Recently, I got talking to a stranger whilst waiting for a delayed train. She was interested in my age, and wanted to know what I ‘do’ and what I hope to ‘be’. I always struggle to answer this question, as my ideas of what I want to ‘be’ and ‘do’ are a fairly vague concept. At the moment, my stock response is ‘well, right now I work in marketing BUT I’m leaving to go travelling in September‘ – so this is what I told her.
Her reaction was pretty standard. First was the raised eyebrows and look of surprise. Then the inevitable question; ‘and who are you going with?’ ‘No-one,’ I replied, ‘I’m actually going by myself’. Then comes the look of pity, quickly shifting to suspicion as she tries to figure out what’s wrong with me. ‘I’m really excited about it’ I ventured, as usual feeling a futile need to justify my decision. She thought for a minute, then tilted her head and delivered her verdict; ‘but aren’t you worried about getting a job? I mean, you’ll never make any money if you do that – you need to think about your career. You’ll be wanting to start a family soon’. This from a woman I’d known for literally 4 minutes.
Now I’ve never understood people who seem to be under the impression that the appropriate response to hearing about another person’s life is to offer their uncensored opinion. It’s like they genuinely think that until this moment I’ve been stumbling through life without a clue, just waiting for them to come along and smack me in the face with some piece of unfathomable wisdom that I would never have thought of on my own.
Well I have. I’ve considered all the options, I’ve been to Uni and had several jobs and my decision is that I want to travel. I am aware that this will mean being skint and childless for a few more years. Oh, you don’t think that’s such a good idea? Shit, I best re-evaluate my entire direction in life in order to take into account your concerns. Thank you, kind stranger, for waking me up to myself. I mean, come on.
We only have one life. We should be making the most of it. So why do we make it so hard for each other?
We are programmed in the culture of the Western world to expect and desire certain things from life. We are supposed to get good jobs that pay lots of money so that we can buy a house and fill it with lots of nice stuff. We are supposed to get married and have an appropriate number of high achieving, well behaved children. We are supposed to succeed and become well balanced adults and ‘have it all’. We stamp out evidence of difference because we are fearful of any change that may deviate from our expectations.
I am embedded in my culture, in it’s societal norms and behaviours, in it’s expectations. This is not a bad thing; our culture is our roots, it’s what anchors us to the earth and to other people, it’s our blueprint and manual for life. However, it is exactly this which makes it difficult to break from the societal ties which bind us to the path we are born onto. And what do you do when, like my generation, you find that the world you were promised has changed and suddenly opportunities must be made and not given.
I think that it’s time we embraced the changes that are happening around us and gave each other the freedom to choose our own lives, without judgement.
It is not the stability of normal life that I fear; one day I would love a big messy house with an orchard, full of children and dogs and books and happy chaos. It is more the prospect of becoming so distracted by the mechanics of daily existence in the meantime that my life never becomes anything more than ordinary. I don’t want ordinary, I want an adventure. Even if that means I’m not perfectly, blandly happy all the time, at least I won’t be anesthetised.
I am not saying that travel is the answer for everyone, but it is for me. I advocate travel because it is a teacher. I want to understand as much as I can about my world and this life whilst I inhabit it, and I don’t believe that can be done unless you explore other worlds and other ways of life. I don’t think that it is necessary to become a full time nomad to achieve this; every experience of travel is valuable, whether it be a 12 month once in a life time trip around the world, an annual 2 week holiday to somewhere new or a fully fledged way of life. Just as long as you explore, discover and soak up the experience with open eyes and an open mind.
As children, we are told that we can do anything, go anywhere, be anything we want to be. We fall asleep clutching our favourite tattered story books, dreaming dreams full of pirates and princesses, oceans and jungles and faraway lands. We dream of becoming ballet dancers and astronauts and cowboys. Why do we lose that optimism and imagination as adults? My mantra, which I repeat to myself often, is simply this; ‘there’s always a beginning’. Wherever you are in life, if you are unhappy there’s always the possibility of change because we always have a choice.
You don’t have to work a 9-5 and spend years at the hard monotonous slog if you don’t want to. Nor do you have to spend years as a feral beardy nomad. You can travel for days, weeks, months or years. Decades if you’re really hardcore. You can travel to the other side of the world, or the other end of your country, or to your local beach. Or you can stay in bed and watch box sets.
You can do whatever you want.
The key here is to accept a diversity of experience. It is not to dismiss one person because their choices don’t match up with what you feel is aspirational. Not to measure every person against the same yardstick of generic happiness and feel uncomfortable if you can’t tick off their experiences against your own timeline of acceptable milestones. Put simply, the key is to give each other the freedom and respect to make our own choices and live our own lives. Take note, judgey train lady.