A Train to the Arctic Circle
In 2006, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Russia.
At one point, toward the end of the semester, my friend and I had a brilliant idea – to visit the Arctic Circle.
In a spur of the moment decision, we hopped on a вокзал (train) to one of the most northern cities in western Russia: Мурманск (Murmansk).
We were on that train for close to 3 days (we made stops in Moscow and St. Petersburg as well). On the last segment (the 1 day and 3 hour trip from St. Petersburg to Murmansk), I decided to pick up a book from the bookstore. I was a little burned out from reading and studying Russian, so I picked up an English language book:
The Catcher in the Rye.
It’s been at least 7 years now since I’ve read the book, but one thing’s stuck with me since I read it...
Toward the end of the book, the protagonist hits his breaking point and makes this statement:
“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.”
Leading up to this monologue, the protagonist has been through a 3 day spiral of self-destruction: he gets kicked out of school, travels to New York City by himself, gets drunk, laughed at by women, punched in the stomach by a pimp…pretty much anything humiliating you think could happen to a person, it happens to this kid.
But at the end of the story, after all the terrible things he’s been through, the only thing he could see himself doing in life – the only thing he truly feels compelled to do - is to keep others from throwing themselves off a cliff.
Of course, the underlying meaning here isn’t hard to see.
What the protagonist is really saying is he wishes there was somebody that would stop him from going over the edge.
But there’s not…or at least seemingly there’s not.
After everything the protagonist’s been through and moments before he runs away from home (until he goes off the proverbial cliff for good), the protagonist sees his little sister and decides to stay.
Because he wants to protect her.
The thing that inevitably keeps him from going over the edge isn’t somebody catching him, but making the personal choice to be the catcher - the protector – for someone else.
He’s finally made a deliberate choice to stop focusing on himself and instead recognize how he can truly live for someone else.
Here’s the interesting part: his little sister doesn’t need protecting.
She’s happy and safe; there’s nothing really wrong with her life. She’s not running toward the cliff at all.
In reality, his little sister is the one protecting him.
By inspiring him to stick around town, to double down on his studies at a new school, and get his life straightened up, she’s saved him.
She’s his catcher in the rye.
And sometimes that’s how life works. Those who we least expect to help us will be our motivation, our inspiration and our saviors. Those who we seek to protect are actually our protectors.
Of course, in life we can’t plan for this to happen – it’s called providence. It happens when we least expect it.
But it’s there – all that’s required from us to tap into providence is to keep our focus outward and to keep hope even when things get tough.
Who Are You Catching?
So when it comes to writing, business or just life in general, who are you focusing on?
Who are you writing for? Who are you building your product for? Who are you living for?
- A great business seeks to be the ‘catcher in the rye’ for their customers and clients; to provide a solution for someone so they can ultimately live a better life.
- A great author writes for the reader, crafting stories to keep people moving, hopeful and inspired.
- A great person serves others, focusing on where he can help, not where he needs help.
It’s an easy thing to live for yourself...at least at the start.
The only problem is this inevitably leads to bitterness, loneliness and anger. When we fixate on ourselves, we get caught up in the rye, losing track of where we are in relation to the world. We lose our perspective and running off the cliff can sometimes feel like the only solution.
But there’s another solution available to all of us - if we choose it.
It’s simple: live for others.
A couple things worth thinking about:
- When we finally get outside our own heads, we can begin to focus on those around us, those who need our help. And whether they truly need our help or not, just that recognition – that others need help more than we do – can give sense and purpose to our lives.
- Every person, whether they recognize it or not, can inspire someone else. The little sister in the story didn’t know she was inspiring her older brother – she just did. You don’t have to actively seek to save others. Sometimes, just by living a good life and setting an example, you inspire others to save themselves.
So if you're frustrated with your life, if your business is stuck, or if your art is uninspiring, ask yourself:
In your life, business and art, who are you catching?