Addison

With a steady sea breeze brushing over his face, Addison mechanically brushed his teeth while looking out over the bluffs of the Northern Irish shore. In the car behind him, his two traveling companions, an American and a Northern Irishman, prepared for the next day of their week-long road trip circumnavigating the country. Looking out over this strange sea on the far side of the world, he contemplated the unbroken path of his life that had led him here. Only a few short months prior, he had been settled in a comfortable life in West Virginia with his parents who had never left American soil. The anxiety that had accompanied him to this mystical land was now gone. In such a short time so much had changed, but he felt more at home than ever, and he knew that he could never permanently return to a settled life stateside.

Two years earlier, Addison had recently entered college, and he was deep in the midst of figuring out why he had actually done so. The philosophical discussions – the kind he most enjoyed – posed by his religious mentors led him toward study in theology after a brief attempt at a course of study in exercise physiology. It didn’t take long to realize that there was more to the world of philosophy than he had originally thought. Raised a Christian, he had taken many of Jesus’ teachings to heart, but he held a very different view of the religion than many of his contemporaries. He embraced the contradiction in the Trinity and rejected the literal interpretations that have become prominent in today’s theological study. After reading about David Hume’s thoughts on correlation and causation, he sought a way to explore the mysteries of the world without using the lens of religion. He added a philosophy major immediately.

Just when things seemed to be going smoothly, everything changed. Without warning, his girlfriend and first love told him simply that she didn’t love him anymore. As his world came to violent halt, she fled, cutting off all ties. Disoriented and confused, Addison chose to run as far as he could.

When he learned of an opportunity to study abroad at a sister university, he applied to the most beautiful location he could find: Northern Ireland. As a voracious reader of philosophy, the idea of visiting the land of Berkely and Burke, of returning to the origins of not only enlightenment thought but prehistoric folklore and traditions that influence our lives today brought about an immense feeling of mystery and newness. He cast off “in search of history, ghosts, and other impossible things.”

As he packed his bags full of the necessaries, including a few jars of peanut butter (which he had falsely heard were difficult to find in Ireland), the excitement grew. With the wheels of the airplane leaving the tarmac, he felt like a prehistoric wanderer on the edge of a primeval forest beginning a journey among gods and other mystical creatures. Though mundane by any objective standard, his arrival felt just as magical as he thought it could. Everything appeared the same on the surface, but the innumerable subtle differences revealed themselves in a way that kept him deeply interested in his surroundings. The most ordinary of practical tools became metaphorical objects for transcendental contemplation.

When Addison touched down in Belfast, the man with whom he had shared brief conversation on the plane from London sought him out and offered to help him get to his destination. The man went so far as to drive him to the train station and even buy him coffee and a pastry before ensuring that he got on the right train toward his new home. The generous act of hospitality would set the standard for his interactions with the Northern Irish throughout his time.

Despite the warm welcome and ethereal sense of joy as he adjusted to his new normal, within a week, Addison began to feel the creeping anxiety of being so far from home. In describing this feeling, he writes, “The slowly rising panic was a feeling which seemed as if it could easily be kept in check, yet was so potentially severe and overwhelming that I was troubled by even the possibility of the dam not holding.” The anxiety became so strong that it limited his appetite, but those around him were able to settle this discomfort whenever they were around. His flatmates and other exchange students provided welcomed support and a comforting presence. It was only when Addison was alone that this anxiety rose to the surface. However, it was one of these moments of solitude that would prove pivotal in his adjustment to a life abroad.

When he had a few moments of free time, he decided to slip away to take in the awe-inspiring beauty of his natural surroundings. Before he left, he grabbed his mp3 player and plugged in to a mix of chill grooves. Finding a nearby garden and adjacent meadow, he made a sufficient escape. As he walked, his eyes fully taking in the beauty and majesty of the landscape, he slipped away not only from his artificial dwelling but also from the nervous energy that had gripped him in previous moments alone. As he would surmise later, it was in this moment that his mind opened to a new way of experiencing his life. Instead of a linear chain of discrete events, life began to appear to him as a single, “irreducible whole.” Each day, hour, minute, every accomplishment, every failure, every memory, hope, and promise fell from the timeline of events and inextricably wove themselves into the tapestry of life, all life, and of the Universe.

