I love words! That being the case, some of my blog entries will naturally center around one word – usually a word that has captured my attention because of something I am currently experiencing or have experienced. Last night I began thinking about adventure. I had recently accepted an invitation to participate in an adventure; things did not turn out as I had hoped.
I know what adventure means, or maybe I should say I know how we Americans use this word – we use it in the sense of an event or experience that is exciting, maybe even unusual, but always exciting and exhilarating. Since my adventure did not turn out as I had expected it made me wonder what, if any, other definitions of adventure existed; I also was interested in knowing the etymology of the word.
Adventure, as it turns out, has several meanings. In addition to exciting and unusual, Dictionary.com (as well as the other dictionaries I consulted) adds: 1) “participation in exciting undertakings or enterprises: the spirit of adventure.” 2) “a bold, usually risky undertaking; hazardous action of uncertain outcome.” 3) “a commercial or financial speculation of any kind; venture.” 4) “Obsolete. peril; danger; risk. chance; fortune; luck.”
When it comes to thoughts and words I find that one thing always leads to another – it’s like Hansel and Gretel following the bread crumbs to find their way home. Obviously Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs didn’t work out – the birds found the crumbs and saw a meal, not a way home. However, I still like the metaphor and the bread crumbs I find have fortunately not been devoured and they do lead me home again. “Bold” and “risky” resonated deeply but I was curious about “enterprise” and “uncertain outcome” gave me pause.
Again, I had my own notion of the meaning of enterprise but I wanted to see what other meanings there might be. Word Hippo had this to say: “A project or undertaking, typically one that is difficult or requires effort.” Aha!! I had never given any thought to an adventure being “difficult” or one that “requires effort.” Nor had I considered an “uncertain outcome.” How could I have been so shortsighted? How could I have missed entirely the fact that even an adventure encounters life and life includes many, many difficult moments that require great effort.
Like everything else, adventure is double-edged. It is exciting, exhilarating, and exceptional but it is also difficult and requisitions from us great effort, great courage, and endless tenacity. I don’t know how my partner in this adventure defined adventure or what his preconceptions were but given what I have discovered about adventure, I realize that I lacked clarity about what an adventure entails and encompasses when I signed on. I became lost in the exhilaration of the mountain-top experience and failed to anticipate the valleys and the swamps – the realities of life; the realities of any adventure. Not that anticipating the swamps would have dissuaded me – it wouldn’t have – but it might have made me re-examine my expectations (another word worth deconstructing), reminding me that nothing in this life is certain.
In one of the readings that I have done recently I came across a mystical teaching by Rabbi Gedalyahu Schorr who, in his commentary Gedalyahu’s Light, suggests that our souls are imprinted with both the good things and the not-so-good things that will happen to us in our lives: experiences that are painful and tragic; experiences that leave us debilitated, depressed, sometimes suicidal; experiences that leave us feeling that we have been dealt a bad hand, not to mention feelings of aloneness, abandonment, and certainty that God is nursing a grudge against us. In our periods of pain we forget that “Just as the hurts from our past [or present] leave an imprint on our souls, all the joys of the future leave an imprint on our souls too.” We forget that life is double-edged, that living means we can count on pain and joy. Remembering, in the midst of pain, that we are also imprinted with future joy is one of the most difficult tasks one can accomplish. Adventure, even when it descends into the swamps, contains the promise of future joy.
I am reminded of a story that I have cherished ever since happening upon it years ago. I wish I could attribute the story to a specific author but unfortunately I have not yet uncovered its origin. The story goes:
There was a man who had two children—two sons. One son was always negative. He didn’t like anything; he was very hard to please. The other son was always happy, very optimistic, very helpful. It was the time for Diwali [the Festival of Lights], and he needed to get gifts for his two sons. For his unhappy son, hoping to make him happy, he got a beautiful carpentry set, a magnificent telescope and a brand new bicycle. However, the son said, ‘I don’t do carpentry; I don’t want that carpentry set. This is not the highest class telescope; I don’t want this telescope. And I don’t like that bicycle’. The father was not surprised.
He had also given a present to his happy son, his giving son, his kind son, his anything-goes son. For him, he piled two tons of horse shit in his bedroom. After seeing his first son disappointed with his presents, he went into his second son’s bedroom. In the bedroom, singing at the top of his lungs, was his son with a shovel throwing the shit all over the room; digging and digging and digging. The father was taken aback at his son’s behavior; never had he anticipated such a reaction. ‘Son’, he pleaded, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing’?
The son enthusiastically responded, ‘Well, with all this shit, there’s got to be a pony in here somewhere’!
Another aha, another demonstration of the double-edged sword – to get to the pony we have to dig through a lot of shit. And that goes for adventures too. If we want the mountain-top experience we must also be willing to slog through the swamp. Adventure is about endurance and tenacity as well as exhilaration and excitement.
To say that I was brimming with excitement over these word discoveries would be an understatement. I felt like I had found a pony. I had gained some real understanding and insight, not just of the word adventure but insights into myself and how the mis-understanding of the fullness of a word can actually blind us to the fullness of an experience. When I looked at the etymology of the word adventure, Online Etymology Dictionary had this to say:
c. 1200, auenture “that which happens by chance, fortune, luck,” from Old French aventure (11c.) “chance, accident, occurrence, event, happening,” from Latin adventura (res) “(a thing) about to happen,” from adventurus, future participle of advenire “to come to, reach, arrive at,” from ad- “to” (see ad-) + venire “to come” (see venue).
Meaning developed through “risk/danger” (a trial of one’s chances), c. 1300, and “perilous undertaking” (late 14c.) and thence to “a novel or exciting incident” (1560s). Earlier it also meant “a wonder, a miracle; accounts of marvelous things” …
c. 1300, “to risk the loss of,” from adventure (n.). Meaning “to take a chance” is early 14c.
What struck me most from the etymology was the idea that adventure once had the connotation of “a wonder, a miracle….” Most of us (myself included) fail to see adventure in the light of a wonder or a miracle, let alone in life and living. It saddens me that this meaning has been lost – that excitement has replaced the lens of wonder, or as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel observed, we have lost the ability to live in radical amazement.
Do I regret having accepted the invitation to participate in this recent adventure? Not on your life! I would do it again in a heartbeat. However, imbued with the understanding I now possess about the magnitude and comprehensiveness of what adventure entails, there is much I would hopefully do differently. I understood so little about the demands one faces when embarking on an adventure. I have learned, for the moment at least (it seems I need frequent reminders), that the mountain-top and the swamp are two sides of the same coin – if I want the joy, I must also embrace the pain; never forgetting, as the Psalmist reminds us (Psalm 30:6): “…weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.”
We are imprinted with future joy even as we weep. There is the light and joy of the morning and the mountain-top even as we labor through the darkness of the swamp’s sludge and slime that threatens to pull us under; there is a pony buried in the mountains of shit. This is what John Mellencamp so aptly describes as The Full Catastrophe of Life. And that I have learned is the real adventure, recognizing that the sword cuts both ways and embracing it nonetheless.