VERY FEW IDEAS ACTUALLY change your life, but I vividly remember one that revolutionised mine. More than 40 years ago, a youth worker called Mike Mills convinced me of his “Why Not?” philosophy. When someone suggests an adventure, just say, “Why not?!” Plunge in and just do it, before you have a chance to talk yourself out of it.
It’s probably not so much a philosophy as culpable recklessness. The John Cowan he convinced was timid and shy; I am still timid and shy, but I have programmed my tongue to blurt out “Why not!” Now, because of that, I’ve had a lot of fun, some good successes, a few screaming failures and some very weird experiences.
One of the weirdest was walking along a beautiful, remote Bay of Islands beach in the sunshine. That’s not weird, except I was wearing a suit. And I was being followed by several hundred Māori, one of whom had died. I’d been asked to conduct a tangi for an old lady, and before any more sensible parts of my brain could respond, I heard my tongue say, “Why not?!”
Let’s be clear here: I didn’t have a clue what to do. I had never even been to a tangi before. So here I was, the only Pākehā, leading this huge procession, carrying the coffin up to the urupā on the hill. I’d found something like a ‘Tangi for Dummies’ book, and for three days on the marae, I’d been cramming off bits of paper hidden in my pocket, while I lead the mourners through all the little ceremonies and karakia involved. At one point I found myself in a line of men doing a haka – I’d never done a haka before – charging at the old lady’s house after the burial. And then at her home, they brought me her things and said, “Would you lift the tapu on these, please?” “Sure. Why not?!” I said (as if I’d done Tapu Lifting 101 at university).
Absolutely, completely, out of my depth. It was great. I mean, I’m sure I did things wrong, but they were kind and appreciative, and it glows in my mind as one of the richest experiences of my life.
Once the head of a hospital department described a job to me. I didn’t really understand what he was saying. “What do you think?” I should have run for the door but, hey, … why not?! “That sounds challenging but not daunting,” I said. And shortly afterwards, I was greeting patients in my white coat, smiling reassuringly, and swatting up on a manual behind their backs before sticking electrodes on them. This was 1970s New Zealand, and I was greatly reassured by a colleague, “Don’t worry. As a civil servant, to get fired, you have to kill someone … and then it has to be someone important.” It was a big leap, but I landed in a role as a scientist that I loved.
Of course, the “Why not?!” philosophy is nothing more than tricking yourself into having courage. In youth, I needed courage to ask girls out, to stand up to bullies, to take on big challenges and long journeys. In middle life, I needed courage to talk to my kids about sex, to risk quitting and restarting careers, to follow dreams, and to get help when those dreams turned into nightmares.
And now, the older me needs courage more than ever. The risk of older adulthood is that you shrink and shrink until you vanish. Fear shrinks you. We might call it ‘comfort’ and ‘security’, but it’s really fear, pulling you back from challenge and growth.
I reckon I still have some adventures ahead of me. Maybe some of my most dismal disasters lie just ahead! But then again, maybe it will be grand! I’m going to wander up the track a little bit. If you hear me yelling, “WHY NOT?!”, maybe you should stand clear.
AFTER DECADES STUDYING FAMILY LIFE, JOHN NOW FOCUSSES ON THE ‘PRIME-TIME’ ISSUES OF LATER MIDDLE AGE. CHECK HIM OUT ON WWW.JOHNCOWAN.CO.NZ – ESPECIALLY IF YOU NEED SOME WRITING, EVENT SPEAKING, VIDEOS MADE, OR SOMEONE TO HAVE A COFFEE WITH.