fought off swarms of midges on Scotland’s West Highland Way , helped on a medical mission in Belize, hiked British Columbia’s West Coast Trail unsupported for seven days, among dozens other shorter trips. These were some of the most enriching experiences of my life, and oddly I resisted almost everyone. Historically my general approach to travel is as follows:

  •  Lindsey would start dreaming about going to some amazingly beautiful place.
  • I would immediately think of excuses of why the trip would be impractical, unsafe, or better to be done later.
  • Lindsey’s enthusiasm would eventually wear me down. When I realized there was no good reason that we couldn’t travel, and when I saw how much it meant to her I couldn’t say no.
  • The  actually traveling to the destination I always find to be unpleasant (I am 6’4 200lbs, and do not fit well into economy seats, or small hotel beds).
  • After a day to settle in, it struck me as odd that I ever thought traveling was a bad idea.
  • We would spend the remainder of our time enjoying each other’s company, meeting interesting people, eating good food, and seeing amazing places.
  • I would obsessively photograph our travels, and secretly dreamed of someday putting a book together… always later though.
  • Once at home, in my comfort zone, I would inexplicably become resistant to thoughts of future trips.

Something changed after our last trip, spending 7 days hiking the West Coast Trail away from civilization, we had lots of time to clear our heads. I had just read The 4 Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, a good part of this book talks about taking mini-retirements throughout your life. Lindsey had just finished reading Wild, the story of a woman that hiked the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). Synthesizing the two books conjured up all kinds of discussions of the possibilities we would have  if we had months instead of weeks to travel. This trip planted the seed for the biggest dream yet.

Overlooking Loch Lamond

Overlooking Loch Lamond

Spend too much time in your comfort zone, and it becomes a prison
— Anonymous

We dreamed up taking six months to hike the PCT, and again it took Lindsey to keep the dream alive. Due to a rough winter on the west coast we would not be able to hike the entire trail safely due to all the snow. We are ambitious but not reckless, so the dream morphed into backpacking across Europe and Asia. It was fun to look at pictures, and talk about amazing places. It was another to leave the safety and security of our careers for an adventure. All the intellectual concepts I have collected arguing to go on a once in a lifetime trip lost to feeling warm and safe at home. I admittedly was seriously dragging my heels, I never said no, but I did come up with a lot of reasons why we should wait. Better weather, a larger savings account, establish a new career first, shorten it to a regular vacation, its not safe there, and dozens more. Lindsey just continued to tell me enthusiastically how amazing it would be to do these things. There is always later I argued, later would mean more preparation, so later I argued was always better. My unspoken philosophy was tomorrow is better than today. I felt smart about how reasonable, and thoughtful I was about the whole endeavor.  I did what felt comfortable, and I wanted to wait for my comfort zone to arrive before me at our destination. One message was all it took, and my comfort zone evaporated in a moment...

XTMSG: “…Chest Pain…” While in my comfort zone I received a that text I thought would shatter my life as I knew it. Alone walking down that long hospital corridor with only my thoughts, the illusion of safety vanished. For the first time in my life I was forced to really contemplate our mortality, not as a philosophical exercise, but as an emotional inevitability. When you think you have twenty thousand tomorrows, its easy to round up to infinity. With infinite tomorrows there is no reason to not wait. The thought confronted me “what if today was my last day with Lindsey?”, a thought I had once thought too morbid to entertain. Here it was, the real prospect of losing the love of my life and my best friend. Oddly guilt and anger overwhelmed me, not fear. If the worst does come to pass, I have to live with the fact that I prevented her, no that I prevented us from living our dreams. All of this stemmed from my fear of leaving my comfort zone. Outwardly I was composed, inwardly I was coming unhinged. Being older than Lindsey she has expressed her fear of me dying before her, and how alone she would be. In my mind losing  Lindsey would be the worst thing that could happen to me, but at least only I would only be suffering from loneliness. Knowing I was guilty of stopping us from living and experiencing as much as we could have, and I was actively working to stop or at least slow us from actualizing our dreams. These thoughts tormented me that I wasted the one thing that once spent can not be regained, time. In that moment I would have given anything I owned to have a chance to go back and make a different choice, in that moment the only thing that mattered to me was our connection, and how we spent that time together. In that moment I knew I would never be able to forgive myself if I was guilty of killing our dream.

