I’ll publish Chapter 1 of my book here soon. It tells the story of how I got involved in Palestine in the first place. But this gives you a sense of the state of mind I was in when I happened to wander into the Holy Land at age 23, seven years ago. It’s an email I sent to my mother in October of 2002, shortly after I graduated from college. Instead of going to Wall Street or physics grad school like many friends, I was bartending in northern California, studying Russian and Arabic on my own just because I wanted to, and spending three evenings a week learning Jujitsu just because I wanted to, with vague plans to travel somewhere in the world when I had enough money saved up — again, just because I wanted to. Frankly, at the time, I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do.
There was no indication that all of it was leading me to Palestine (or anywhere), and my mom was understandably nervous. So I tried to explain a little about where I was coming from, or hoped I was coming from. It was such a confusing time with no real guidance other than a feeling of absolute dread when I thought about following a conventional career track in anything I had studied. A lot of people do great with conventional career tracks, but something (punched me in the gut and) told me it wasn’t for me, and that if I didn’t listen, I would be miserable. So really I was just trying to post-rationalize my decision to do the only thing my viscera would let me do, for reasons unknown.
Reading this letter now, it sounds very naive. But I’m glad. I’m more of a realist now — I understand better how the world works — but I’m a progressive realist, which means I don’t simply accept the status quo as the best we can do. History is saturated with stories of people improving their societies and governments through hard, principled work. Too many people these days mistake cynicism for wisdom. I’d rather start my path too idealistic than too resigned to believing we already live in the best of all possible worlds, and we can’t do anything to improve it. As Carl Shurz said, “Ideals are like the stars: we never reach them, but like the mariners of the sea, we chart our course by them.”
I try to remind myself now and then that if not for “naive idealists,” I probably wouldn’t be able to vote.
Right now what’s making me feel good is being here in California with my friends and community and mentors and worldview-bending conversations with wildly diverse people who are helping shape my life and my choices more than any institutionalized class ever could. I’m living well and cheaply, having adventures and conversations and breakthroughs, making new friends and strengthening old friendships.
Of course I have the potential to be led astray or get freaked out or join a cult or waste all my money or get into bad substances or do stupid things, but you just have to have faith that I am a free agent, a relatively intelligent and motivated one who loves life and tries to think freely and live healthily, and I’ll make decent decisions. Maybe not the best, maybe not the ones you would have chosen, and maybe you won’t see the rhyme or reason to the path my heart follows. But no one ever promised me or you that things would make sense right away.
Mr. Thoreau dabbled in pencil manufacturing before he found his path and sat down by a lake and “frittered his life away” writing silly little stories that would later profoundly influence Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Thomas Paine worked as a corset-maker for years before he sailed to new lands and wrote books that helped foment the revolution that formed the country we now live in. Roald Dahl hiked aimlessly around Newfoundland and then took a post in humid, malaria-infested Africa before he joined the Royal Air Force and later wrote children’s books that we all grew up on.
I admire these people far more, and their lives make my eyes shine brighter, than whoever was the richest or most powerful man in Concord while Thoreau was eating lunch with his mom by a lake. That’s just how I am. I value freedom and adventure more than security and institutional validation. Not everyone who’s like that ends up a miserable failure, and I’m lucky enough to have a degree to fall back on, so I can follow a non-traditional path and probably not crash and burn. Why not? Who am I hurting, living this way?
My eyes are finally shining for something, I feel less lonely and repressed. And in any case, if it doesn’t work out in the next few years, then I’ll be only, what, 26 years old? Not too late to start over if necessary, humbler and wiser and full of stories.
I’m probably not going to influence nearly as many people as any of these men, but nonetheless, I want to forge a life less ordinary, a life off the beaten track, a life with heart if not with loads of cash and real estate. And I have enough friends all over the world that I’ll probably never starve. And I live healthy enough that I’m not making myself sick all the time. Insurance is not going to do a lot of good if the shit really hits the fan, but a huge network of friends will. That’s my insurance. And it’s a lot more fun than selling my time to someone I don’t care about and giving it to someone else I don’t care about in the name of “security.” I’m young and naive and glib, and it may catch up with me, and I may have to start over years in the future when it’s not so easy. But that’s what I choose for now, the uncertainty and the adventure.
I only have this one life. It’s just the way I am, and I’m not asking anyone to live like I do. I’m not even asking for permission or acceptance or respect. Just… give me a chance, and let me fail and succeed gracefully, as a human being as cognizant and imperfect as any other.
I’m 22 years old. I’m a freshman in the world, and I’m going to make mistakes. But I think it was you who introduced me to the Tallulah Bankhead quote: “If I had my life to do over, I’d make all the same mistakes, only I’d make them a lot sooner.”
So here I go.