Life as a Journey

Life is not a destination but a journey…those who think only to reach some mystical place (life begins at “insert age here”—adulthood, a specific job, marriage, retirement, that extremely nebulous thing called success) will miss out.  They focus only on that Shangri-La, that fantasy place of a hypothetical future and they never see the truth around them.  What is that truth?

That life is a series of steps on a series of paths leading to a series of roads, never ending, like a highway in Texas that stretches from horizon to horizon.  The view changes, and we should be tourists, amazed at that view.  Our very person, the “who we are” is determined more by where we at the moment of that determination than where we think we are headed.

As a journey, life has way too many hills and valleys for us to see very far ahead—but how arrogantly we try, attempting to prognosticate our futures, trying to plan for the glorious things we know await us.  And while we are throwing bones to see that which cannot be seen, we miss out on the marvelous things that surround us.  I have no argument with Tarot, astrology, runes…whatever method of divination you might want to use—but none of these are any real good for telling us what happens months or years in advance.  As you can see for a distance from the top of a hill, so you tell what might happen in the near future with these tools.  But what lies 10 years in the future is no more discernable than what is beyond the mountains you can see in the distance from that hilltop.  Divination has its place, but only as an adjunct to looking around us.  It is not a replacement for seeing what we need to know or do.  Read your Tarot layout, cast your runes—but use them as a light to illuminate your immediate environment, not as a magical sword to cut through to that mystical “someday my life will be great”.   Just when you’re sure you know where you’re going, life jumps the track, turns left and heads to Albuquerque.  So much for going to Chicago, no matter how much you wanted to be there or even how much you thought you were supposed to be there!

As a journey, life gives us the chance to choose the road we travel upon.  Sometimes that may mean taking a road less traveled.  My grandfather was very fond of driving those back, country roads to get to almost any place we needed to go.  We might not have gone quickly, or even in the most direct route, but oh my, how much fun we had.  We saw all sorts of things—some normal and familiar, some odd and intriguing.  It became a tradition in my family to point out the tobacco barn on Route 301 in Maryland.  I asked about it as a child, and my grandmother explained it to me—every time we went by it from that point on.  My family was living in Ocean City then, so we made the trip between there and Baltimore frequently.  When I was a teenager, it exasperated me to hear the explanation, which only tickled my family more for some perverse reason.  When I got to be an adult, I understood a little better how giving this explanation to a child set up a connection in my grandparents’ minds with that barn and me.  I didn’t even have to be in the car for them to spout the explanation as they drove past.   It made a link of love that still warms me today, when I look at the cross-stitched picture Grandmom made for me of that barn, with the words “Tobacco Barn Upper Marlboro MD 301” underneath of it.  It was just a part of the roadside view and we never actually went to the barn at all.

Frequently on our drives, it was enough to be out in the fresh air, with the green, lush countryside filling our need to connect back to our earthly roots.  To this day I prefer the slower country roads to four lanes of concrete driving hell known as interstate highways.  You can’t enjoy the view at a state-sanctioned 65 miles per hour.  All too often, the view itself is blocked with high walls, so that housing developments can be built.  It should warn us that they put up the walls to keep out the very thing that we are subjecting ourselves to: the lack of a view, the smell of burning petroleum products and the maze of the roads, surely designed by people who have never driven.  No wonder there is road rage.  There is nothing life giving nor life sustaining in such a sterile environment, one that reinforces on many levels the message that destination is the only consideration for our traveling.

At other times, our life’s road maybe one that many people have also chosen.  In that case, we’ll have many traveling companions.  The important thing here is to choose the road that is right for us, not the one that we think others would have us choose—or the one that the majority seems to have chosen.  To quote Opus the penguin from the comic strip formerly known as “Bloom County”: “Just because six million people choose to do a thing doesn’t make it right”.  We’re not talking moral right or wrong at this point—but what is right for many other people, or even for every other person—does not mean that it’s right for you.

Another part of this analogy is that life gives us a wide variety of roads throughout our journey.  We bumble along on a dirt path, feeling like it’s always been this way, nothing changes and then BOOM!  We’re on that superhighway, doing about 100 miles an hour and nothing slows down.  Sometimes, this occurs within the same day—maybe even the same hour.  I suspect that children, with their willingness to simply exist in the world around them are the ones who travel most on foot upon that dirt path.  As we get older, we feel the need to go faster, get a car, hit that highway and GO!  Time to learn to grasp the simplicity of the dirt path, marveling at the world just because it is there.

The faster we go, the less we can see of what is around us.  Feel like you really need a destination?  Well, what is at the end of everyone’s life?  What comes, inevitably and inexorably, to every human being?  Life’s only real destination is…death.  The end of this life, regardless of what comes after.  Who wants to rush to death?  If we truly understood that death is the destination, wouldn’t the journey be our focus?  Wouldn’t we want to enjoy every step on the way?  Wouldn’t we want to meander down country lanes, stop and look through all those antiques stores on the side of the road, talk to the old man sitting on his front porch?  We would insist on rest areas every mile, scenic views between each rest stop and a federal speed limit of 5 miles an hour.  Guess what?  Life is already like that.  We just need to drop out of warp drive and slow down.  We’re already there.  Einstein showed us the math that says time is relative.  One man’s life may be measured in scores of years, and still not be nearly enough time for him to appreciate it fully, while a child may only live a few years and have the joy of a life well-lived.  It’s not the length of the journey, but how it is traveled that makes it worthwhile.  A walk around the block hand in hand with your love may be more satisfying in the long run than a month-long ocean cruise by yourself—especially if you get seasick.

