Kelsie Harriman: Quit Trying to Cut Your Arm Off

One fateful day during high school, I discovered my life’s purpose. Naturally, I ran home to tell my mother. “Mom,” I said, “I am going to be a motivational speaker.”

“That’s great, honey.” She replied, “You can do that by cutting your arm off.”

I was not only taken aback by her response, but also feeling quite dull for not understanding her sarcasm. Then I found out that she was, in fact, serious: the clearest path she knew of to the top of the motivational speaker ladder was to be like Aron Ralston, who had his armed pinned to the ground by a bolder while hiking in southeastern Utah, and then to cut it off himself a pocketknife after 127 hours. He then made a lot of great speeches, and a documentary. His experience lent a lot of credibility to lending advice about overcoming adversity, apparently.

Alternatively, she suggested, I could have my arm bitten off by a shark while surfing and then speak to people about positivity, like Bethany Hamilton.

To date, her suggestions are the clearest path to motivational speaking I’ve come across. And I am still waiting for my (not so) lucky break.

A few years have passed since my mother suggested I cut my arm off. I thought I had forgotten about my dreams of motivational speaking (and the requisite limb severing) until a recent conversation with a friend of mine made the memories resurface.

“Kelsie,” he asked me, “Do you think your experience in Rwanda has changed your life?”

Funny you should ask, my friend. Because although I have spent a large majority of my time in Rwanda trying to cut my arm off, my life is still –as far as I can tell — unchanged.

Think of life as a tree: it starts from a single trunk, and as you go further and further down that trunk, it begins to split into an infentesimile number of branches. At each divide, you have a choice: go left, go right, go straight.

Go to this college. Go to that college. Go to no college at all. Marry this person. Marry that person. Marry no person at all.

For indecisive souls like me, this can be a cursed existence indeed. The inherent ambiguity to even life’s simplest life choices is apt to overwhelm me. There are too many divides and too many branches for me to believe I could possibly choose the right one without testing them all first. Life has not yet afforded me that luxury, however, so I have resigned myself to my two remaining alternatives: looking for opportunities to cut my arm off which will force me down my life’s predetermined path, and bartering with God to give me a cosmic cheat sheet my life’s underlying purpose. Neither, so far, has served me well.

I don’t literally carry around a pocket knife, and I have no immediate plans to perform any self-limb severing, but I do feel like I have most of my adolescence in a constant and exhausting search for that one experience, that one place, that one person that will drastically alter my life and send it rolling down the “correct” fork in the tree, the fork that God wants my life to go down.   Interestingly, spending significant time this outside of one’s home country is often regarded as one such potentially “life-changing” experience.  Any adolescent who has lived abroad knows what they are expected to say when they return home: “Yes-my-life-has-been-changed-my-eyes-have-been-opened-my-paths-have-been-redirected-I-will-never-be-the-same-and-praise-the-Lord-I-am-ready-to-change-the-world.”

So far, although I have been searching hard for the life-changing, limb-severing experiences I’ve come to believe I should be having, my life is the same. Well, all the same except for my eyes are more squinted, my paths are more unclear, and I have less of an idea than before any of this self-reflection started about how I am supposed to “change the world.”

So, I’ve tried option two: asking God that he let me in on the secret plans for my life, like, now. This has proved confusing, but I hope at least that God is getting some entertainment out of it. This weekend, for example, I was running up a mountain in the Rift Valley. Thought that was a nice setting for some personal revelation. So, I asked God a very specific yes or no question about an uncertain matter in my life. The word “No” came to mind. I asked Him again, just to double check. Then, I heard “Yes.” I laughed to myself, and I think God laughed too. Both of us know that is not how He plans to communicate about this subject with me.

But He does plan to communicate, someway, somehow. The frustrating part about the tree of life is that we sometimes don’t even get to know where the forks in the road are — or when we’ve started down a new branch — until long after the events are over.

After a summer what they call “life-changing experiences”, I have no idea what branch of life I’m headed toward now, but I am quite sure I am headed somewhere, as evidenced by my present squinty-eyed- muddled-path-unclear-purpose reality. God hasn’t been terribly clear in answering my “yes or no” questions, but He has been pretty clear about something: I need to be a whole lot more patient than I am presently with ambiguity. Besides, who wants to listen to a motivational speaker who cuts her arm off precisely because she was wants to be motivational speaker, anyway?

C.S. Lewis picked up on this reality long before I did.  “Faith,” he said, “Is believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.”

So, God, you and I have a date, sometime near the end of my life, where we will together look back at all times you nudged me down the right path, even without me knowing it. And I hope we have a nice time laughing over the silly things I came up with while trying to figure it out on my own.

Just one request, God.

If at all possible, I’d like to keep my arm intact.





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