As a Christian, he believed this revelation was a gift from God. Today, he holds a secular view of the process, but regardless of its origin, the fact is that it freed him from an anxiety that had held him back from truly experiencing his world. When he returned to his new home, he was ready to face the world with comfort and confidence. The anxiety he had felt would never bother him again. To this day, Addison makes time for these occasional solitary walks with the calming repetition of music in his ears. In this way, he can enter that frame of mind in which he can look at his life as a whole instead of through the analytical methods of science and philosophy, passions that still govern a large piece of his life.

After his semester in Northern Ireland, Addison knew that he would no longer be able to stay put. He began to look at his life and his situation with a more critical eye. It was the aesthetics that first brought his attention to his disagreement with the American way of life. While living in Europe, he noticed the way the architecture complemented and accented the already mystifying scenery. The icons of American architecture – towering skyscrapers, immense sports arenas, sprawling blocks of suburban strip malls – had no such effect. In his words, they seemed to “offend the landscape.” It was a visual representation of the skewed values of American society: quantity over quality, worship of objects that can be commodified, and the ceasing of basic human values to have any value at all.

Since then, he has been bouncing between his family home in West Virginia and nearly the entire continent of Europe. Before beginning graduate school in Hungary, he spent three weeks traveling Europe, utilizing the traveler community, Couchsurfing. Staying with nearly 20 different hosts of all backgrounds, demographics, and living conditions, he began to build a more humanistic view of the world. In contrast to the orthodox teachings he had learned, the people he had met were not inherently sinful or cruel. Instead, all of these people were incredibly kind and generous. They enriched his life with interpersonal connections that convinced him of the goodness of humanity.

Over the course of three days during his time in Italy, Addison met with a wise old man who ran a bed & breakfast and tasting house out one of the old shops carved in the mountain rock of the Sassi di Matera. A peaceful comfort pervaded the restaurant, the softly whispering wind outside its open stone face bringing a calm that Addison had never experienced. Like a part of the dwelling itself, this old sage spoke softly and listened patiently. As his only guest, Addison discussed life and philosophy though his Italian was elementary. The ancient silence of the place led him to a deeply contemplative state. In these few days, he found a feeling of being truly alive that he has not matched.

He continues to scour the world for these moments, embracing the differences and changes of living in a new community. He is now back in Italy teaching English, but he knows that he will return to formal study in philosophy before long. His studies have educated him on ways of perceiving the world, but his experiences in that world have enlightened him. In the cyclical nature of the universe, he is learning from it as he teaches language and strives to educate others in the deepest contemplations of the human mind.

The two days I spent with Addison as my Couchsurfing guest were full of intellectual outbursts. From the deprecation of K-pop to the fundamental meaning of life, our discussions took on just about every topic, and in every one, I felt wholly unequipped to ponder these things on the same level that he does. Though his intellectual curiosities began long before he cast off from his home, it was in his travels that he has been able to see the world from a completely new perspective. As he sets sail for new horizons, his already extensive understanding of the world continues to grow.

Mark

Just thinking of that walk makes my feet hurt. It was self-inflicted, of course, but it was painful nonetheless. While I made it a point to traverse the circuit of jagged rocks and concrete mounds, designed to dig into the soles our feet with the same effect as acupuncture, Mark seemed to take it with a much more serene type of discipline that only a man who has spent months in quiet concentration could muster. In fact, he had done that, recently completing a yoga instructor course in the practice’s home, India. The walk I am describing took place several months ago. Mark was one of my first Couchsurfing guests, and he has long since departed on yet another leg of his incredible journey. This story is only now taking shape because I had failed to realize the amazing story that brought him to me in Seoul. It was only after I saw that he had written about his 23-day trek to the base camp at the foot of Mount Everest did I start to dig more deeply. It was in that same park, only a few meters from that masochistic walk that I devoured the thousands of words of his own telling of his story since he cast off the lines mooring him to his stagnant life in Southern California. What I found was a man in whose footsteps I hope to follow and whose story deserves to be heard round the world.


“Adventure can be found chasing the unknown right in your own backyard. Wherever your adventure is, don’t wait. Do it now. There is no perfect time.” – Mark G.

