Oh, the Places You'll Go...One Day
I have three fears. One is common, one is vain, and one is biological.
That last one has become increasingly apparent as I ponder how to maximize my 401(k) contribution while scrolling through native advertisements for knee braces. The fear hummed even louder when I read a passage from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden:
Every man has a retirement picture in which he does those things he never had time to do—makes the journeys, reads the neglected books he always pretended to have read. For many years the sheriff dreamed of spending the shining time hunting and fishing—wandering the Santa Lucia range, camping by half-remembered streams. And now that it was almost time he knew he didn’t want to do it. Sleeping on the ground would make his leg ache. He remembered how heavy a deer is and how hard it is to carry the dangling limp body from the place of the kill. And, frankly, he didn’t care for venison anyway.
Ultimately, my fear is that, someday, my biology will fail me such that I cannot walk as easily as I do now. To me, that means I will have failed as a biped and should be removed from humanity. I just went through the airport on Wednesday afternoon and the security line looked like a wheel-chair parking lot. I never want to get to that point of being a burden on others because I can’t do the thing my species evolved specifically to do.
I can walk just fine now, but, as Steinbeck's Sheriff Quinn points out, there is this idea that I should save some good walks for later. It’s why I have the 401(k): so that I will have money for those walks, those trips, later on in life. I get plenty of leave through work, but I always tell myself to wait for the big trip, accumulating time I may never use.
It's not just me, though. It’s a cultural thing—many people around me do the same. “I’m going to Costa Rica next year with this banked leave, it’ll be great,” they say. Then they don’t go. Between banking vacation days and the constant reminders to plan for retirement, the mentality of delayed gratification almost borders on self-denial.
I am an expert in this field, in pretty much every way.
I end up rationalizing myself out of going somewhere or buying something that, at a certain moment, I wanted. I tell myself I don’t need it, then later say I never really wanted it. The more I've thought about this lately—especially as I also ponder the aforementioned biological fear—the more ridiculous it seems. In a way, I'm dealing with my mortality for the first time, though not the ultimate mortality of death.
No, at the age of 26, I'm discovering the mortality of a moment.
The places that I want to go today are just that—places I want to go today. Sure, I expect the Musée Rodin to still be in Paris when I visit again, even if I’m 65, but my interest in going is conditioned by what I feel now. If I wind up not going, will it be because I couldn't find a reasonably priced flight? Or will it be because I twiddled my thumbs for too long and lost the feeling that drove me to want to make the trip in the first place? And if I feel that way about Paris—a place I know without a doubt that I will visit again—what about the places I've never been? Will I ever go to Tangiers? Or New Zealand?
I tell myself I can wait, that I have nothing but time, but the reality is that the moment has a life of its own. And putting these moments off assumes that I will have the faculties and the freedom to make these journeys later on. Any number of things—a bum knee, the presence of another person in my life (or the lack thereof), etc.—could change that.
This feeling of adulthood and responsibility and, yes, mortality, has crystallized this past year. Hell, I purchased health coverage for the first time in 2016. I thank you sincerely, President Obama, not just because you had the wherewithal to make sure this nation joined all the other developed nations that ensure a national healthcare system, but because you’ve made me realize the importance of my choices more acutely. I have to take steps now not only to ensure that I can walk when I am 65, but also to treat the moments I encounter today with the greatest care.
That idea of choice is present throughout East of Eden, especially when it comes to the words spoken by God to Cain in the Bible—and how those words are translated by different sources. In one version, the idea of timshel is a guarantee, God telling Cain that "thou shalt" conquer sin. In another, it goes even farther; God orders Cain to rule over sin. But Adam Trask's servant Lee uncovers the original Hebrew meaning of timshel: "thou mayest."
Of course, if thou mayest, then the possibility also exists that thou mayest not—but we have the choice. I may choose what I do with these moments. And nothing is more human, more adult, than having a choice in the exercise of mortality. Somehow, I find liberation and comfort in this.
Happy birthday to me.