April 7, 2010

Amateur Ethnography: Twelve Months to Live

There is nothing I respect more than a person willing to passionately step into the unknown. Through a series of random connections, Dave Stefan found me about a month ago. Our first communication was an e-mail. From there, we met for a drink at Taza Coffee Shop. Over a month later, we met again at Panera Bread.

His twelve-month quest puts my experiments to shame.

Approximately nine months ago, Dave realized he needed a change. Life wasn't bad, but somewhere along the way, he drifted. Dave began asking himself some difficult questions. Namely, one key question birthed his new adventure: "What would I do with my life if I had twelve months to live?"

That was it. That was the moment everything began to change. Dave decided to take one year to explore himself, other people, and the world.

The journey began in July of 2009 when Dave worked behind the scenes of a feature film in Michigan. In August, he lived, worked, and prayed alongside Trappist Monks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. September found Dave fasting for three days in the wilderness of the Cascade Mountains. In October, Dave traveled to New Mexico where he took a course on adventure filmmaking. He worked with a friend in Dakar, Senegal in November. Dave's been to Costa Rica, interviewed friends and family, and is about ready to embark on trips to Greece and Turkey to trace his ancestral roots. He'll conclude his journey this summer by climbing to the base camp of Mt. Everest and walking into the Outback of Australia.


Where do I sign up?

This is a season of intense seeking for Dave, so while the journey sounds fun, it's definitely not a vacation. He's wrestling with some deep questions that we all struggle to answer.

Who am I? What was I created to do? Who is God? How should I spend my precious days on this planet? How am I vocationally gifted? Can I really pursue my dreams?

Diving headfirst into those questions can be tough. One of my favorite parts of Dave's journey was the month he met with friends and family to practice honesty. He asked the people he loved to honestly assess him. Who was he in their eyes? What do they think he was created to do?

I'm not sure I want to know what people think about me. I would rather climb Mt. Everest.

Or maybe I need to hear it. Either way, scary stuff.

I was inspired by Dave's courage to essentially start over again. This quote from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button keeps resurfacing as I reflect upon Dave's adventure:

"For what it’s worth, it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit; start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same; there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again."

Dave is 45. Honestly, he looks about 30, but how many people do you know with the strength to start all over again at 45? Or 35? Or 25?

So many people are trapped in lives they never intended to live. Trapped by circumstances. There's never enough _____ (fill in the blank ... time, money, energy) to start pursuing their dreams. They always have an excuse ready to go, so they live unfulfilled lives.

It's ironic that Dave is trying to "figure out life" because he seems to be the one person who has actually it figured out. He's out there exploring. He's learning. He's growing. Isn't that what life is really all about? Answers provide the illusion of comfort, security, and stability, but I prefer the mysterious messiness of reality.

One of the most annoying criticisms of my Church Experiment was, "Why are you doing this? Why not just pick a church and commit? Why waste your time visiting a Muslim Mosque?"

Blah, blah, blah.

My response: "Why not? Why not explore life? Why not meet new people? Why not have unique experiences?"

As my own interest in the these amateur ethnographies is beginning to wane (I hit a similar wall around this time last year), it was encouraging to meet Dave. Even when I think back to my previous experiences, I have already met some pretty amazing people. Heck, I never would have met Dave without this experiment.

That's why I love that Dave encourages others to really consider their lives. What would you do if you had twelve months to live? What did God create you to do?

Just take it from Dave ... it's never too late to start over.

I found it quite ironic that Dave's tagline for his journey is this quote from Braveheart: "Your heart is free; have the courage to follow it."

That has been at the bottom of my e-mail signature for years.

I'm not sure I have ever met someone who is living out that advice better.

I will definitely be following the last three month's of Dave's journey. I'm hoping his quest of self-discovery eventually becomes a book, movie, or documentary, but until then, you can follow Dave's travels on his official website (http://www.openroadproductions.org/). I would share more of Dave's story with you, but it makes more sense for you to read Dave's reflections in his own words.

There are some experiences, when shared, that I believe can change the direction of a person's life. I hope my experiments have done that for some, but I believe Dave's experiment has the potential to do that for many. Pass his story along to friends and family. Post the link to his page on your blog. Help spread the message ... it's never too late to start over.



Mike Brown said...

Have you considered trying to seek out an interaction with someone who ACTUALLY has 12 months (or a similarly limited but defined time) to live?

It would be interesting, I think, to see what kinds of differences there would be between how someone pretending to have 12 months lives, compared to someone who actually has 12 months.

In fact, I think that the difference would probably say an awful lot more about how we ought to be living our every day, as opposed to the idea of 12 months left to live.

It's one thing to do what you THINK you would do with your last 12 months (and perhaps Dave is - I'm not trying to critique him, here - just give an idea for a related interaction). However, they say that the prospect of a hanging has a way of concentrating one's mind tremendously; I suspect that the reality of 12 months left to live would probably lead someone to different (and perhaps better) conclusions than the idea of 12 months left to live.

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting. I am looking forward to following Dave's trip. Thanks for the heads up!

raymond said...


did dave mention how he can afford to take a year off from work? or is he still working?

Lisa said...

If you believe that God has a purpose for you and me and everyone else, perhaps a year reading and studying scripture would answer questions that you have. Perhaps, reading scripture in the order in which it is written will send you down the exact path you were meant to go. Finding yourself is not to be likened to a buffet line, meant to satisfy your inability to choose what it is exactly what you are craving at that moment, giving you the excuse to overindulge in the endless possibilities. Finding ones self is really just an exercise in narcissim and gluttony.

AND, if you don't believe that your life is pre-designed, then taking a year off to find yourself just makes you a lazy bum.

Steve Fuller said...


From what I understand, Dave had some savings that he uses and picks up odd jobs here and there.


I'm not sure I'm understanding your point. Climbing Mt. Everest somehow makes you a lazy bum?

Liz said...

Unlike my experience reading "Eat, Love, Pray" I don't get the impression that Dave's journey is a narcissistic quest to "find himself." Nothing Steve wrote and nothing I read on Dave's website seems to indicate a new-age feeling that I usually associate with that phrase "finding oneself."

I'm pretty sure there's no one way to hear from God (and if there is, let me know-I'd love to have that checklist). And if to hear God's calling/purpose in your life it means you have to clear the "chaos" from your life and journey around the world, it seems one should do that. I think it take a lot of courage to not only recognize the need for change, but to actually take such drastic steps to get it.

Anonymous said...

Dave is a good friend of mine and probably the most courageous man I know, although he’d never submit to that.

Dave has worked very hard his entire life (has a Ph. D. in Counseling and & 2 Masters Degrees), but is not wealthy. He took a hiatus from his professional world (education) and with some savings and prudent planning was able to make this happen.

Dave is a very complicated man who doesn’t react, but studies reaction. He thinks deeply about the environment, humanity and spirituality but wont draw conclusions.

An excerpt from an email I recently got from Dave, “But I hope along the way, by serving others, focusing on relationships, and living under the grace and mercy of God, this journey helps others as well.”

Dave walks the walk and talks the talk, shame on some of you for your judgment and criticism of a man who’s closer to God than any preacher I’ve ever met.

-Dave’s friend & Ally