Justin Ricklefs


Survival isn’t Living

We didn’t take tons of vacations growing up, but the ones we did take are etched pretty deeply in my memory.

Like the trip to Chicago where I got my first Air Jordan purple and teal track suit at the Nike store.

Or the trip to New Orleans for a baseball tournament where I held a live alligator in the bayou.

Or the trip to San Francisco where a curvy road and a Ferrari dealership stuck with me for decades.

But nowhere we went was as memorable as the mountains. Almost every winter, we’d load up in vans, you know the ones where the seats would reverse and you could put a card table in the back.

Those kinds of vans.

The dads would drive from 5pm-4am, the rest of us would eat crappy food then fall asleep in the back, and all of a sudden, we’d be eating McDonald’s hash browns in Breckenridge, waiting for the ski rental place to open.

Then a full day of skiing would ensue. Being a dad now, I’m not sure how in the world they managed to have the energy to pull that off.

Most of our time in Colorado was during the winter, but once or twice we got out there in the summer.

One activity in particular that certainly would make my life highlight reel was white-water rafting.

I was old enough to bypass the beginner rapids and get straight to the good stuff.

I’m sure my memory is foggy, but I remember this long-haired, ripped guy who had a Kavu visor and a Mountain Hardwear fanny pack, guiding us down the river. Oh and he for sure had on Chacos.

Long before suburban kids made them cool again.

I envied this guy’s gig.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to get paid for chasing these rapids over and over and over in the middle of the majesty of the river.

This dude was alive.

Or maybe he was high.

Or maybe both.

But regardless, I thought growing up would look something like that guy’s life.

On New Year’s Day, after we’d eaten our way through the previous 10 days, five of us laid in our bed and watched Bird Box.

The new kinda-creepy original movie from Netflix.

If you haven’t seen it, you should. But I won’t spoil it for you. It’s worth the watch.

But there was one scene that got me pretty good.

There was this exchange where the mom was rightfully getting the two kids to fall in line, to listen, to understand how critical it was for them to do certain things.

She was demanding their full attention in order for them to survive. No one could blame her for that.

But then the dad figure started telling them stories. He had them imagining better days. He had them opening up their minds and hearts for what may be, not just what is.

The mom walked in on the story-telling and didn’t like what she saw.

She chastised him for being too hopeful, not practical.

And then he said his line that got me.

“Survival isn’t living.”

The story unfolded from that point in a way that was beautiful but horribly painful. The living he referenced, and the risks they had to take to get there, were brutal.

But merely surviving was even more brutal.

Luckily, we’re not facing end times craziness like that movie. Our survival isn’t so much life and death.

But it doesn’t mean we aren’t operating from a state of survival more than a state of living.

A place of fear more than a place of hope.

A system of standing on the shore more than one of chasing the rapids.

Maybe it ends in pain. Maybe it falls short of expectations. Maybe the boat gets tipped along the way.

But maybe it doesn’t.

Or maybe just being in the river is the whole point.

Not worrying about where it’s going to end up, but being proud and grateful that you chose to live instead of simply survive.

The rapids are scary from the shore, no doubt. They’re even scarier in the boat.

But like our long-haired, Chaco-wearing guide all those years ago taught me, the only way to really live is paddle right through your fear.

That’s living. Not just surviving.



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