I eagerly awaited the release of Sit Down Young Stranger. I like John and what he stands for. I had no idea that he had led such an exciting life, involving far-off and exotic places. Before he even graduated from college, he had already taken two voyages on freighters bound for the Orient and the Panama Canal, and climbed up the forbidding north face of Mt. McKinley with his Harvard buddies. He writes, “No one told us that we were too young, too inexperienced and too poorly equipped. It wouldn’t have mattered if they had.” (p. 43)
This obsession with living dangerously would define much of his life. His macho behavior was motivated by an over-arching need to affirm his manliness. “I was terrified that I’d inherited my father’s gentleness and not my mother’s spine.” (p. 12) Escaping from what he considered his inner nerd was a major, unspoken preoccupation.
Whether it was mountain climbing, his State Department assignments in Libya and Vietnam, playing war games at the Nuclear Planning Group, or behind-the-scenes negotiations to free the Iranian hostages, Graham was involved in an impossible task.
The adventures that began aboard the Golden Bear [the first freighter] had been my path to manhood. Danger became the perfect toughening ground and adrenaline my drug of choice. And because I could never get high enough, it was inevitable that someday I’d be drawn to war as the only test left worth facing. War became the ultimate adventure, the most dangerous game, and the ultimate pursuit of an ideal of manhood that could never be attained. (p. 165)
As long as he looked outside to define himself, he would never accomplish that goal. As he said himself, no high would ever be high enough. He needed to stop posturing and look inward. The more he ran, the farther he was from finding himself.
During the course of his life, Graham had a surprising number of death-defying experiences, which led him to believe that he was somehow immune from physical danger. He wondered why. He came to think that there was another, larger purpose for his life. This belief surfaced periodically and then was conveniently suppressed as he pursued his fascination with risk-taking.
In 1980, all Graham’s playing chicken with life finally caught up with him. He was aboard the Dutch cruiser Prinsendam with his daughter, 140 miles from land, when it caught fire, found itself in the middle of a typhoon, and ultimately sank.
Up until that moment, I’d assumed that this crisis, like all the others in my life, would take me to the brink of death but not beyond. It was another adrenaline rush, another adventure that I would walk away from with another story. The stories always ended the same way – I survived…On the crowded lifeboat, on the dark, stormy sea, he was no longer quite so sure. A voice spoke to him.
“You have a choice. You can choose not to live your ideals, and you’ll die out here, and that will be better than a lifetime of excuses and regrets. Or you can get serious about your life’s purpose and do what you know that you need to do.” (pp. 234-245)He conceded, and, miraculously, a Coast Guard cutter and helicopters appeared from nowhere to pluck them from the sea.
While Graham’s life contains enough adventures for a dozen more ordinary people, I was much more drawn to his parallel, inner quest. Being the mother of an eighteen-year old boy, I’m intensely interested in what factors determine a young man’s choices and his direction. While Graham wouldn’t be where he is or what he is today without having gone through all that he did, I’m not recommending that my son use this book as a manual for how to become a man. But, I think that John’s saga is a fascinating demonstration of Yogi Berra’s aphorism, “it aint over till it’s over.” Sometimes, the most difficult and wayward individuals somehow end up the most responsible and empathic of adults. You have to take the long view, never give up, and just live long enough.
A turning point in Graham’s life took place in 1980, when he met South African Robert Sobukwe, a comrade of Nelson Mandela, who had been released from prison because he was dying of tuberculosis. At the time, Graham was working with the UN Security Council’s embargo on arms sales to South Africa. Graham went there to see apartheid firsthand. Beyond that work-related goal, their meeting was critical for Graham’s personal growth.
Immediately I understood why the South Africans were keeping this fail, dying man under house arrest. His personal charisma was overwhelming… [He] was not just a model of morality. He was a model of manhood, one completely different from those of my youth… this delicate, dying man was much tougher than all the heroes of my youth put together, and tougher than I had ever been.” (pp. 211-212)
John Graham, macho man, was actually deathly afraid of himself. The title of this book is the name of an old Gordon Lightfoot song. While the wayfarer had been busy seeking his fortune on his journeys, the last line does not speak of riches; it plaintively asks, “does anyone love me?” Graham circled the globe, risking his life many times to discover that his journey had brought him right back home. Maturity meant being comfortable within his own skin, loving and accepting himself, even that soft, caring side which reminded him of his browbeaten father.
He and his wife Mimi spent a week on a couples-only retreat. While other participants talked about their marriages and personal issues, Graham spent his time telling war stories. In the culminating session, the men and women met separately. On the agenda for the men was exploring the feminine side of their personalities. The leader asked them to pick the individual with the “strongest innate ‘feminine’ qualities.” To Graham’s dismay, the men unanimously chose him.
They all said the same: they saw me as a naturally gentle and caring man so afraid of acknowledging that part of himself that he’d crafted a public image that was almost the opposite, that I was drowning in my own macho bullshit…What had happened to that gentle, feeling boy? How had I let him disappear?
Taunted by bullies, not fighting back, the boy was terrified that his gentleness was his father’s genes. [Now] in Palo Alto, I could still hear the bullies’ taunts, still see my father backing off from a fight at work and hear my mother’s blaming, “Oh Al…” No wonder I’d tried so hard to hide a side of me that I saw as responsible for so much unhappiness. No wonder I’d set my course to be tough and powerful, even at the cost of burying my heart. (pp. 163-165)
Changing the course of your life can be as tortuous as turning an iceberg around. As one of the participants at the workshop said, exasperatedly, “Grow up, man.” Luckily for him, he was able to take those words to heart. He successfully redirected the impulses that had motivated him in a new, more constructive manner.
What had impassioned me was adventure, and for years I’d chased the ultimate adventure as Ahab had chased the whale. Libya, then Vietnam, had shown me how irresponsible that chase really was but offered nothing in its stead. It had taken me twenty years to figure out that the ultimate adventure wasn’t war, as I thought in Vietnam. It was to heal the world instead of inflaming its wounds; it was to bring people together instead of pushing them apart. It was to help others find the purpose of their lives and in so doing confirm the purpose of my own. (p. 276)
I’m not ruining the story by revealing that Graham did ultimately find love and fulfillment. And I’m mighty glad that he did. Besides for the fact that the world certainly doesn’t need one more adrenaline junkie, what he and Ann have accomplished with the Giraffe Heroes Project has made it all worth the wait.
I tell audiences now what I wish I’d been told when I was young: that the path of a meaningful life is out there for each one of us. The signs and patterns that point to it may be obscure, and there will be obstacles and risks along the way. The only real mistakes we can make are to back away from that path when we find it – or not to seek it at all. (p. 255)
Well said, John! And thanks for the ride.
Sit Down Young Stranger, by John Graham.