Creeping along in the daily bumper-to-bumper traffic on the I-405, Mark’s hands mechanically wound through the motions of tying his neck tie in preparation for another day of the grind. Though his feet were working the pedals and his hands were straightening the knot at his throat, his mind was a world away. Finally arriving at the office, he began the perfunctory duties of a job he had considered to be his dream job in Los Angeles. It should have been a good day. He had been with the company for three years, and he had just received another generous bonus that could certainly finance another short jaunt to an exotic location abroad. However, he was not abroad; he was in the same place he always was. His dreams still existed only in his mind, and the spirit of unstoppable audacity he had as a child seemed only a memory and a constant distraction as his thoughts wandered away from his desk to exotic lands on the other side of the globe.

How did it come to this? How had that spirit of his childhood slipped into the background? What was it that held him to a life of repetition and drudgery?

There is a certain concept of success in the modern world. Go to college. Find a good job. Get promoted. Do as you are told. Work, sleep, repeat. For Mark, it was a constant struggle between the path he knew he was supposed to follow and the one he wanted. In between the requisite hours at the office, he would ease his mind in the fluid motions of yoga or simply slip away to the wilderness of Southern California to find his happy place. Though it provided a temporary escape, he always knew there must be more. It just never seemed to be the right time. His indecisiveness kept him on the path of least resistance.

That said, Mark almost broke away for good in 2008. In the space after graduating university, he jetted off to Ecuador for what was supposed to be a three-week getaway with a friend from college. However, in the middle of the trip, he received word that despite his satisfactory marks on an exam he had taken in applying for a position with the County of Los Angeles, there simply were no jobs. This was mid-2008, and the American economy was still reeling from the pain of the recent stock market meltdown. Recognizing that returning home was futile, he worked out a deal with a hostel to stretch his money. The arrangement, however, would eventually come to an end. After nine weeks abroad, he returned home to Southern California. The grooves of habit run deep, and back into them he fell as he returned to school to get a graduate degree. He did so and shortly thereafter located his “dream job.”

Life was good, and Mark made the most of it for three years. He always had known it would come to this, but his plans continued to stretch from one year to two and finally to three. He knew that the quotidian life of commute and computation would never satisfy his true desires. After a third year and a third generous bonus that did nothing to increase his happiness, he realized that there would be no perfect time to leave. He decided it was time to cast off.

The process was not quick nor easy. He had made some very strong connections with his colleagues and especially his boss, who had become a veritable mentor. Because Mark would not accept the idea of leaving extra labor for his coworkers, an already generous three-week notice turned into six as he finished up his current projects and trained his replacement. Part of the anxiety came from the thought of scrutiny from the others who would remain, so he kept the move under wraps for a while. However, when the news started to leak out, there was no animosity. In fact, most were excited for his impending journey, and some even made moves to follow.

As the date of Mark’s departure approached, he started the process of liquidating his belongings. He knew that in order to live this nomadic life fully, he would need to lighten his load to that which he could carry. The liberation of lightening the load came with a bittersweet feeling. While the sale of many items was a burden lifted, others left with a tearing pain of loss. An avid musician and cyclist, he anguished over parting with his musical instruments and his bicycle. Though they were only objects, they had been the tools with which Mark had created great joy in the life he had known for so many years. Saying goodbye to them was like saying goodbye to a part of his life. Encouragingly, the exchange left his pack light but his wallet heavy. This was, of course, not a license to spend extravagantly. It was an invitation to stretch his time on the move for even longer.

Mark’s plans for the journey were tentative at best. He had been to Asia a few times and still found it fascinating, so it seemed to be a good place to start. He was in a committed relationship at the time, and he invited his girlfriend to join his adventures. Though he knew that he would need a solo experience, things got messy, as relationships often do, and they made arrangements to explore Southeast Asia. With the last of his things dwindling away, Mark moved in with his parents and finished preparations for his adventure. Even though he was on a path out of his old life, he continued with the daily routines all the way up to the end. He even attended a real estate conference in Las Vegas where he discussed future employment opportunities. However, his decision had been made, and he was set to cast off from that world.

The day before his planned departure, Mark scrambled to store all of the little mementos that he could not bring himself to part with. He organized his pack and made sure everything was ready to go before he and his girlfriend went to sleep at home for the last in a long time.

