Don’t Squander Your Greatness


What a week! My inbox has been bursting with so much good will vapor, it’s as fragrant as Bath and Body Works during their 75% off sale. Here’s a sampling of this week’s bouquet:

Julie wrote to say she’d forwarded my story  “Same Little Legs Still Carry Me” to her sister, who, God bless her, is not only dealing with the loss of her 25-year-old-daughter, but breast cancer as well. Julie sent it to her sister to remind her of just how strong she really is. I was blown away. Seriously, like humbled to the core. In a follow up email, I come to find out that Julie plans to walk across America, well, as soon as she and her husband finish the house they just broke ground on in Alabama, and hubby gets some help with their 60 head of horses.

But wait! Walk Across America?  Are you kidding me? I knew just the guy for Julie to talk to!  I immediately steered her toward my friend Nate Damm’s book, Life on Foot and then I let Nate know I’d sent Julie his way. Almost immediately, I got a thank you and “what’s up?” from the less-than-half-my-age kindred spirit whom I met under the most improbable circumstances — a sparsely traveled stretch of U.S. Highway 50, called “The Loneliest Road in America.”  Not that day though.

 “We talked for a while in the whipping Utah wind about the circumstances that led us to meet in such an unconventional place. The reasons behind Jean’s trip were rooted in a certain degree of hardship and uncertainty, much like my own. Our conversation got deep quickly, as they tend to do between travelers who are both searching for something.”

Nate Damm

Nate Walks America and Meets Libby
Highway 50, Utah, August 26, 2011

It’s that commonality, more importantly, the willingness to reveal our true selves to others that shows us we’re not alone. “Tell ‘Em They Mattered” is what prompted Rita to send me an email that was simply profound. Rita wrote that she’d been estranged from her family for some 20 years for a multitude of reasons, mostly stemming from shame and fear that they wouldn’t welcome her back if she did reach out. She believes it was providence that led her to my book, and these words, “Go today. Go this week. Book your ticket tonight. Go see them.” This is what motivated her to make one of the bravest phone calls of her life. Need I tell you the voice on the other end of the line was filled with sweetness and reconciliation?

These life-affirming ribbons of connectedness spring from one simple act. I backed out. That’s it. I backed out of my driveway, with a sum total of $3800 to my name, an adoring and faithful golden mutt in the back seat, counting on the grace of God and the charity of strangers to do the one thing I’d dreamed about doing for decades, the one thing I longed for more than anything else. It was the freedom. It was the mind space, the time, the solitude to reach back, to objectively and lovingly examine every grain of material that had constructed my rag-tag life and to share those stories with any generous soul who would take the time to read them. This journey and Off the Leash which came from it, constituted the accomplishment of a lifetime. It helped me rise to my own definition of greatness.

That’s the message I’d like to share with you.
Do not squander your greatness.

The day I drove away from my house, I was scared to death, seriously. So you say, what’s the big deal, right? I had a car. I had a cell phone, a big dog, a box of granola bars, Windex and paper towels to wipe the bugs off.  And we all know there’s enough QTs from coast-to-coast to populate a galaxy, but I was still scared. I didn’t know if I had the stamina to drive across the country. I didn’t know if the car would break down or if Libby would be okay, or if there would be marauders lurking at the rest areas. Hell, there was a strong likelihood I would end up sleeping in the rest areas! I had no money! But I was afraid people would laugh at me if I turned around and came home. When I backed out that driveway, I didn’t have the foggiest notion what I was doing.

I just knew I had to go. I had learned the hard way that living with regret is far worse than living in fear. About a week in, the trembles began to subside as, little by little, whiffs of encouragement came my way. My friend Will in New York sent me a blog post entitled “Regrets of the Dying.” Cheery, eh? But it fueled my journey as good as gasoline. It said the most often cited regret from people at the end of their lives, is that they never did the ONE THING they always wanted to do. I’m not talking about some infernal “bucket list” bullshit here, this is rising to their own definition of greatness. Pursuing, investigating, accomplishing, sharing, basking, celebrating, and gratefully acknowledging the achievement of their personal measure of greatness.

What’s yours? What is it you dream about? The one thing you believe fulfills your purpose? I urge you to listen to that inner voice. Pay attention. Do not let anyone diminish or ridicule what you hold in your heart and see in your mind. Don’t listen to them. You know better. Don’t waste your greatness.

Because sometimes in the pursuit of it, we are lucky enough to encounter other people who make our quest all the richer. “After talking awhile, Jean gave me a long hug and left,” Nate writes in Life on Foot. “For whatever reason, that hug meant a lot to me. I had never been much of a hugger, but it made my day to experience any sort of human connection out there–to feel like I had even the most temporary of allies in the wilderness.”  

Oh, how we need them!  But sometimes, we just need a tent. My talented friend Max, who attends to disabled folks during the day, but works nights and weekends towards his own personal greatness as a photographer and filmmaker, produced this video, “How to Build a Teepee.” His proud momma sent it to me.  I sent it to a friend who runs the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. Max’s movie made the cut and now, he’ll get to see his work on the big screen come July 16th.

Call this what you want, paying it forward, karma, good will vapor, but isn’t it a marvel, when, in the pursuit of our own personal greatness, through a simple word, a hug on a deserted highway or an on-camera demonstration, we offer shelter from the storm?



About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. Reading of the sweet voice on the other end of Rita’s phone call made me think of those who don’t forgive, don’t reach out for the hand being offered to them. I know one of those people and am so very, very sad for them. I can’t believe a happy person would be so unforgiving but maybe the heart shrivels when a dream is deferred. Bless you and your plump heart.

  2. :-)

  3. Wow! I just got back in town after a short vacation in the Chattanooga, Tennessee, area and saw this post. Thank you, Jean, for giving my dream of walking across America more energy and . . . rightness. I have told very few people yet because I’m not looking forward to the wearisome task of explaining and defending this “crazy” idea. I believe, though, that sometimes people mock what they themselves lack the courage to do, you know?

    I ordered and read and enjoyed Nate Damm’s book, “Life on Foot” and might change my own route a little so as to avoid being charged by a bear! My walk across America will take place in short segments (45-60 days) and will take a few years to complete, but that’s the best scenario for my situation.

    I want to comment on what you said about your act of backing out of your driveway. Amen! I had one of those moments when I was 19. Telling only my kid sister, I took off before dawn one August morning in Illinois on a motorcycle, bound for my home in Oregon. I spent the first night somewhere in Iowa, and in the morning, I looked down at my 350 Honda in the hotel parking lot below and thought how tiny it looked amid all those huge cars and trucks. What was I thinking? I packed up my bike and rode to the edge of the parking lot, where I sat for several minutes, staring at two highway signs. One read “East” and the other “West.” I could turn east and be back home in one day, and nobody except my sister and me would know how stupid I was–a 19-year-old girl on a motorcycle, traveling alone across states I’d never been in. But . . . if I turned east and went back home, I would never know what adventures I missed out on. I turned west, just as you backed out of your driveway and also turned west. And oh, the adventures!!!

    I also loved your comment that we should not waste our greatness. I believe that everything we are attracted to or have a passion for is a gift, a gift that we shouldn’t squander, as you said. If our inner voice calls us to hike the Appalachian Trail or start our own business or go on a road trip, we have an obligation to pay attention and to seek out those gifts. You just stated this so well.

    Thank you for sharing your gift of writing. I’m going to Nate’s website and tell him hi. I wish you and your blog followers a wonderful day!