“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
— Oscar Wilde
Sometimes, when my mind is idle or the weather is grey, when I am overwhelmed with my growing to-do list or discouraged by bad news, I struggle with what I fondly refer to as The Conundrum.
The Conundrum never goes away; it cannot be resolved, nor can I be effectively consoled about its omnipresence. The Conundrum is, in my view of the world, an incontrovertible fact. It is rooted in solid logic and, being an intensely rational individual (often to a fault), I cannot escape it. It is the whispering in my ear, the tugging at my sleeve, the devil dancing in the details. The Conundrum is always there.
We all stumble through life in our own ways, along our own paths. We may all be in search of the same things—happiness, love, freedom from suffering, security—but we all take a different approach in pursuit of these things. I’ve watched my few longtime girlfriends take wildly divergent paths in the past decade: one is a married stay-at-home mom in suburbia; one has a kid and a partner, but works full-time in manufacturing; one lives in her car and repairs wind turbines across the country when she’s not making music; and one got married and lives with her in-laws in England. And then there’s me.
I enjoy hearing about my friends’ adventures (and misadventures), as I will never experience many of the things they are living. I root for them, I give them pep talks when they are down, and I lend an open ear when they need to vent. I wish them happiness and help them when I can. That’s what friends do. But I do not envy their lives. I can’t imagine being happy walking in any of my girlfriends’ shoes, and they would surely say the same about my life.
So how do we decide what path to take?
I think sometimes there is no conscious decision at all. Sometimes we wander aimlessly through the mist, making seemingly inconsequential choices without fully understanding their gravity. Sometimes we accept convention as wisdom, and we fall in line. And sometimes we make poor decisions that seem like good decisions at the time.
But The Conundrum reminds me that none of it actually matters. Sometimes this is comforting, and sometimes it is terrifying.
The Conundrum emerged from the most unassuming of sources: a routine geology field trip.
The sun was blazing (as it usually is in the Chihuahua desert), and I trudged uphill with a bunch of bored 18-year-olds in search of fossils. Before long we arrived at a fossiliferous limestone bed, bursting with a veritable buffet of Permian sea creatures. Brachiopods, bryozoans, crinoids… my pockets were soon overflowing with petrified 300million-year-old invertebrates.
The professor explained the geological history of the rocky hills surrounding us, eliciting blank stares and impatiently tapping toes from most of the students. They likely just wanted to return to the air-conditioned van as quickly as possible. I, however, was stunned and awed by the incomprehensible history of this violently turbulent planet we call home. I was more humbled at my own insignificance in the face of these fossils than even by the relentlessness of the human machinery of New York City.
And it was then that The Conundrum came into the light. Everything we know, everything we’ve made, everything we work for, will come to dust. The earth will literally swallow our constructed world, folding back into its molten heart. We are but specks on the timeline of life. Geologic time does not even notice our presence.
Mind blown. Do you need some help visualizing? I did. Here:
History of Life on Earth
more or less to scale
All 2.5 million years of human history (back to Neanderthals) = blink of an eye on a geological scale. Our entire recorded history of 5,000 years (think cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia) = only a nanosecond.
I always sort of cognitively knew all this, but to see it, to feel it, to have it in my pocket… that was different. I understood, finally, the need that zealots feel to deny scientific discovery. How can we be masters of a planet that is so incomprehensibly beyond our control, its history stretching out almost infinitely behind our own? How does one reconcile our own self-importance, our own hubris, in the face of such immensity?
We can’t. I don’t. I relinquish myself to the knowledge that not only will whatever I do be forgotten by humanity, but humanity itself will be forgotten by time. Holy shit. This knowledge is both liberating and daunting, both overwhelming and comforting.
So The Conundrum arises from the collision of this logical fact with my socially constructed human need to find purpose, to create meaning out of chaos. I always come back to this end:
All we have is here and now. All we can do is be kind, be gentle, and find our own happiness. Embrace the meaninglessness, and find solace where we can.
And that leaves me with the very real dilemma of defining my own happiness, and choosing my own path to get there. (First world problems, I know.) We are often told by others what should make us happy, and I usually find that these things do not appeal to me.
So here we are, Ben and I, poised on the edge of what I expect will be a major life shift. I am 30 and he is 35, and we have spent almost a decade sharing the same life path. We own a house and a disconcerting amount of stuff to fill that house. We have three dogs, three vehicles, and what I would say is a quite comfortable, quite pleasant, and quite content settled life. Ben works a “good” job with solid benefits and a steady paycheck. I am self-employed and will be finishing my degree in the coming months. We go on vacations from time to time, like to the Middle East last winter, Belize a few years back, and the many road trips my self-employment allows. The livin’ here is pretty darn easy.
But my restless spirit is stirring again, and The Conundrum is ever vigilant. It lurks behind my eyelids when I sleep, it emerges from the FedEx package on my doorstep, and it curls upward in the steam from my coffee mug every morning. It reminds me that it is not enough for me to merely exist, and that truly living sometimes requires a leap of faith.
So, it is time to go.
We bought a trailer this summer. A small, unassuming, 1984 Bigfoot travel trailer. I picked it up in Walla Walla, Washington on my way home from the Pacific Northwest last month, and hauled it 1,400 miles back to Las Cruces. It packs a toilet, a shower, a full-size bed, a dinette, a 4-burner stove, an oven and a refrigerator into its 17 feet of molded fiberglass.
We have decided that after I graduate, this little trailer will be our home for a while. We will simplify, downsize, and occupy a smaller, more portable place on this planet.
We have yet to work out all the details, such as: how much we will liquidate, how long we intend to be nomads, and how far afield we plan to stray. We are brewing up an ambitious plan as I type which may very well involve the adventure of a lifetime.