At 4:30 the next morning, his dad dropped the two of them off at the airport to check in for a standby flight. Though it was the most economical option, it came with risk, and this time the odds won. The flight was full. Mark searched frantically for another flight. Transfer through San Fransisco? Fly into Osaka? It didn’t matter. They needed  something, and he was determined to leave that day. Finally, they located a pair seats. After 14 hours at the airport, they shouldered their packs and boarded the aircraft bound for Tokyo. As the wheels came up and the jumbo jet carried its passengers into the sky, Mark took a breath and started to reflect on the whirlwind that had just torn his life apart. All the way up to his date of departure, he had been carrying out his duties, living his quotidian life. Flying across the Pacific Ocean, he began the process of creating his new life. It would take months for him to fully separate.

Sitting on the airplane, listening to the soundtrack of the inspirational remake of the adventure film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Mark reflected on the events that had transpired. The days, months, and years spent trudging along his predetermined path, always cognizant of the parallel life he believed he should be leading, had finally come to an end, and he was on his way out of that world into a journey to discover things both outside and inside of himself. Like a Little Prince off in search of worlds beyond his own tiny orb, Mark eschewed the trappings of silly grown-up ideologies and embraced an intense curiosity for the world.

Things have not always been perfect and easy. There are always challenges. Waking to the sound of his girlfriend screaming from the top bunk of an overnight train and having standoffs with Indian pickpockets are just as real a part of the journey as being welcomed into the base camp of Mount Everest. As may have been expected from its messy beginning, his relationship with the woman with whom he began the journey has ended, but a new romance has entered his life. They met in Vietnam while he was a rock climbing instructor, and their relationship has grown as they have met in different exotic locations around the globe. Though a life on the road has its difficulties, those challenges exist in all our lives. The difference lies in the heights of elation and enlightenment that Mark has encountered along his travels.

Up mountains in Indonesia, through busy lanes in India, along hallowed paths in Nepal, and across ruthless stone walks in Korea, Mark has found a world that he never could have imagined. As I am writing this, he is in Guatemala working a farm of a friend of his current girlfriend. Over the past 16 months, he has bounced through more countries than I can keep track of and met more new friends than the vast majority of people meet in their entire lives.

While he has been away, he has kept in touch with his old office. It seems that his boldness to step off into the great unknown encouraged a handful of his former colleagues to do the same, whether it be to travel like him or simply to find a better suited career path. As soon as he broke the news that he was going to cast off to pursue his dreams, he began influencing others to do the same. With every message I receive from him, he is still inspiring me.

If you would like to hear more about Mark’s travels, please follow his blog The Grizzy. He can tell you those stories better than I can. I hope only to serve as a messenger of the tale of this great man, who cast off the lines that held him to his stagnant shore and set sail toward lands of mystery, wonder, and curiosity.

Critical Appearance

The wide black disc flashed with a white rectangle as the shutter released, and the characteristic snap left a satisfying feeling of capturing the moment. T’ew shifted slightly on one knee, the lens of his camera balancing on the edge of my shadow. Behind him, the red and gold leaves of this Korean autumn shone with the growing light of the rising sun peaking over the buildings at my back. I stared unblinkingly into the depths of the lens as it snapped open and closed again. He lowered the camera from his face and inspected the picture.  As he stood and joined me on the bench, he sifted through the series of portraits he had just taken.

“How did they come out?” I asked.

“Here. Take a look,” he said as he passed the camera to me.

Flipping through the dozen or so photos of my face lit with a surreal glow of the background sun, I couldn’t help but think about how uncomfortable it is to be on this side of the camera. Frozen in that instant of an awkward half smile, my likeness was open to utter scrutiny. My broken protruding nose, the red dots of pervasive acne, my matted and unkempt hair all captured in the finest detail. I scrolled across the others quickly, and handed the camera back.

“Nice,” I said. “That shallow depth of field really highlights your subject.”

Your subject. I didn’t even want to admit that I had just been scrutinizing my own face. Though I know I am imperfect, I still find it uncomfortable to look at my faults. They are the first things I see when I look at myself, whether in the mirror or a photograph. Of course, I can do nothing (short of drastic surgery) to change them, but in each picture or frame of film, they stare back at me as a constant reminder of my unsatisfactory state of being.

I stoically obliged T’ew’s requests for me to play the model as he tested his new lens during our early morning walk. We started early – just after 6 am – to capture what is known as “magic hour,” that hour around sunrise or sunset when the lighting is just right for capturing some fantastic images. From my apartment, we ambled east toward Tancheon, a river that flows from southern reaches of Seoul into the Han river in the heart of the sprawling metropolis. After walking a kilometer or so south along the river, we took a detour west along a tributary. The sky glowed pink and blue behind us as we walked and chatted about ethics, philosophy, and science. On the far edge of a very Western-style neighborhood of upperclass homes, we reached a dead end at the edge of an impassable mountain forest. It proved to be a great spot to snap a few pictures before continuing our circuitous journey back to Yatap.

