I remember waking up on September 11th, 2001 and walking into my living room, and seeing the second plane hit the second World Trade Center tower, and having the most powerful sensation that I’d fallen asleep in one universe and woken up in a different one, with a different timeline — like I was a train that had jumped from one rail to another.

Divorce can feel like that, too: like you were living one life and, suddenly, you find yourself living another. The ache inside you isn’t just for the life you’ve lost; it’s for the life you thought you were going to have, all the days in front of you — all the birthdays and Thanksgiving dinners, the petty arguments and the makeup sex and the unborn children and slow walks in the park, your wrinkled hands fondly clasped together as you entered your twilight years together. All of that, gone, and that’s what hurts the most, doesn’t it?

If I knew the secret to beating down that pain entirely, I would tell you. But I don’t think there is a way to do that. I think part of you will always mourn that other universe, that alternate future timeline that you shared with your spouse.

But your misery is only one side of a coin. The other side is this: you have a new life now. And unlike your old one, this life, and how you choose to live it, is entirely and only in your hands. You Don’t Have To Stay Anywhere Forever.

That can be a terrifying thing to confront. For many men, the comfort of marriage isn’t just in the companionship of a loved one or in family, but in knowing that the shape of their life has been defined for them by their responsibilities: go to work, pay the bills, make sure there’s food on the table and a roof over your heads. Plan for the future. And though those are serious commitments, they also free you from having to worry about where you’re going or what you’re doing. You bought the ticket; now you’re taking the ride.

Well, the ride has ended, and now it’s just you, with no roadmap to guide you. That can cause a kind of agoraphobia: a terror of the unconfined big world you’re suddenly in. You may feel like a deer in headlights, paralyzed by indecision.

But in terror, we can also often find exhilaration. Your new life is a blank book, waiting for you to fill it with anything you want. Anything.

After my wife and I split up, I spent several months doing what a lot of men do in that situation: getting drunk and stoned and trying to screw anything with a pulse. And, look, questions of traditional morality aside, there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you don’t hurt anybody else in doing it…but after awhile, I realized I felt empty. I wasn’t enjoying my freedom; I was simply trying to fill the hole in my heart.

When I was a kid, I was fortunate enough to travel the world in a way that very few Americans get to, even as adults…but I always wanted to go to sub-Saharan Africa, to see the jungle. That desire stayed with me as I grew up and got married. I even tried to convince my wife that we should go to Africa on our honeymoon, but the idea had no appeal to her, and besides, we couldn’t afford it.

But now I was flying solo — I could go anywhere and do anything I wanted. And I realized the choice was in my hands: I could spend the next thirty or forty years dreaming about going to Africa, or I could actually do it.

The hardest part of the whole thing was simply committing to the project: deciding that I was going to do this, rather than dreaming about it or talking about it. It was terrifying. What if my campaign didn’t get funded? What if I got hurt or sick or killed in Africa? What about my cats, my apartment, finding work when I got back? All those fears went through my head.

But then I remembered something the writer Neil Gaiman said, in his remarkable comic series Sandman: you don’t have to stay anywhere forever. As long as I was willing to accept the consequences of my actions, I was free to go to Africa, or Mongolia, or anywhere I liked. I no longer had to worry about making sure my wife was okay, no longer had to worry about losing my house or losing my job or ending up sleeping on a bench in the bus station in Uganda. If those things happened, they were on me, and me alone; it was my life, to do with as I chose.

So I put together a proposal to write a book about the burgeoning technology and startup scene in sub-Saharan Africa, and I created an Indiegogo campaign to fund my trip, and I pushed it on my social networks…and three months later, I found myself standing at the airport with a backpack and a laptop bag, about to board a Delta flight for Amsterdam and points south.

I spent a month in Kenya and Uganda, visiting tech co-working spaces and startups and jury-rigged plastic recycling factories in shantytown slums, dancing to Afrobeat bands in nightclubs, scaring off carjackers in the Gikomba market in Nairobi with a knife…and even making love to a beautiful Kenyan woman in my AirBnB guest house, as old Van Morrison records played from my iPhone’s tinny little speakers and the monsoon rain pattered on the leaves of the big tropical tree outside. I’m currently working on the resulting book, and expect to have it finished by the end of the year.

(And I did get dysentery, actually, but it didn’t kill me; I just spent several days in bed in my hotel in Nairobi, shivering under the blankets and watching endlessly cycling BBC World News reports in between endlessly cycling trips to the bathroom.)

There is nothing preventing you from doing the same thing I did, except your fear. You’re never too old, never too hooked into your lifestyle; you’re never too anything to change your life, except afraid. And your fear can be conquered, if you want it to be.

Always wanted to live at sea? There are ships hiring deckhands leaving for the Alaska crab fishing waters every day out of the port of Seattle. Dreamed of being a cowboy? Trade in your Lexus for an old Ford pickup truck and a pair of good Justin boots. Go back to college and get an art degree, go be a bartender in Vegas, go try out for off-Broadway musicals, if that’s your thing.

Will it be easy? Hell, no. You might end up broke, or alone, or even gored by a bull on the Texas prairie. Change is always hard. But change has already happened to you. Your train has already jumped the rails. Where it lands is up to you.

 

 

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