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.