Over the course of several kilometers, we had over an hour to fill the time with conversation between stopping for random photo opportunities. After a discussion about the potential for the indefinite extension of human life, I posed the question Why do people reject the things that science tells us? We both agreed that those who refuse to accept the findings that the scientific communities have made are simply too uncomfortable with the idea that their previously held beliefs were in fact wrong.

That of course begs the question What’s so wrong with being wrong?

We all know the feeling of being wrong. It feels exactly the same as being right. We are ignorant of our ignorance, and we are able to live our lives without a second thought. That is, of course, until we find out that we are wrong. At that moment, we begin to feel anxious and afraid. Something is out of place. The pieces of the puzzle that our mind had put together suddenly no longer fit, and it’s not entirely clear how they must now be relaid. The bigger our misconception, the more uncomfortable the feeling. Particularly when science challenges religious dogma, this feeling can be overwhelming. When the entire fabric of the world, the genesis and conclusion of everything we know, become imperiled, the reaction is to fight back and return things to the way they were. What evolutionary advantage this feeling may have had, I will not speculate, but it is certainly innate within almost all of us. For some, it is so strong that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they will stand by their convictions, assured that the rest of the world is mistaken.

Though we feel incredibly uncomfortable in these moments, that in itself does not morally incriminate the state of being wrong. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

Recognizing the fallacy in our assumptions and our beliefs is the grandest opportunity of all to take part in a process that defines and separates, improves and empowers our species: learning. When our ancestors began to plan, think ahead, and think abstractly, it began to separate itself from the rest of the animal kingdom. The development of a new type of cognitive function opened the door for innovation, engineering, and most importantly, education. No longer were the advances of our species limited to their creator, they could be passed laterally to all of their peers. Over our long history, we have reached a point at which we need not solve the vast majority of our problems on our own. Our understanding of concepts and ideas can come from our contemporaries and our predecessors. This process is not without mistakes. Untruth can be passed just as easily as truth, and discerning the difference is often difficult. However, we are a species that is constantly evolving and improving. The evolution of our knowledge now far outpaces the evolution of our genes. This means that we can grow and develop ourselves at a rate no species has ever been able to. To waste this ability is a tragedy.

Benjamin Franklin once wrote that “being ignorant is not so much a shame as being unwilling to learn.”

When we returned to my apartment after watching the new film Martian, T’ew started to press me on my growing conviction against eating meat. I am still internally debating the ethical issue of consuming the flesh of another animal, but the environmental argument for a plant-based diet is obvious and defensible. Pound for pound, raising livestock produces vastly more greenhouse gas than growing crops for human consumption. For me to lobby for the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and insist that others take steps to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint while supporting an industry that produces nearly 20% of the global greenhouse gases that are raising the average surface temperature of our planet would be the epitome of hypocrisy.

T’ew challenged nearly every one of my assumptions and beliefs about this new way of living, even stating the futility and insignificance of my actions. He made me defend my position with arguments I had not considered, describe perspectives I had not seen, and evaluate premises I had taken for granted. To hear him challenging my view of the world was uncomfortable. It raised my heart rate and put me on edge. The challenge was, however, gladly welcomed. It is through this process of critical examination that I can discern if what I believe is an untruth either developed erroneously or accepted irrationally. He exposed gaps in my knowledge and faulty assumptions I hold about the world. Imagine if I continued through life without this experience. How would I continue to justify my deprivation of bacon, hamburger, and sushi? How long would my conviction of these principles hold? How soon would I relapse into hypocrisy? How easily might I abandon my new life goals altogether?

In taking the most basic of our beliefs and pulling them apart, we can examine them in fine detail to scrutinize their every fault. However, unlike the blemishes that become painfully obvious in the high definition image of my face, we can quickly correct our misunderstandings. In doing so we may grow and advance ourselves and our species. In overcoming the fear and discomfort that comes with realizing our ignorance, we become stronger and more capable of facing the challenges that this world continues to present us.

