Recently I was invited to deliver a motivational speech at a juvenile detention facility to approximately 80 male youth. This experience changed my life. The members of the audience motivated me much more than I could have ever hoped to motivate them. Looking at a room full of “untapped potential” reopened my eyes to the challenges we face as individuals. In many ways, those of us who are not incarcerated are more constrained than the young men who are held by a barbed-wire fence, alarms, and correctional officers. We are imprisoned by lives led vicariously—by our tendency to watch life from the sidelines, from a distance, and to allow other people to tell our stories. Other people can never tell our story with full accuracy.
We live in a society full of opportunities for vicarious living. To live vicariously is to participate in life and/or an event as though you are an invited and integral guest. A vicarious existence is one lived secondhand, in a manner displaced from direct experience. Just because we are able to witness a situation, we begin to believe that we are truly involved in it. In this manner, we convince ourselves that the role we play, even as a voyeur and sideliner makes a real difference in the story and its outcome. In this way, we can participate in a lived experience that enables us to live out some of the stories we don’t want seen or told. Over the long term, this vicarious mode of being robs us of the opportunity to maximize our potential and live an enriched life.
Here are some common forms of vicarious living:
Television is the most time-consuming daily activity for most people. This medium is full of opportunities for vicarious living.
Radio allows us to take part in conversations we would never be privy to otherwise. It also makes it possible for us to listen to a plethora of artists we might never hear in a different forum.
Newspapers/Gossip Columns offer us awareness of events that have the potential to affect our lives as well as events that have no potential impact on us. Sometimes we can’t distinguish the difference.
Pornography enables us to watch the most intimate acts from a distance. Thus, so many lack the information and skills to connect with another in a mutual exchange of love and appreciation.
Music used to be a form of art that one could only enjoy in person. Over the last century, opportunities to hear music from a distance have dramatically increased.
Playing the lottery allows us to imagine obtaining vast wealth, even though the likelihood of winning the lottery is lower than the odds of obtaining leprosy twice in a lifetime. However, gaining financial literacy seems more of a chore than necessity.
Texting makes it possible to communicate with someone in an intimate manner as though he or she were present. In fact, we sometimes text people who are in the same room.
As we come to the realization that parts of our daily existence is based on vicarious living, we need to ask ourselves, “Why does this happen?” I believe this happens because at some point we internalized the idea that we cannot measure up and therefore must associate with other people, places, and things who have entered the situations we fear and we must do this behind some sort of veil to protect being directly exposed and potentially hurt/rejected. The effect of this kind of experience is that we sit back and allow other entities to tell our story. Living authentically in the moment requires us to be prepared to exercise maturity and tell our own true story. Sometimes even when we finally get the strength to do this, we tend to boast and/or embellish the facts, thereby cheapening the experience for others and ourselves. We must fight the urge to minimize our efforts to truly live in the full moment by showing up, being an active participant, and allowing the experience to foster growth and change in us and others. We should walk away from a situation knowing we are better for having been a part of it.
We must garner the strength to live in the moment, embracing the present and all of its possibilities. We must believe that we are okay the way we are, even though we are a work in progress and improvements will always be in order. We must recognize that these improvements will occur through the process of coming into direct contact with life’s experiences. Continuing to exist vicariously will not suffice. We must be able to touch and feel life through our five senses – taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. The world and its landscape are so large and rich that we reluctantly cannot be all the places that we would like to be at once. That still does not give us permission to live a vicarious life. It should spark an interest and desire to experience all we can first hand, upfront, and personal. We should make every effort to capitalize on opportunities to communicate with our family and friends, engage in personal development, conduct our finances, pursue health and fitness, educate ourselves, and seek spiritual development. We must be working on all of this in an effort to be present and available. Otherwise, we cannot experience the aspects of life in the fullest manner.
Vicarious living steals our voices, robs us of our imagination, and devastates our relationships. Vicarious living creates an awkward silence where a true story should be told – not a lie or fabrication. No one can tell your story better than you. There is only one situation in which another person should tell your story—your obituary. In this case, the story should be about how you lived in the fullness of the moment. If your obituary were written today, what would it say?
We live in a world where we have great ability to be anywhere that we want to be physically. We could go most places, figuratively and literally, if we wanted to, but many of us choose not to. It seems as though we are denying our potential. There must be a personal and collective declaration to say “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.” We must not live in the shadows of our full self any longer. We must work toward reaching our destiny and find no more comfort in despair. We must be eager to unearth the potential our life holds. We must recognize that we must truly be in it to win it.
Dr. Nathaniel J. Williams – January 12, 2011 – www.drnatwilliams.com