“Everyday you can either be a host to God or a hostage to Ego” – Dr. Wayne Dyer
Dreamers spend their lives asleep. The early bird gets the worm. Keep your head down and work hard. Your job is your worth. If you don’t have a good job, you don’t have anything. Money makes the world go round. You are your bank balance. Your title defines you. No one will like you if you aren’t successful in business. Things matter. Appearance is everything. Grow up. Get real.
My father had the stage every Sunday night at the formal dining room table. In between bites of roast beef and soggy vegetables he pontificated this sage advice. His well-meaning yet fear-based words were meant to instill a strong work ethic, but as a young child I took these words verbatim and adopted them as my own fear-driven demons beliefs that would form my identity and value.
In The Impersonal Life, author Joseph Benner says beliefs are merely the “rubbish we have gathered from the dumping ground of others.” This is a story of rubbish removal told from the best viewpoint possible: hindsight. It’s 20/20.
It was 2010; I had spent the last three decades desperately trying to fulfill my so-called identity. That started with a paper route and led me to where I was now – about to finish the 2010 Olympics and with it my job as an Olympic project manager. Recession would follow the Games; the economy was already contracting and the torch hadn’t even left town yet.
Thousands would be looking for jobs and they told us to prepare to be unemployed for at least a year – perhaps two. The prospect of being jobless, worthless for two years was unfathomable. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to. I had an offer to sit at the head of a company in an industry I knew inside and out. The Head of an established company. The Boss. The Big Cheese. The ‘Shit’. I had finally fulfilled my identity destiny and my demons had never been more thrilled.
The job wouldn’t be easy; I’d work long hours at least six days a week, and not have much of a life outside of work; something that was strangely alluring in the past. I’d be so committed to work that I’d quickly bypass the point of no return when it came to children; also something that was strangely alluring in the past. So why then, was I hesitating?
It was the nudge.
The nudge came in the form of a story the late Dr. Wayne Dyer recounted in many of his PBS specials and his movie, The Shift.
Wayne Dyer was 19 years old and had just entered the navy. He was about to make the 28 day voyage to Japan by sea. Before he boarded the ship his uncle Bill gave him a book of short stories written by Leo Tolstoy. One of those stories was called, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan Ilyich was a judge who lived in Moscow. He hated his wife because she had pushed him into this prestigious career, one he did not get any sense of purpose from. He was filled with internal rage and anger. Laying on his deathbed, his wife holding his hand, he looked into her eyes and whispered his last words, ‘What if my whole life was wrong?’ then he died.
Wayne set down the book, opened his notebook and wrote these words: Dear Wayne, don’t die with your music still in you.
While I stood at the crossroads of perhaps what was the biggest (in hindsight) decision of my life, the nudge was too powerful to ignore.
Would I dare to fail? Would I dare to be embarrassed when I fell flat on my face? Would I dare to be judged? Would I dare to let my bullshit identity die? Would I dare to expunge the one thing that defined me? Would I dare to challenge my demons beliefs?
The temptation of comfort and the known was great, but the possibility of living a muted life was even greater.
I turned down the job and dared to do what I had wanted to do my entire life. A spark of passion that was ignited in kindergarten while daydreaming within the pages of National Geographic magazine – I would go to South Africa and save the animals.
At the time I didn’t know if I had just made the best or worst decision of my life. I was leaning towards the latter. But now from the vantage point of the hind, I can see it was the best damn decision I ever made.
After researching many organizations and projects I decided on a Big Five conservation project with an organization called Edge of Africa. I liked that the project was small and very hands-on.
Shortly after, I arrived in a tiny pocket of South Africa just off the Garden Route to a small game reserve. The reserve was home to rescues of the Big Five: lions who had been saved from a trophy-hunting farm, elephants whose herds were annihilated by poachers and sent to be touring elephants – a fate they rebelled against so they ended up here. Rhinoceros, giraffes, wildebeest, buffalo and crocodiles plus many other animals also called this place home – it was a dream come true.
That was at least until I was shown to my tent camp, a small triangular plot on the edge of the reserve, where I would be sleeping alone. Nothing but a thin electrical wire that merely served as a ‘mental block’ to the animals was all that separated me from them.
The lion camp bordered one side. The elephant camp was on the other side and the open reserve on the last. The lions were so close, I could hear their roars every night, needless to say I didn’t sleep a wink that first night.
Work began at dawn and ended at dinnertime. The first time I put on the soft, butter yellow, work gloves I had never felt more proud. That is until I began to actually work. Have you ever lifted elephant dung? It’s as heavy as a bowling ball. Mucking out ellie stalls took hours of backbreaking, stinky work. But you know what? It was great. I loved every grueling second of it.
Days were spent patrolling the reserve, tending to the animals, tracking cheetah, and overall reserve maintenance. Working with the animals was exhilarating. I had never felt more purpose or alive because I was finally taking out the rubbish. I had never learned so much about things that really mattered. Every day I gave of myself trying desperately to even out the balance sheet, but the more I gave, the more I received – forever indebted to the animals of Africa.
A few days in, the worst storm in over a century pummeled the game reserve. Our conservation effort quickly morphed into a massive clean up effort. Rebuilding roads by hand one stone at a time. Chopping reeds from within a crocodile pit to relieve the flooding. Cutting tree branches for food, our only tool for all these jobs – a machete.
One of the casualties from the storm was a red hartebeest, a regal creature. She didn’t die instantly; it would take a few days. I cried and cried for that hartebeest but I also witnessed the perfection of nature and life in her passing. It was a gift that would release me from my own grief over my mother’s passing a few years before.
Soon I no longer feared sleeping in my tent, the lull of the roar of the lions put me to sleep every night. In fact, pretty soon I didn’t fear anything and was ready to confront a life-long phobia: Great White Sharks.
The finale of this volunteer project came weeks later, off the coast of Mosselbaii, South Africa. Pumped-up from my experience thus far, I began to shiver with fear when I climbed into the titanium shark cage. There we waited in the deep blue darkness and silence save for the loud thumping of my heart.
And then it began.
The cage began to rock. Not from the current, but from the massive weight of the creature that had just slipped past behind us. I tried to look but only caught a glimpse of a dark shadow disappear into the blue. The terror was overwhelming. I reminded myself to breathe.
Within minutes shark after shark came to check us out, one even pushing his nose through the cage just inches in front of my face. Oh my God! Would he bite my head off? Smash the cage? No, no he would not. He would retreat and move on just as quickly as he had arrived.
In this moment I realized that this life-long phobia was nothing more than an illusion. Great white sharks were the coolest and most beautiful beings I had ever seen.
My fear quickly morphed into profound love for this misrepresented creature. A graceful, inquisitive, powerful predator who, after surviving millions of years was now endangered at the hand of the greatest super predator of all: the human race.
As the sea turned pink with sunset I made it my mission to spread the truth about these magnificent creations and put an end to the myths by supporting shark advocacy groups and speaking up for legislation to protect sharks.
My time in Africa was a brief sojourn, merely weeks. I went there to save the animals but the animals saved me. They saved me from my beliefs demons that kept me from daring. They saved me from . . . dying with my music still inside me and I’ve been dancing ever since.
Hindsight. It’s 20/20.
Melissa Haynes is a shark advocate, animal lover, adventure junkie, and author of the book, Learning to Play with a Lion’s Testicles. Her book has appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and on Ellen. She is now working on her second book. To see more photos visit her website. (Her crossed-out words in this story are intentional.)