I want to be proven wrong. I want to figure out that I had things mixed up. I want to know that my image of the world was false because I want to learn.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

How did I get here?

My 11am class didn’t show up again. It happens fairly regularly. My one consistent student broke her ankle earlier this week, and the others are on and off. Given that it’s the short week between two holidays, I didn’t expect much. This morning, though, I had one guest. An occasional sit-in student from another class, she hesitantly crept into the empty classroom five minutes after the hour just as I was getting hopeful that I could take off early to make it to the Russian visa office in the city.

Only half prepared to give a lesson, I welcomed her and started the usual small talk. We glossed over the lesson quickly and moved on to the conversation portion of the day. In guiding was was effectively more small talk, I helped her get out her thoughts on the day’s topic of manners and etiquette. Much to my surprise, in response to a question about the transformation of manners, she told me that she thought people were becoming more polite. Growing up in a society in which complaints of rude and undisciplined youth are incessant, I had expected the opposite answer. However, she made a good point that the older generations grew up in rural areas where etiquette and decorum were unimportant while kids now grow up in huge cities like Seoul where they now have to figure out how to live alongside each other. She actually used my own hypothesis (refer to my synopsis of China) to show my initial misconception when applied to the rapidly developed countries of East Asia. She seemed to revere the ingrained politeness of Western culture, so I naturally asked if she would like to work or live abroad someday. She immediately shook her head in embarrassment.

“Why not?” I asked.

“My English is not good,” she insisted.

“Ok, let’s say that you graduated from this program, you were certified at a C2 fluency, and you felt comfortable speaking English all the time. Would you go abroad?”

“No.”

“You like it in Korea?”

She shrugged. “It’s ok.”

“Where do you think it would be better?”

“I don’t know. It’s ok in Korea.”

“Why don’t you want to go abroad?” I asked, now perplexed by her contradictions.

“I don’t like when things to be changed,” she stumbled out.

“You don’t like change?” I corrected.

“Yes. I just do the same thing. Every day. That’s my life.”

“That’s your life? That sounds like death!”

“Death?! Oh no!” She laughed, starting to blush. “You like change?”

“Yes. Absolutely”

“Don’t you miss your home? Your friends?”

I paused, thinking of my positive mood, lack of anxiety, and the excitement that I have found in my small adventures.

“Yes.” I answered. “But staying there wouldn’t be worth all of the incredible, amazing
experiences I’ve had since I left. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”


That is a true statement. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. This was my first attempt at casting off the moorings of my old life, and I have made landfall in the most exotic of places. All things must end though, and I do not fear those endings. They are only transitions to new beginnings.

Leaving my old life in 2014 was probably the hardest thing I ever did, but it has opened me to a new world of possibilities, and I am eternally grateful that my partner and I both had the strength to do what needed to be done. When that door opened, this new life became visible. The far side was distant and the space between clouded, but I could see that it was good. It held wishes for a future that was impossible on the other side of that door. It may be true that the grass is always greener on the other side, and the pastures I saw were full of the sweet long grass that my hungry spirit longed for.

My new direction shared little in the way of its secrets for the future, but I was certain that I would seek them in whatever corner of the globe I could reach. The choice of South Korea was one of pure rationality. Teaching English was the most viable way to leave the comfort of my home country, and South Korea offered the most lucrative jobs for my experience level. In seeking this new life abroad I had three goals: pay off my school debt, experience living abroad, and determine a new path for my life.

I am proud to state that I have accomplished all of those goals.

On a cool Sunday evening in early September, I stood hunched over my computer, shoved between the potted plants on the stairway window sill. Taking advantage of the building’s wifi that doesn’t quite reach my room, I searched excitedly for train schedules, ferries, and hostels. Flipping between pages of university advertisements and transportation options, I totaled the cost of each leg of my proposed route. With each new interesting course of study, I added a leg to the journey. This being the last in a long string of nights of this type of research, I finally reached the point at which I was satisfied that I had located all of the stops I intended to make. The route was set and the costs tallied, and now I needed to know if it was was possible. Sifting through my bank accounts and hidden pockets of money, I totaled my net worth. In a spreadsheet, I compiled all of this information: destinations, transportation, lodging, visas, penalties, and the sum of all my current holdings and incomes. In a clearly marked cell, I wrote the formula to find the difference between my current debts, coming expenses, and available funds. If negative, the numbers would turn red, and I would start figuring out how to save the rest of the money. If black, my life would change immediately.