As a journey, life presents us with the opportunity to meet a wide variety of people, and to learn that underneath superficial differences, we all have the same inherent worthiness.  By meeting others, we see what happens when you make different choices about the use of that worth.  And who hasn’t experienced the deep joy of meeting someone who could have been us, because our lives are so parallel, so similar?  We feel the kinship deep in our bones, and know that we are blessed for this meeting.  We are equally blessed by knowing others so different we can’t imagine being them—and we learn tolerance for those who aren’t us or “our kind”.  The human eye quickly learns to tune out sameness, to stop looking at things that are identical or familiar.  How wonderful then that we are made with such diversity.

Knowing other people offers us the chance to know more about life than we could ever experience on our own.  There is not enough time in anyone’s life to learn everything.  So we gain secondhand knowledge of the world around us through the people who are in our lives.  We can also learn by reading about other people’s lives.  There are so many bright lives in the world, throughout time and place, who offer pointers to a life lived fully.  Mother Theresa, Helen Keller, Mahatma Gandhi, Leonardo daVinci, the list could go on and on.  Famous people who have done great things just by being themselves.  None of them set out to be famous; their fame was thrust upon them as they cast their light into a world that is frequently dark.  For every one who is famous, there are quite probably hundreds, maybe even thousands of other people who also live this way.  I am sure that you can think of at least one in your own life, someone who has made a profound impact upon you simply by the way they live their life.

As a journey, life presents time in manageable chunks.  Who could really deal with the overwhelming thought of YEARS of time?  Most of us have a problem keeping our week or even our day straight; imagine having to keep your entire life in order!  So life presents us with the chunk of time we call NOW.  We have only to live through this small portion of time, one portion at a time.  Dogs have it right—there is only the eternal NOW.  They don’t remember yesterday—and it’s gone, nothing that you can do about it anyway.  And tomorrow?  What’s that?  A dog has no concept of the future.  And for us, well, it may not get here, so why worry about it?  If I am totally present, totally involved with this NOW, if I fully live in this NOW, and just keeping doing that for as many NOWS as I have, than I can say that I have truly lived.  As someone wiser than I put it, “Yesterday is gone and tomorrow may not come.  I have only today, and it’s a gift—that’s why we call it the present”.

Now, don’t mistake me.  We should have some plan for our traveling.  Just don’t be surprised when life upsets those plans.  How many vacations have been thoughtfully, carefully planned?  Tickets are bought, reservations are made.  House sitters are lined up, mail is held to be called for upon your return.  The dog is kenneled, the suitcases are packed.  And then, WHAMO! Your significant other needs an emergency appendectomy.  Your suitcases are lost.  It rained the entire two weeks you were in Cancun—first rain they’ve had in a year.  The airports shut down for snowstorms.  With you sitting in the departure lounge.  For three days.  We’ve all lived through this sort of cosmic practical joke.  On the more daily side, think of all the dinner dates that have been postponed or cancelled, doctor’s appointments that were forgotten, piano recitals that had to be missed to accommodate Mr. Bigshot’s desire for a dinner meeting.  We simply reschedule, shrug and go on.  So should our lives be when something we had planned for fails to materialize.  We change our calendars, make a new appointment, whatever it takes to get back on track in our daily routine.  We need to learn to do that when disappointments, failures, or any other of life’s upheavals come along.

Because life is a journey, we need to learn to travel a lot lighter than most of us do.  It’s amazing what we think we cannot live without.  We pack like we’re going on a very long ocean voyage to the deepest darkest depths of Africa, being gone for months—and really, we’re just going around the corner for the weekend.  A lot of what we take isn’t even useable.  It’s broken or no longer fits or is just so old that it’s not worth carrying around.  I am of course referring to our emotional baggage.  When I left my husband, I took at least a steamer trunk’s worth of bitterness and anger with me.  I didn’t need it, it got in the way of everything I wanted to do, it was so heavy—and it took me a while to finally throw it out.  How can you see things when you’re bent over, carrying a steamer trunk on your back?  And I found, when I finally cleaned out that trunk, that I had also been carrying leftover childhood baggage.  I worked hard to clean it out, and when I was done, I found out I didn’t need a trunk any more.  Now I only carry a small backpack—and I go through it regularly to make sure that I’m only carrying the things I really need.  I am learning to travel through life as if I had unlimited credit—all I need is my passport, I’ll buy whatever else I need when I get where I’m going!

Part of our emotional baggage can be expressed with the phrase, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived”.  Too many people only live half of what they could be because they are afraid.  They are afraid of other people’s perceptions of them, they are afraid to take risks, they are afraid to lose material belongings or status or go against popular opinion.  Being afraid blocks decisions and creates a negative view of the world.  Everything is measured against that fear, so very little has positive connotation.  Those who let fear prevent them from being the whole person they should be lose the fullness of what could have been their chosen life.  Life happens to them instead of them experiencing life.

It’s odd, but the things that we do want to take along, the things that I try to keep in my backpack—things like good emotions, fond memories, lessons learned—these weigh almost nothing, and take up very little space.  Like George Jetson’s car that folded up into a briefcase, they take up almost no room until we need them.  They do not create a burden that we lug from place to place, but become like wings for our feet.  They can be glasses that sharpen our vision, helping us enjoy our journey’s view, or umbrellas, to protect us from rain.  They serve a good purpose and do not interfere with our journey, which becomes a distinguishing characteristic for knowing what to keep and what to pitch into the nearest dumpster.

Life is a journey, not a destination.  Let this then be my desire and hope: I would learn to look around me with the wonder of a child; to experience everything that I can; to be fully present and engaged in this journey; to share the road with others and to make this the best journey I know how so that when I do eventually reach whatever destination there is, I have no regrets and can state emphatically I had a wonderful trip.

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