I AM 31. That means that if I live to the average age of an American male, 78, I am just under 40% done with my life. At the outside, I’m a third of the way done. This all, of course, assumes that between now and 2064 (when I’d be turning 78), that there is no massive societal collapse, that we aren’t slow-cooked by the climate, that we don’t blow ourselves to hell with nuclear weapons. It also assumes that I’ll never step out in front of a bus or eat a particularly bad oyster or be cut down by a ruptured blood vessel in my brain. I could be 99.9% done with this messy business and have no idea whatsoever.
When I turned 20 (25% done), I decided that I was going to see as much of the planet as I possibly could. I had no mortgage and no kids. I didn’t mind sleeping on floors and couches. I didn’t mind eating ramen three meals a day. So, I traveled.
I burned out before hitting 21.
Too much world
I was in Japan for five days. Five days is not enough for a single neighborhood in Tokyo, let alone an entire country. I had been traveling non-stop for 3 months at that point, and had been in 7 countries. I landed in Kobe, had a meal, and then caught a bullet train to Hiroshima. spent a night there, had a few drinks, saw the atomic bomb memorial, and caught a train to Tokyo. I went to the hotel from Lost In Translation and then ate some sushi. I watched people play pachinko for a few minutes. From there, I caught a train to Osaka. I had lunch outdoors. Then I took a train to Kyoto. I didn’t see any geishas. Somewhere, I stayed in a traditional Japanese inn, called a ryokan — I don’t remember where — and my friends and I thought it would be fun, after copious amounts of sake, to watch some good old fashioned Japanese porn. We turned it off after 5 minutes, feeling a little ill.
That is all I remember from the first four days of that trip. There were hundreds of miles traveled in one of the more culturally unique places on the planet, and I remember pachinko, trains, and porn.
On the fifth day, I decided to cram in a night in a small mountaintop town called Koyasan. The place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the monastery that sits on the mountain. In the woods surrounding the monastery, there’s an immense graveyard that looks like something out of a Miyazaki film. In the morning, the monks would wake you up so you could attend a small ceremony. After that, the day was yours. You could go visit one of the temples, you could walk through the graveyard, you could eat, or you could meditate. Monasteries, it turns out, are not meant to be rushed through.
When I entered my room at the monastery, there was a straw mat on the floor in lieu of a bed. I plopped my bag down, laid down, and then wasn’t able to move for 12 hours. Not out of exhaustion — I was on a bit of an adrenaline high — but out of anxiety. I knew I needed to go out and see the town, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t stand up. I couldn’t breathe. I’d been rushing through towns, cities, countries, and continents for months, but I couldn’t even bring myself to step out the door. I attended the morning ceremony after a sleepless night, and I left the town feeling demoralized and defeated.
I wish I could say I’d learned my lesson, but I continued to cram too much travel into my life for the rest of my 20s. I had one trip where I tried to see the Louvre, Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, and the Eiffel Tower in a single day in Paris. I rushed through Bruges so I could say I’d been to the site of one of my favorite movies. I took a train trip from Ohio to Chicago to Seattle to San Francisco to Phoenix to New Orleans to Atlanta to the Outer Banks of North Carolina in the span of 15 days. I didn’t slow down. I learned no lessons.
Until I got a decent bookshelf. I love books as I love travel. I am a minimalist by nature. But I own a lot of books. Before there was a bookshelf bookshelf, they were tucked into my trunk in the corner of the bedroom I share with my wife, or otherwise were laid in stacks on various shelves and horizontal surfaces of the apartment.
My brother-in-law was moving from New York to Hawaii, and he had a giant entertainment center he needed to get rid of. So, I drove from our New Jersey apartment and picked the thing up and reassembled it. It was beautiful. My books nearly filled it, and I could see them there, all sitting in a row. I created an Excel document cataloguing the library, and just for fun, I started tallying up how many of them I had already read.
300 books. 150 read.
150? That can’t be right.
I added them again. 150. Half. But I’d been buying books for years. I owned these books. They were mine. But I had no idea of their contents. They were, as far as I knew, empty between the covers. I’d experienced the rush of purchasing them, but I had never enjoyed most of them.
Someday, you will die. And when you die, there will be things that you desperately wanted to do that you will never have done. You may want to see every country in the world, and you may be able to do that. But there will be a city somewhere that you would’ve loved that you will have never seen. You will have never gotten around to whale watching, or bungee jumping, or you’ll never have won a sandcastle building contest.
There will be TV shows you would have geeked out over that you’ll never catch. Maybe it’s Star Trek, maybe it’s The Wire. There will be action movies that would have knocked your socks off that just floated under your radar for 78 years (Christ, most people never saw Snowpiercer. Most people, globally, have never even seen Die Hard).
You will die with a life that, if measured in checklists, was incompletely lived.
That idea is poison, and I wasted my 20s on it. I wish I had traveled less. I wish I had seen the world as a place to be savored and not consumed. I wish I had taken the time to learn another language. I wish I’d prioritized and spent more time in the UK instead of trying to cram in Argentina and China. I wish I’d spent less time buying books and more time reading them. I wish I’d left places on the map undiscovered.
I have 60% of my hypothetically 78 allotted years left — with any luck. That’s time enough to do a few things well rather than a million things poorly.