When I hit enter, the numbers stayed black.

I stood back and stared at the screen in awe. It’s positive.

For several months, I had struggled with the weight of a profession I now know I am in now way intended for. In a matter of months, my future plans which had once stretched for the better part of a decade in which I would bounce around Asia teaching English or sojourn in Australia to work the fruit farms had deteriorated into a race to get my life back on track as soon as possible.

It was earlier this summer that a completely rational and reasonable idea overcame me. In my haste to flee my old life, I had overlooked an entire region of the pasture that laid on the other side of my proverbial door. In pushing science and engineering to the back of my considerations for building a future, I confined myself to wandering incoherence as I tried to pin down potential careers for which I was wholly unqualified. It was on a fateful day of daydreaming about a future beyond the sweltering heat of this Korean summer and pervasive anxiety from entering another classroom full of screaming demon spawn that the veil was lifted. Like the myth of the shaman who revealed to the Native Americans the Spanish ships on the horizon, a chance reading of the name of a potential graduate program opened my eyes to a field I had never considered. Now it seems so painfully obvious that I can hardly imagine my life before this revelation. Today, any of the fields I had tossed around over the preceding year seem frivolous and petty in comparison.

One day in mid-summer, T’ew and I sat lethargically at a back alley cafe on the south side of the city. Neither of us had plans, so the sipping at the melting ice of our coffees continued with deep conversation about futures and philosophical struggles. He had recently returned from a jaunt in Northern Europe during which he felt his first real desire for a place of more permanent resettlement. It challenged his moral compass in that such a life would mean modern comforts and European privilege. It weighed on him that so many of his countrymen remained in poverty, under threat of disease and natural disaster, and that he had the opportunity to escape all of it. I shared this kind of guilt, knowing that the life I have lived was only possible because of the good fortune of my birth: a stable home, responsible parents, a solid education. Most Americans do not have the combination of good luck that I had when I was born. Though I felt this, I spoke not for myself when I reassured him that he should not feel guilty for trying to better his life. He should do so by all means and take solace in the fact that his work will benefit those whom he has left behind. We whom have been graced with this good fortune ought to use it to its fullest for the betterment of ourselves and the world.

Even at the time of stating it, I was blind to the ways in which I was limiting myself. With a degree in engineering, I was looking for ways to build a life as a political scientist, journalist, or hapless nomad. It was only on a fateful day of perusing fanciful future courses of study that I became aware of my ignorance. The title of the program was International Environmental Engineering. In most instances, I would have scrolled right past anything with “engineering” in it, but this one was buried deep in a list of international policy and sociology programs. I read it only seconds before putting away my phone to get on the train. As I stood in the gently swaying car, the beats of my headphones silencing the sounds of the other passengers, the idea twisted and weaved through my mind. Why had I run so vehemently from engineering? I love science. I love creating. I dream of doing something that will impact the world. What could be more perfect?

When I got to a place where I could open my computer, I started looking, and what I found excited me more than anything I had glossed over in all my months of searching. Piles of educational and career opportunities were open to me, and they all sat square in the middle of the three traits I think any appropriate career should have: passion, ability, and salary. The fields of environmental or energy technology engineering both cut at the heart of solving our climate crisis, an issue over which I become lividly impassioned when I hear doubters spew their ignorant rhetoric. My past education has laid the foundation for understanding the systems and technologies that those in these fields have used, currently use, and are still developing. Life is not cheap, but careers in engineering continue to be some of the most dependably lucrative in the world.

It had become clear that I was now headed back on the path of engineering, and one more objective became struck through in the mark of accomplishment.

Standing in the stairwell, staring at the single number on my computer screen, I felt an impending excitement welling inside me. I forced it below as I touched the keypad again and revisited the numbers. They were all correct. My brain jumped through the logical hoops in an instant. I have now lived abroad for over six months. CHECK. I have determined unequivocally that I will pursue a career in sustainable development. CHECK. I have now confirmed that all of my debts can be paid. CHECK.

I am leaving Korea.

What’s the point?

