PETALUMA, CA, Jan. 23, 2017 – What impressed me most about Sarah Outen – a woman best known for her daring attempt to circumnavigate the globe via rowboat, kayak, and bicycle – wasn’t so much her physical prowess as it was the remarkable sense of selflessness she expressed one day during her adventure, chatting with a young man somewhere west of Urumqi, China.
“I met him in a petrol station,” said Outen during her talk at the most recent TEDMED conference in Palm Springs, just before my conversation with her. “He was interested in my bike and excited by my journey.”
“He said that he would like to make a bicycle journey, but he didn’t know how,” she continued. “All those doubts and ‘what ifs’ and fears about what other people would think, they were holding him back.”
After offering the young man an encouraging word or two, Outen hopped on her bike and headed down the road. A half-hour later, he was back, this time trailing her in a car.
“Sarah, you need a companion,” he insisted. “I want to come with you to Beijing on a bicycle. You be the leader. I’ll be the guide and the translator.”
Outen’s first inclination was to do all she could to dissuade him, wanting more than anything to maintain her independence. But instead, she found herself taking him up on his offer, unaware at the time that he didn’t even own a bike! Two days later, the two set out on a 2,000-mile, 35-day trek across the Gobi Desert, up and over the mountains, and into the streets of Beijing.
Later on, Outen would ask her friend to summarize, in three words, what it felt like to achieve his goal. He replied, “I am happiness.”
To be honest, I don’t know that I would have been able to do what Outen did with this fellow. In fact, I can think of any number of times in my life when the thought of rowing a boat across the Pacific or riding a bike through Asia might have seemed a lot more doable than taking a complete stranger under my wing. And yet, this is exactly what Outen did. By setting aside whatever preconceived notions she had about preserving her freedom and flexibility, she succeeded in enriching someone else’s life. “The rich in spirit help the poor in one grand brotherhood, all having the same Principle, or Father,” writes Christian theologian Mary Baker Eddy, a woman who explored the divine impetus and inherent benefits involved with all manner of charitable acts, “and blessed is that man who seeth his brother’s need and supplieth it, seeking his own in another’s good.”
Outen wasn’t just being nice; she was being courageous. And the impact of her “chance” encounter likely went well beyond making someone happy. It must have been deeply transformative.
There’s a Bible story about Jesus’ disciples – not unlike Outen, perhaps – doing all they could to keep a desperate woman from crowding their space, thinking she was nothing more than an annoyance (see Matthew 15:21-28). Not surprisingly, Jesus took the time to engage this woman in a conversation, noting how impressed he was with the depth of her faith, not to mention her persistence. As a result, the woman’s daughter, whom she described to Jesus as “grievously vexed with a devil,” was healed immediately.
Obviously Jesus’ experience was quite different from Outen’s. Taken together, however, they illustrate what’s possible when we are willing to be patient with others and to see them from a different perspective. According to Eddy, it was just such a willingness on Jesus’ part – his commitment to see others as not merely good people but as the very image and likeness of God or divine Love, as man (meaning men and women) is described in the Bible – that enabled him to heal.
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Seeing others as the image of God is not always easy. In these situations, I find it helpful to at least start with a deep and sincere acknowledgment of what I believe each and every person is truly made of – their innate purity, integrity, intelligence, and so on. Sometimes, as was the case with Outen, this change of thought results in making someone’s life that much better, that much happier. At other times, I have seen it result in actual healing.
I recall a time a few years back when a good friend called complaining of all sorts of ailments. He asked me to pray for him, which I agreed to do. After hanging up the phone, the first thought that came to mind was of this individual’s God-given wholeness – a divinely inspired insight, if you will, that I felt sure was not only being revealed to me but to my friend as well. “Ye shall be holy,” it says in the Bible (Leviticus 19:2), “for I the Lord your God am holy.” The next I heard from him, he wrote, “The pain was gone at once. The next morning, the swelling – including a lump larger than a fist – had all but disappeared. I could walk about freely. I felt very complete, pure, and holy.”
I doubt I will ever attempt to boat and bike my way around the world like Sarah Outen. I do feel, however, that I am engaged in a similar journey of discovery, and that I, like Outen, will continue to be given the opportunity – and the divine inspiration – to make a difference in the lives of others.
Eric Nelson writes about the link between consciousness and health from his perspective as a practitioner of Christian Science. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. Follow him on Twitter @norcalcs. Continue the conversation on Facebook.