Reality hit me as I entered the Emergency Room to find Lindsey sitting on a stretcher smiling, joking with the staff, occasionally wincing from the pain, but otherwise she seemed okay. Panic and terror gave way to relief and embarrassment for letting my imagination get away from me. Once we were settled into the E.R., we actually had a nice time together watching some movies and talking. We had each others company, and wherever we were together that was home. During our stay I accidentally called the E.R. home. In truth at that moment I felt it was. We had each other, and knowing Lindsey was not on her death bed I was more than happy to spend the rest of the evening in the E.R. Hours later she was discharged, and eventually received a diagnosis of acid reflux related issues. Painful yes, lethal no. In my relief I tried to return to my comfort zone, but there was no going back. The illusion was shattered.

Time is a non-renewable resource, while money can be recouped.
— Tim Ferriss

A friend said to me once “If you spend enough time in your comfort zone, it becomes a prison.” In that moment I realized your comfort zone does not even need to be comfortable, only familiar. I had become fond of our comfortable suburban life, with it’s occasional breaks going abroad. The thought of breaking that routine is stressful. I have worked at the same place for 11 years, I had a job that I worked hard to get, and I was well aware of how blessed I was to have what I did. In the process I was becoming burnt out working in health care, more and more I had to force myself to do things the right way. Shortcuts I would never have entertained just a few years earlier began to come to mind with increasing frequency. I was in a familiar place, that had ceased to be comfortable. Never before had I woken up at night thinking about work. There were more and more signs that I needed to make a change, and Lindsey knew this. I was blessed to have the career I did, and I was equally blessed with opportunities to live out one of our dreams. It’s easy to say that you want to leave a career, but to actually leave the familiar was much harder than I had expected. The E.R. ordeal gave me sufficient motivation, I handed in my resignation letter expecting the worst. In my imagination I forsaw my co-workers looking down on me for quitting the team, seeing me as irresponsible. Another reality check later I was amazed how supportive, and happy people were about our adventure. We have a dream to travel the world that many people share, few of us have the means to realize, and fewer yet have the conviction to embark on.

The reality check from the E.R. was a much needed wakeup call. Since that night we have made preparations to spend three months traveling across Europe and Asia. Fate willing we will be leaving in little over a month from writing this. Anything can happen, but statistically traveling is less dangerous that driving to work. If something happens it happens, it could just as well have happened here. Another decision I have made is to not wait any longer, and put together a book. I will let my experiences on this trip determine what comes of this project. I have no expectations for this project, other than to let things happen. Just as travel does, I find my creative works enrich my life, some I share, others are for no one but me. We have things that we can be bought and sold, but our experiences are indelible. Our creative works serve as a record of those experiences. 

Oddly a memory of learning to swim from my childhood comes to mind. One of my lessons began with my toes at the end of the diving board. Never having been in the deep end before, a pole was held out in front of me to jump and grab for safety. Scared I was coaxed to leapt out reaching for the pole, and before I could reach the pole it was pulled away. My illusion of safety had been shattered. I was literally under water in the deep end, out of my comfort zone and scared. Instead of fearfully drowning as I imagined, I found myself angrily thrashing to the edge of the pool furious and safe. So now as an adult, again I find myself on the edge of the new experience. Fate has given me a gift, life will happen, and safety is an illusion. These 90 days are going to happen, time will go on regardless of what I do. I have chosen to leap, at some point we all end up underwater, but I am deciding when. Going backwards is not possible, staying put will not work, and going forward is the only choice. Dive, fall, or be coerced, life is going to happen. I want to live in a way that I am proud of my past, hopeful about the future, but engaged in the present. I want to live knowing that if tomorrow does not come I will be content knowing that I did everything I could today.

As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.
— Henry David Thoreau