Atop the 16th floor of this apartment building in Gangnam, with my feet dangling from the edge, I still feel secure. The solid faces of the office buildings that rise even higher than my lofty perch shield me like the firm reassurance of the wall beside a warm bed. It’s the feeling that nothing can sneak up behind me. It’s a comforting warmth like the rays of the sun that have begun to peek over the rooftops. Grey and green and brown, these quiet giants stand sentinel against the fantastical pursuers of imagination. Despite their comfort, though, my heart does not fully rest. A sour anxiety digs deep into my gut when I face my greatest challenge: myself. I am the only thing that stands between life and death in this precarious position of extreme potential. Below the untied laces of my shoes, I see solid pavement, sixteen stories down. The fall would take under four seconds. By the time my helpless body began to flatten in contact with the hard ground, the distance would be closing at the speed of a car on the freeway. The laws of physics hold me safely on this stationary ledge, but they could just as easily carry me to the end of my conscious experience if I so stupidly shifted my weight beyond the threshold of security. Even more frightening than the possibility of the fall or even its proximity is the absurd fact that I feel the urge to send my body into this fatal free fall. Fighting this urge takes a conscious effort to resist the temptation to place my hands on the cold, dirty metal ledge, lean forward, and push.

This is not a post about jumping off buildings, suicide, or even about physics. This is about feeling. I’ve taken pictures from rooftops of skylines, of the sky, and of the ground directly below. None of them remotely captures the sensation described above. If I have done what I aimed to do, many of you currently feel the anxiety I felt while sitting on the roof this morning. Recently I have lost sight of why I write, why I photograph, and why I try to capture the moments of my life. It has nothing to do with showing off the exotic locations I have been so privy to visit or telling impressive tales of adventure. It’s about sharing this human experience. It’s about telling the part of the story that I have to share. It’s about uncovering parts of the world that intrigue, impel, and inspire both others and myself.

I noticed recently that my photographs were severely lacking in comparison to some of my earlier work. This became extremely noticeable in review of the hundreds of photos I took over the border into North Korea. I deleted almost all of them. I had this pressing sensation that what I was looking at was so incredibly important and meaningful that I must capture it on my own personal SD card despite the fact that I could not actually pick out any feature or shape in my frame that remotely represented what that importance. Recognizing the limitation of my lens’ zoom, I snapped hundreds of photos in RAW format, hoping that a few would be focused enough to digitally zoom later. It was futile. All I got were a mass of data that overloaded my computer’s processor and a series of grainy images of a North Korean town 10 kilometers away. What inspiring story was I telling with those shots?

None.

Inside the Joint Security Area (JSA – where North and South Korean officials meet on the rare occasion that they do), I snapped dozens of photos of the North Korean buildings and South Korean guards inside the meeting room. I kept taking the exact same shot because I had nothing else to shoot. I didn’t have my camera directed there because I saw something particularly meaningful, but because I couldn’t turn it anywhere else. When I attempted to take pictures I actually thought might intrigue those who could not join such a tour, I got reprimanded by the American soldier who was supervising our tour group. Instead of powerful images, I ended up with a hundred photographs that look exactly like the ones you’ll find if you just Google “JSA,” so what part of the story was I able to share that others have not already told?

None.

Indeed, now that I look back on my experience, I may have been better served simply leaving the camera at home. I could have snapped a few shots with my phone for the sake of helping me remember, but that’s not why I spent the better part of my savings on a new camera. I bought that camera to capture moments of my life in such a way that others could share in those experiences.

William Howard Taft is quoted as saying, “Do not write so that you can be understood. Write so that you cannot be misunderstood.” This sentiment applies to all forms of self-expression. Whether through writing, photography, speech, music or otherwise, our goal should always be to clearly and accurately pass what we know, think, and feel to the rest of the world. Simply snapping away at whatever puts itself before our lens or mechanically describing the events of our past is not sharing our story. To truly uncover something about the world, to make sense of it; and to feel it, we must use these incredible minds that nature has designed for us to capture to quintessence of life.

Tell ’em how you really feel

It’s been a long few weeks full of big decisions and not much creative production for me. After a week with my parents, much of the time with my camera in hand (as evinced by my growing Facebook photo album), the muse is knocking. Here’s a bit I wrote for the Reach to Teach blog. I fear that many of those posts have been truthful but not entirely genuine. Here’s my first that I can really buy, and it may be one of the last. More on that later…

The Art of Questioning

Human beings are naturally curious. Many of us have had that curiosity beaten out of us by years of rote memorization and acceptance of stated facts, but education does not need to be this way. Indeed, it should be quite the opposite.