The meaning of life in four simple words.
Recently I had one of those incidents of reflexive karma in which you go to help someone, only to have it come around and help you. It began when I wandered into my college’s bookstore co-op last spring. This is one of my favourite pastimes between classes, usually right before or after picking up a coffee. A book on display jumped out at me.
My son is a pretty good procrastinator and his birthday was coming up, so the book caught my eye. Not suffering particularly from this ailment myself, I bought the book then and there.
Then the Covid lockdown hit and so I ended up having the book longer than expected. Naturally, I started reading it, and I have to say, it’s an excellent book! It presents this complex and deep affliction in clear language and clever illustrations, using Buddhist metaphors and practical exercises to help readers stop procrastinating and start living life to the fullest. One such exercise is to make a Personal Vision Statement.
The authors claim that goal-setting does not work very well in motivating people and avoiding procrastination. That’s because the goal-posts are always moving. What happens when you achieve your goal? There may be a moment of elation, but then . . . what now? Another goal is set, and on it goes. You live in a perpetual state of striving, with very little celebration—not enough to keep you motivated. A better method is to find meaning or purpose to your life. This will fuel your efforts every day, not just at the milestones.
But coming up with a Personal Vision Statement is not easy! Try capturing your idea of The Meaning of Life in a few sentences. The book of course helps with this exercise and suggests a series of drafts. You can find the worksheets here but you’re better off just buying the book. Suffice to say that a good vision statement encapsulates your values. The authors also suggest you think a bit about what your legacy might be and to include what they call Ego 2.0 activities—contributions to others or society, since that’s where we find deeper meaning than in strictly self-serving acts.
Here is my first draft. It’s pretty lame: “Live each day as if it’s my last, but confident that I still have years ahead to experience my dreams. Those dreams are realized in small acts today, just as a marathon is run in thousands of sequential steps. Direct my efforts to giving to others, but don’t forget to give to myself. Enjoy all that the moment offers.”
Like I said, pretty lame. Kind of reads like Desiderata on valium with a dollop of schmaltz on top. There were a few more drafts—something added about listening to the opinion of others but trusting mine—and then, almost as an afterthought, “Keep in mind that life is an adventure not a destination.”
I wrote all this in my journal, and when I recently finished that journal, I flipped back through the pages before putting it away for posterity. This is one of the things I like about journaling: you can see in those pages all you have been thinking and feeling in recent months. And when I came to the section where I was writing those drafts, it came to me—the perfect vision statement: simply, life is an adventure.
The authors say that a personal vision statement need not be long and complex, in fact can be one sentence, but you might be wondering how I could possibly capture the meaning of life in four words. Let me explain.
The first motorcycle tour I took was in 2017. I’d just gotten my full license the year before and, naturally, had to ride The Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia. I scheduled myself 10 days. I packed up my tent and camping gear, an assortment of tools and spare parts, an old car GPS, and lots of peanut butter and pasta. I had a general plan with reservations at a few campgrounds, but between those fixed points was a lot of room for flexibility. The idea was to explore.
Those were the fullest 10 days of my adult life. I remember sometime around Day 6, I texted my wife that I’d be heading home the next day to be there in two days. She said, “Don’t you have another four days planned?” It’s not that she wanted me to stay away longer, she was just genuinely confused; I’d said my trip would be ten days. Now I was confused too. I’d completely lost track of time and was two days ahead of myself.
“Wow, I’ve got an extra two days!” I texted back. Then I thought back to the beginning of the trip, a mere six days earlier. It seemed like weeks ago. My days were so full and yet I was so present in each moment, they were the longest days of my life.
It’s not that it had all been easy and good. On Day 2 the bike wouldn’t start after one of my rest stops, and there was an ugly hour of anxiety trying to figure it out. Later I discovered that the ferry I had planned to take to Deer Island, NB, was permanently closed, leaving me to find another way to get there in the fading light or change my accommodation plans. There was driving rain, and stifling heat, dehydration headaches, a bee up the sleeve, phone charging issues, navigation problems, and an unexpected oil change. Oh yeah and I dropped the bike. Twice.
But there was also crossing the Penboscot Narrows Bridge, take-out fish & chips on the ferry to Deer Island, going down into the Springhill coal mine, off-roading in the Cape Breton interior, the switchbacks of The Cabot Trail, swimming in the North Atlantic Ocean at Port Shoreham Provincial Park, and Peggy’s Cove at dawn. There were the people I met along the way, from the guy who helped me when the bike wouldn’t start, the Quebecois cyclist on his own adventure through Maine, my ex-colleague Guy at Seascape Kayak Tours, Yannick my off-road buddy in Baddeck, and Walter, who wandered over to my campsite and offered me a cold beer after a wicked hot day of riding, not to forget the staff at Adrianne’s Cycle Service in Moncton.
But there is one moment in particular that stands out for me when I think back on that trip. It was at the end of Day 7, just when I was starting to get comfortable and confident with this adventure touring thing. I’d left Baddeck in the morning and ridden over the Seal Island Bridge into Sydney to buy a new phone cord at the Best Buy there. Then I picked up Old Highway 4 that took me along the shoreline and out to Port Hawkesbury and over the causeway, where I turned left onto the 344, the beginning of the spectacular Marine Drive that hugs the Atlantic shoreline.
Sometime in the afternoon, I saw a sign for a provincial park and decided to stop for lunch. It was a sandy beach, and I went for a swim to cool off in the heat. When I returned to the bike, I asked a woman in the parking lot if she knew of a campground nearby. She directed me not only to “the most beautiful campground in Nova Scotia” but also to “the best fish & chips” at a local microbrewery not much further down the highway. So I followed her advice and set up at Boyston Provincial Park, then rode into Guysborough to The Rare Bird pub. I sat out on the terrace that looked out onto the wharf, and as I waited for my dinner to arrive, I enjoyed the amber ale and the sound of a local musician singing and playing a guitar. He was singing Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” and it occurred to me that I was—having the time of my life.
I was in my element, living in the moment and exploring, seeing things I’d never seen before, meeting new people, enjoying my bike, trusting myself, and discovering what life presents me literally around each corner, whether good or bad. I have only experienced this feeling of freedom once before, when I backpacked through Europe for a month in my 20s. Similarly, I was exploring the world, and life was an adventure. If only life could always be like this, I thought.
And it is.