Wide open valleys carpeted with grass so green it would make the Emerald City jealous. Wildflowers in full bloom. Sparkling creeks winding and weaving their way down mountainsides. All framed by a cloudless blue sky. Everywhere we turned, nature surrounded and engulfed us with its purest, most unspoiled beauty. My friend turned to me and exclaimed, “Why would a bear want to live in a zoo when it can have all of this!?” When I envisioned the concrete cages and steel bars of a zoo enclosure and compared it to the vast, boundless paradise stretching out before me, I knew that she had a point. Why would a bear choose a steel cage over unlimited horizons? And then it dawned on me: how many times I have chosen to live in the smallness of a zoo when I had a world of opportunities stretching out before me?
(Okay, I recognize that bears do not actually have a choice in this matter, but humor me for a few more minutes.)
When I thought about it, I realized that I had spent more than a few years living in a zoo of my own creating. Sure the enclosure was safe and comfortable enough. I knew with complete clarity what the boundaries were, and I never dreamed of going beyond those towering steel bars. Living in this perceived safety, however, exposed me to a sea of gawkers, critics, and skeptics who were quick to analyze my every move. It was as though I was anxiously pacing in my concrete cage, dreading the next camera-toting tourist who would pass by, pointing and laughing. Because I had chosen to live in the smallness of my enclosure, hemmed in by self-doubt, fear, and shame, I began to see myself through the eyes of the gawkers. I let them define my world and shape how I saw myself. After years of defining my reality through the reactions and words of those around me, I came to believe that I was a limited creature who was incapable of venturing beyond the familiarity of my concrete cage. Maybe you have a few cages, too. People-pleasing, fear of failure, and perfectionism are just as limiting as physical barriers of concrete and steel. Believe me, I know because I lived in those cages for over two decades (and I occasionally slink back to seek the familiarity of those enclosures). These walls and boundaries that we’ve carefully constructed to protect ourselves from rejection and from the possibility of failure are the entrapments that keep us hemmed in by the very things we’ve tried so hard to keep out. The tragedy of this approach to life is that the small enclosures we define for ourselves end up defining us. So why would we choose to limit ourselves to small, unsatisfying lives? For me, it boiled down to one thing: fear. I chose to live in the smallness of a zoo because I was afraid to face freedom. I was terrified of answering that call to step into the grandness of the life I was designed to live.
Yes, freedom can be a scary thing. A life without limits comes with the freedom to fail, the freedom to be hurt, the freedom to disappoint and to be disappointed. But a boundless life also comes with the freedom to grow, the freedom to dream, the freedom to create and explore, and, most of all, the freedom to truly live. Once we step out of the comfort and stagnation of our personal zoos, we can finally see ourselves as we really are: limitless, capable creatures who were designed to live grand, amazing lives. Lives that echo throughout the open valleys and over the mountain peaks, not lives that are stifled in the silence and smallness of cold, dark cages.
So had do we orchestrate a grand “jail break” from our concrete cages? Is there some master formula for a life of freedom? Well, if there is a detailed equation, I haven’t found it yet. The good news, though, is that we don’t need a formula because we already hold the keys to our freedom. While the keys look different for everyone, some of my personal keys have been embracing failure and all of the wonderful lessons that come with it, separating my worth from my performance, refusing to make myself small in order to avoid rejection, and learning to tell myself the truth. Training myself to use the keys is a daily process, and one that I have yet to master. However, I am venturing further into the beauty of the untamed wilderness every day as I trample over old fears and leave my old cages behind. So come on. Join me in the beautiful, epic wilderness of a boundless life. Is it terrifying and unpredictable? Yes. But it’s also beautiful beyond anything I could have imagined from within my concrete cage.