As a kid, I had a weird habit of skipping school only to end up spending the day in the public library. It was the perfect hiding spot, I knew I wouldn’t get caught by my parents there, I was free to learn about anything I wanted and, of course, no one would suspect a thing. I took this time to explore unconventional topics that interested me more than say, Christopher Columbus’ travel adventures or Pocahontas’ dating life. Instead I would read up on the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, or even visitors from another world. I was very curious and took this as opportunity to try and make connections that, I believed, others could not see. A belief I still possess to this day, even with much evidence to the contrary.
I was fascinated with the library. In my mind, if the book was in the library, I could trust it. Surely it must have passed through some very stringent process which would have filtered out mere opinion or rumor. This was a building of facts. With that belief, I challenged myself to think of questions, and to then find the answers there.
If being a teenager wasn’t enough on its own, being “nerdy” and not as tough or manly as the other boys certainly must have contributed to the expedited arrival of the question, What is the meaning of life? I recall sitting there, alone at a big wooden table. Books sprawled out before me, most of them probably from the New Age section, alongside the usual encyclopedias and a dictionary. I remember the frustration of being unable to find an answer. Sure, there were theories and philosophies and tons of mumbo jumbo, but I wanted a sound bite. Something more like what we now call a tweet. Certainly the meaning of life could be simplified?
I narrowed it down myself, searching out instead the very definition of the word “Life.” I can’t tell you specifically where I found my definition, but I can tell you what it was.
life — The collection of experiences between birth and death.
That was good enough for me. From that moment on, I endeavored to collect experiences. I’ve traveled, I’ve married, I’ve divorced, I’ve seen jet engines explode, I’ve been in car accidents, I’ve wiped out in a motorcycle, I’ve flown a plane, I’ve jumped from a plane, I’ve kayaked down an angry river (most impressive since I can’t swim), I’ve seen the sun rise over islands of the Caribbean, and seen it beautifully set behind the Colorado mountains. For the greater part of forty years, I have tried to live.
Throughout that time, however, I have found myself often sad and longing for more. At first I thought it was because I wasn’t making enough money, but then I noticed that many of the people I knew made less than I did and still seemed happier than I. As research for a book I’d decided to write, I starting asking a few questions to people who seemed happy. I asked some, “What’s your greatest accomplishment?” and to others, “If you died and were given the choice between heaven and living again, what would make you give up heaven?”
The answer to both questions, overwhelmingly.. “My family.”
When asked again, with family removed as an option, most could not think of an answer, a few said friends.
This interested and confused me.
For the most part, I am an orphan. My mother and brothers still live, albeit 1,000 miles away, but I have less and less in common with them as the days add up. My brothers use facebook as their conversation medium of choice, and I share the quarterly 5-minute phone call with my mother. I have not seen them in close to fifteen years. The ever-widening chasm between our beliefs and philosophies–religious, educational, cultural, political, etc.–puts me in a position where I’m more likely to have something in common with a complete stranger than with those who were closest to me during my first two decades of life. This saddens me greatly, but I have as much opportunity for remedying this situation as I would in convincing someone in the 1800′s about the positive benefits of owning a fitbit.
Numerous studies, and well as my own informal research, show the many benefits of the tribe. Humans are pack animals, we strongly rely on being around, and close to, others like us. Embarrassment is itself a primitive response. Feeling embarrassed, say for instance when you spill a drink on yourself, is a primal fear that your blunder will make you fall out of favor with your pack, they will then reject you, and you’ll be eaten up by.. I don’t know, a saber-toothed tiger perhaps. We need the pack, there’s safety in numbers.
We’re born into a pack, and for most of us that’s enough to get us through this life. Eventually we marry and reproduce and expand our packs. Some form tribes in college or at work, forming life-long relationships that are intimate and genuine. For some of us, the line between tribe and family is blurred. Your best friend Jimmy is Uncle Jimmy to the kids, perhaps he greets your mother with the hug and kiss of a son. That is the image of happiness, if only to me.
I have neither worked on strengthening my familial ties, nor have I done my diligence when it comes to creating a tribe of my very own. I have made many mistakes and wrongly prioritized money, possessions, and experiences for the sake of experiences. If I could go back in time and reach out to that kid in the library, if I could rewrite the definition of life, explain what it truly means to live, it might go something like..
life — The collection of experiences, both good and bad, shared with family and close friends between birth and death.
I think that might have helped me focus on what really turned out to be the important part of life–the love, support, and involvement of actual human beings. Don’t you agree?