Always Arriving, Never Arrived

Going to the beach is just what people in Alabama do over spring break. Strike that, it’s what people in half the country do over spring break. That’s why the typically small town of Gulf Shores, Alabama gets overrun by beach dwellers across both Alabama and other states. A colorful cornucopia of license plates trail the cars parked in constant bumper-to-bumper traffic. It comes down to a simple fact. What’s the closest white, sandy, and most importantly warm beach from Birmingham, Alabama? It’s Gulf Shores.

Kentucky?
Ohio?
Minnesota?

Yeah, it’s Gulf Shores, along with the other (even more popular) tourist-trap beach towns across the Florida-Alabama coastline.

No matter where you’re starting from, getting there is really all the same. Find the exit to I-65 South closest to your house, set your cruise control, and highway hypnosis your way all the way to the beach. No matter where you start, be it Montgomery, Alabama or Louisville, Kentucky, it will invariably take one day to get there. Google Maps may say you’ll arrive in three hours. Google Maps is wrong.

Spend a week doing the same things you could do at home, except on vastly overcrowded (and overpriced) beaches. Then come back on Sunday by, you guessed it, finding the closest exit to I-65 North and praying no hungover beach-dweller wrecks the entire interstate. But it doesn’t matter, because even if they did, it would still take a day to get back. It’s inevitable.

As a traveler, there’s always a sense that you’re getting close to your destination but you’re never quite there. And, given enough time to think while driving, you come to the same conclusion in your own life. You’re always arriving, but you’ve never really arrived.

Sure, there are days when you feel so close to who you want to be; to how you envisioned your life being when you were a child in a world with fewer responsibilities and more opportunities for fun and rest. But life always seems to afford precious few opportunities for contentment, and even those moments contain the most sobering reminders that you are, at your core, not completely the person you want to be.

The most deep-rooted of feelings are the ones that nobody cares to talk about. So society boils them down to trite cliches disguised as words of advice.

“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”
“Not all who wander are lost.”
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Different people react to the frustration of never feeling self-actualized in different ways. Some are cruel, some are deeply antisocial, and some forcefully cling to a certain personality trait or skill which they think defines them. Really, what you have here is a case of the “human condition,” which, if you ask me, is yet another trite cliche which is lost it’s meaning long ago.

For lack of a better term, the human condition all comes down to this: between striving for financial success, dealing with frustrating family and friends, and being slightly too busy to fulfill all we’re capable of, we lose the parts of ourselves we’ve always dreamed of being.

This is a problem which may not have a solution. You may not ever be able to “have arrived,” but only ever experience the perpetual sense of “arriving.” However, it seems humanity favors those who actively try. There’s a romanticized notion for the travelers of the world; those who throw themselves into environments they are unfamiliar with in order to grow. And yet, people also admire the mentors, the teachers, and the public servants, who help individuals grow and become somebody important. Many of these people rarely leave their hometown, and yet they seem to have a more fulfilled heart than the ailing wanderer.

I’ve seen Ph.D. professors who are so frazzled and openly discontent with their lives that I feared they may fall apart on the spot at any moment. I’ve also seen custodians in the most humble of occupations who seem so content that I’d want to live in their shoes. And the reverse is true as well. So what gives? What is the common denominator?

What makes each of these people uniquely content? I don’t know. I have no facts to back up my claim, no testimonies to indicate commonality, and no psychological profiles to pull from for comparison. But I do have a sneaking suspicion I may know the answer.

These people know that they will never “have arrived.” They know they will always be “arriving.” They know that if they live on this earth a hundred years, a thousand years, or even a million years, that they will always be learning, aging, and maturing. They know that there is something to learn from everybody, and something everyone has to learn from you. They know they are imperfect, and freely admit that vulnerability to those who criticize them. These people are getting through life without ever taking life personally.

So, based on this new information, the information I obtained on my endless, not so endless drive to the beach and back, I think I’ll start by being humble, accepting what I don’t know, and always setting my mind to learning. I think maybe you, dear reader, should consider the same. After all, legend has it that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. Perhaps that expression is not so devoid of meaning after all.

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The Easy Road to Cynicism, and the Perilous Expedition Getting Back

“The adventure begins,” I thought to myself while sitting on the couch after working hard to get my apartment furnished and in order. One would think I was referring to the idea of being an adult, independent, beginning a new life of being self-supportive. However, in this case, my thoughts were of something else entirely. The adventure was of me completely abandoning my pessimistic ways and completing my metamorphosis into a real idealist. I honestly didn’t think it was possible.

There is a running joke between myself and my fiancee where I, in a self-deprecating manner, call out my own 17-year-old identity whenever he bubbles to the surface. This age was peak cynic for me. Matt the Detractor, Matt the Skeptic, Matt the Pessimist, Matt the True Hipster, Matt the Overthinker.

Matt the Confused.

This is not self-loathing. On the contrary, I understand now that this was an important step in my journey towards being the better person that my creator wants of me, but it doesn’t mean I like myself when my brain goes into fact-checking mode. It is a sign of insecurity in yourself when all you can do is try to prove others wrong using facts and statistics, however true they may be. To do so expresses a kind of high arrogance, an assumption that your methodological way of viewing the world is the only correct one. The surface of rationale, argumentation, and dialectic, however, is cold and hard, and the consequences of such paradigm are two-fold.

First, you’ll find yourself without friends, speaking a language unintelligible by common folk. Or, at least, you hope that to be true, but in the recesses of your mind there exists one other alternative: that all you claim to be is just a collection of fancy words and mindless trivia, and that everyone else is just as smart as you. Second, you’ll find yourself adopting a view of the world that significantly darker than those around you. You’ll begin to pedestalize your own intelligence while reducing the value of the opinions of those around you. Soon, nobody’s discussions about anything seem to make any sense, despite them having existed in the world for as long as you have.

Here you are, you can put it on the map. When you assume that everyone else is either uninformed or stupid, you have arrived safely at Cynicism. There are no humans in Cynicism, only lonely individuals pretending to be gods without actually having the power to back it up. They dole out judgments where none are needed nor appreciated.

Getting to Cynicism is an easy drive on a Sunday afternoon with little traffic to get in the way. The journey back from Cynicism, however, is far more dangerous than that. It’s more like a hike through hot swampland with alligators and venomous snakes. My trip took at least five years, and featured a detour through chronic lower-back nerve pain, a case of Meniere’s  Disease, and experiencing a setback in my dream to teach college.

There on the couch I realized, I’m no longer that person. I have his memories, yes, and the skill of skepticism sure comes in handy while doing academic research, but I’ve been transformed somehow. God, with his actual power, has turned me into a better version of myself.

I suppose I made it official when I changed my name on Facebook from Matt to Matthew. Matthew the Idealist, Matthew the Dreamer, Matthew the Pollyanna, Matthew the Sociable, Matthew the Optimist. I’m glad my dangerous journey has ended, and I’m excited to start my new adventure of actually being human.

So, I must ask. Have you made the same journey I have? Have you been wooed by the lights of Cynicism, only to realize that once there, it was a very dark place? How did you escape? Did you escape? Are you still escaping, or are you headed down the road to Cynicism right now?