Does Your Defining Moment Still Define You?

Bill Gerlach and son at Cub Scout

A few weekends ago, I ventured off with my oldest son to Cub Scout camp. Into the woods we went, joining other Scouts and moms and dads in all kinds of fun and learning; sleeping in themed bunk houses, we traded volleys of innocent “thievery” as we tried to outdo the other bunk house in capturing each other’s flags and “loot”. From swimming to archery to dissecting owl pellets to serious games of kickball — the boys got a healthy dose of the outdoors in a supportive environment that is sure to leave its share of lasting memories.

Aside from being there to experience all that with my son, one the most insightful moments of the weekend was when a fellow adult Scouting leader from our local unit pulled me aside and asked, “So Bill, what was it that made you so green? I mean, there had to be some kind of defining moment that caused you to be this way.

This person — someone I’ve known for about a year and whom I consider both a friend and colleague — stopped me dead in my tracks. I had never paused to reflect on that; the question sent my mind racing back many years. What was it that put me on the path I continue to journey down?

I don’t think it was any one thing, Mike. It’s been like an personal evolution of sorts, I guess.” I answered.

I thought about it some more. Here was someone who showed genuine interest in getting to know me better — to understand why I so committed to “saving” the Earth. Not only did I appreciate the authenticity of the question, but I also realized that it was a teachable moment. After a few more minutes of reflection, I began to explain that it was three almost simultaneous discoveries that lit this fire that burns so deeply in me:

First, it was the discovery of Arne Naess and the philosophy of deep ecology. I don’t remember how I happened upon it, but when I did it was like someone opening the doorway to a vast expanse of insight, understanding and emotional connectivity. Diving into ideas of the inter-relatedness of all living things; the negative impacts that have been brought about by humanity’s anthropocentric (that we are above nature and thus can do with it what we want) view and culture; the re-establishment of our spiritual connection to the earth. This was powerful. It set me upon a path of learning from such esteemed teachers as Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry, John Seed and so many others.Second — and yes, I am admitting this — was watching Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth when it was first released. As my wife and I sat in the historic Jane Pickens Theater in Newport and took in all the facts and figures, a deep compelling feeling took over me. Scientifically speaking, it was an awakening of sorts. While my first responses were surface level (changing lightbulbs, starting to compost, etc.) the residual effects of the film put in motion an insatiable appetite for non-fiction reading to educate myself on all the tangential topics related to modern-day environmentalism — climate change, peak oil, fresh water shortages, loss of biodiversity… the list goes on.

Finally, it was the discovery of some of the basic tenets of Buddhism, mindfulness and meditation through the readings of Thich Nhat Hanh. As someone who was raised Catholic and had ridden the spiritual roller coaster of organized religion, the idea of looking deep inside myself as a way of gaining understanding and insight was eye-opening. While I wouldn’t go as far as professing myself a Buddhist, I can say that it holds a prominent place in my now-eclectic spiritual life.

But do these three defining moments still define who I am now?

Yes and no. Yes, as far as they helped to build a foundation for personal growth that still stands strong today. No, in that I feel I continue to evolve as a person through the multiple offshoots of interests, causes and beliefs that drive what I do, say and hold dear in my heart. It’s analogous to a tree: Those initial defining moments are the roots and trunk; the spreading branches and canopy represent my ever-expanding realm of interests and learning.

As I continue to reflect on the conversation that Mike and I had a few weeks back, I’ve realized a few important things about what it is that defines us as individuals:

  • It’s important to always be growing as a person
  • It’s important to always be open to new ideas and ways of thinking
  • It’s important to learn new skills
  • It’s important to challenge what you hold dear from time to time to make sure it’s still worth holding on to
  • It’s important to bring new people into your life while allowing others to move on
  • It’s important to continually re-evaluate and re-focus your priorities
  • It’s important to focus on the experiences that will allow you to shape who you are and want to become

But what about you? What was/is your defining moment? Does it still define who you are and who you are becoming? Can we each have more than one defining moment in our lives?

Be well,

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6 Responses to “Does Your Defining Moment Still Define You?”
  1. Bill,

    Your posts are always so thoughtful and often so deep and profound. I loved learning about your defining moments and having the links to explore them further for myself. I would have to think for quite some time to be able to articulate my defining moments! Encountering the universal wisdom of Buddhism has been one of them. Developing environmental sensitivities is another. While I was already somewhat cognizant of environmental issues, this pushed me over the edge full force! I’ll have to reflect on all this more.

    I’m very taken by your list of what defines as individuals and the emphasis you place on “becoming.” Questioning, re-evaluating, re-focusing have all become a greater focus for me in that last year.

    Thanks for this does of inspiration and encouragement to look deeply and continue to evolve.

  2. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hi Sandra // Thank you; I appreciate that. I suppose it is difficult — especially in a world that finds us so quick to move to the next, best thing — to pause and reflect on just what has shaped who we are (and are becoming). The more I think about it, the more I feel it’s important to do from time to time. To gut check; to re-set the course based on the bearings you’re seeing and feeling. The moments you’ve described are ones that I can see so clearly reflected in your writing — and such a big reason why I enjoy Always Well WIthin so much! Be well!

  3. Jennifer says:

    It’s so interesting to learn about everyone’s journey towards being a concerned global citizen — no two ever look alike. Like you, I didn’t have just one epiphany; it was a combination of things going on in my life as well as things I was exposed to (kind of a weird mix of following lots of green people on Twitter, losing my best friend to cancer, and watching nature documentaries that showed the splendors of the planet and how close we are to losing them). Things have taken off on their own since then, but I agree: it’s still very important to check in with where you are and why.

  4. Evita says:

    Hi Bill,

    What a wonderful read! And a big “yes” to each one of your bullet points. We may indeed have that spark, or trigger or defining moment that started a particular journey, but as we grow and change, our reasons for who we are, what we do, how we think, etc… may, and normally do all change.

    It is interesting and a little funny, as The Inconvenient Truth was part of my defining moment for a transformed relationship with our environment. I have since learned some info about the man, and the movie that perhaps could take away from the purpose…. but upon reflection, it doesn’t matter what his motives were…. look at what he did for so many people, like you and I with that movie.

    And so what are my defining moments? Oh so many…. for example, before we were married my husband once came to me and said that he, a major steak lover, could no longer see himself eating meat…. and this triggered a journey into meat-less living…. but over the years that journey was greatly shaped and define by health and environmental reasons. This is just one of many examples.

    But at the end of the day, I find it exciting that we, nor the journey is ever done :) And so, yes, I think regular reflection and introspection, as to why we do, say or think the things we do, can open doors to further change, growth and personal evolution.

    Thank you for this beautiful read – and how nice you and your son experienced such a meaningful time together too!

  5. Bill Gerlach says:

    Hi Evita // Thanks for stopping by and sharing! I love to hear how others have found and created their paths. As a vegetarian, I applaud your husband’s “epiphany”! I have enjoyed (and will continue!) getting to see and read about your journey at Evolving Beings. You doing some amazing things! Keep it up! Be well.

  6. Thanks for the insight. The defining moment has been a series of events that have caused me to grow and change. There has been no one exact Aha, but like a string of pearls, the more I climb down the rabbit hole, the greater my life becomes, the less baggage I have and more in the moment I live.
    Thanks for sharing your life journey.