I had my mid-life crisis a bit early. At twenty-nine years old it felt like nearly everything in my life was designed to maximize stress: my job as a minimally-qualified supervisor of a high-tech manufacturing plant, my failing fix-it-by-seeing-other-people relationship, the cognitive dissonance between my desire to do something meaningful with my life versus the realization that I was a hedonist with a tenuous connection to the real world. I preferred being in my own head; from in there I could at least dull the aggravations of the outside world by working through abstract Big Thoughts.
Continuous self-improvement has been a theme in my life since I discovered the joys of the practice years ago. It transformed my personality from introverted and cerebral to extraverted and engaging. The day dream of being That Guy at the party who seemed to comfortably float from group to group and to whom casual sex with new and interesting women was no longer much of a challenge had long since become a part of who I was (for those of you who dream of this kind of life, spoiler: it doesn’t solve your internal problems). Thus, as a compulsive habit, I spent considerable time thinking about how I could better myself.
One of the foundational behaviors I had acquired was this: trust your gut, do right by it, and do it now. If I saw someone I wanted to talk to, the rule was that I should approach first without giving my internal monologue the time to wise up and talk me out of it (hello, pickup artists—yes, I stole this idea from you). If there was something I wanted to do, then (within reason) I should get up and do it, and learn to laugh after picking myself up from rejection or failure. It’s better to try, fail, and then calibrate the appropriateness of your actions later. The alternative is inaction, which gets you nowhere.
Maybe it was all those beautiful, overly-saturated Instagram and “Earth Porn” blog post images that convinced me to do it. They seemed to follow the same format—some hipster in a beanie reclines on a bed or a hammock or from a tent, looking away from the camera as if to say This could be you!, while beyond the flannel shirt and steaming cup of coffee is a magnificent vista of oceans or mountains or celestial lights. And you’re seduced into thinking, That could be me! If only I didn’t have my job or my girlfriend or my crushing debt/grief/obligations to deal with! That’s probably where most people end it. Move on to the next GIF of an adorable, startled kitten or an opinion piece about how Political Party A is so much more obtuse, ill-informed, and corrupt than Political Party B, and forget about the whole thing. But I got stuck on the idea. Somewhere within my psyche I clung to the possibility that travel would help me find meaning beyond the stress of life. I realized that if I had obstacles preventing me from achieving that kind of life then I should remove the obstacles.
So I ended my relationship (we ended the relationship, insists my ex). I quit my job (management shook my hand, wished me good luck, and reportedly asked themselves why they weren’t also taking steps to pursue their dreams). I packed my bags, boxed and sold the rest of my belongings, had a friend of a friend take over the lease to my apartment, and then boarded a plane to whatever city in South East Asia had the cheapest air fare.
The weight of that choice, and the consequences of it, and the excitement and anxiety and wonder—all of it hit me as soon as I stepped off the airplane in Singapore. Had I felt those emotions before I took flight, I might have convinced myself to abandon the adventure, to consider the lost cost of air fare as an investment in education; the course would be titled, How To Recover from Rash Decisions 101.
I had felt those emotions nearly a decade before, when I stepped off the bus into San Francisco’s Embarcadero with an intentionally empty wallet as a personal challenge to live like a hobo for two months. And I had felt those emotions when a thrill ride clacked its way hundreds of feet into the air, paused, and then gave a final shudder just before surrendering itself and its cargo to Earth’s gravity. It’s the feeling of possibly making a big mistake, or falling passionately in love, or the come up of a drug trip. In each case, the solution is the same: surrender to it, steer towards the best possible outcome, and enjoy the process; because there’s no turning back.
That approach paid off. Only a few hours later, I was laughing on a rooftop with a beautiful Chinese Indonesian woman. She would introduce me to Bali, and teach me to let go. We fell in love and, though we were on different paths, we would find each other again in the world—in Berlin with Europe at our fingertips; in San Diego, poised to travel the Americas—and, for a few months at a time, happily re-entangle our lives.
I passed through points on a map, skipping large stretches of unattractive real estate to find gems in the rough. Cities began to look the same. Rather than finding adventure in different places, I found adventure in the journey itself. An Indonesian island named Lombok became a muddy, bloody struggle on underpowered scooters. The Australian coast became quick jumps from stolen meal to stolen shower with more Germans than a techno-blaring nachtklub. Northern Thailand blurred by on motorbike with a fiery Scottish woman whose hobbies included BDSM and playing the ukulele. Switzerland was seen through splashes in fresh mountain rivers and hazy Alpine sunrises. Southern Africa became an education in wild animals, the patience of fireside cooking, and vehicle maintenance. If lounging in the place of that beanie-wearing, this-could-be-you hipster was my goal, then I’d far exceeded my expectations.
The lie of those Instagram-worthy travel pictures, though, is that they sell a single peaceful moment as a lifestyle. Sure, there are moments of beauty and wonder and passion. And it feels good, for a while. But you can’t stay in that moment forever, and attachment to a moment yields only disillusionment. Wearing a beanie and staring artfully into the distance never solved anyone’s problems.
I used to brag about how little I needed and how small my travel bags were (46L and 18L, if anyone was wondering). After the initial starry-eyed wonder of travel wore off (much like the waning passion in the first few months of a new relationship), I realized that I was shouldering heavy baggage beyond the canvas of my backpacks. My own mountain-top-vista Facebook posts added color to the illusion of glorious travel, and yet internally I was wondering if my life had any meaning. I had followed my gut, but that had only led me faster down the same path it always did: towards hedonism.
Albert Camus called it “The Absurd”—the struggle to find meaning in a meaningless world, the logical result of which is existential angst and possibly suicide. Camus’ Sisyphus pushes his rock each day, in vain. And yet he realizes the futility of his endless toil, accepts it, and rejoices. I had traveled the world to find personal meaning, only to realize that meaning is illusory, and was disturbed by it. If Sisyphus found acceptance, then why couldn’t I?
Travel is inherently meaningless. It’s just moving from one place to another, something even four-year-olds excel at. If you want to find meaning, then boarding an airplane to a faraway country isn’t recommended. The world isn’t holding back, waiting to deliver meaning to you as soon as you disembark, or award it to you after you prove yourself through hardship and odyssey. But that isn’t to say that you can’t create meaning along the way.
The human mind is a powerful pattern recognition machine. Clouds become faces, hunters pursue great beasts through the stars, and a stray butterfly or a repetitive sequence of numbers is the universe telling you that you’re on The Noble Path. It’s all illusion, of course—products of an imagination evolved to exploit pockets of order in an otherwise chaotic world—but it can be useful.
The point is that humans create meaning. We don’t find it, we make it. We have the power to build purpose from disorder and, as I’m doing now, to share it with others as a possibility or vision. That’s the solution to meaninglessness; not travel.
So here’s how I’ve decided to rejoice; this is the illusory post-rationalization of my saltatory movements from unkown place to unknown place. It’s a vision I’m sharing with you, hopefully devoid of Instagram-worthy beanies and steaming cups of coffee and platitudes like “Learn to Let Go” or “Trust Your Gut”. And it starts like this:
I’ve had the good fortune to travel and to connect with wonderful people. Along the way I’ve learned a bit more about how people work, including myself. I’ve seen that even in an increasingly connected world, people are feeling distant from each other, lost and isolated, and they’re grasping for a sense of belonging and a reason for being. I’ve also found some ways for people to achieve acceptance, fulfillment, and meaning. The result is this blog: a set of articles written to help bridge the gap between struggle and satisfaction, and hopefully bring a bit more self-awareness, peace, and purpose to a few people at a time.