Hey, Death! F You!

91-year old Norma was faced with surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation to *hopefully* cure her uterine mass. Instead, she chose to live her last days on an incredible adventure, traveling around the country with her adult kids and dog in an RV. What a badass, right?

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Where's your desperation?

“In my life right now, I’m eighty. There is so much left to do. So I would like to go back and give myself a bit longer, but as it is, I don’t know how long I have to live, but certainly it is that every year takes me closer to the end, whenever that end is. And so there is this feeling of desperation - there’s so many places I want to go, so many people I want to talk to, and so many hearts I want to reach.”

— Jane Goodall, Human documentary

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Imagine you have zero responsibilities...

Recently a friend and I were sitting at a cafe when someone walked by, apparently talking to himself. I looked over to her with wide eyes and high brows like, “Yikes.” She said, without a hint of sarcasm, “Let’s assume he’s got a bluetooth in his other ear.” That struck me; I realized it’s a really powerful thing to give people the benefit of the doubt.

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My brain-eating amoeba

For the past week I’ve been convinced that I’m about to die as a result of a brain-eating amoeba with a 99% fatality rate.

See, if you contract this amoeba, you end up with meningitis, and there are only about three cases of people surviving this thing. Ever. The amoeba lives in warm water and gets into your brain through your nose. My sister and I did this epic two-day trek in New Zealand and at the top of the trek, there were these super hot geothermal pools. It felt incredible to soak in the water after a day of uphill hiking, and it felt like the natural waters were melting away the tension in my muscles. Soaking flat on our bellies in less then twelve inches of water, we rooted down in the silt to immerse our bodies in the shallow water. It was pitch black out and near freezing, and all we could see through the beam of the flashlight were the thick, wafting, spirit-like sheets of steam in the night sky. We closed our eyes and breathed it in. 

 The geothermal pool by day

The geothermal pool by day

Anyway, since then I’ve been about to die. The Department of Conservation warning sign outside of the pool said not to dunk your head under water to avoid contracting the amoebic meningitis. And I didn’t. But the next day I started feeling a sore throat, and a headache, and possibly a tingling in the top of my spine, and was that also a frontal lobe headache? I worried that I contracted it when I may have scratched my nose and that’s how I was going to die, from a nose scratch. Apparently the only way you can contract it is if the infected water is insufflated (good word) deep into your nasal passages where the amoeba can attach itself to your olfactory nerves in your brain, and start having dinner up there on your brain I guess and no more than eighteen days later, you’re dead, with doctors having less than a 1% chance of saving you. 

I don’t know why I was being such a ridiculous hypochondriac about this. But that’s not the point. What I want to tell you about is how this (imaginary) brush with death affected me. 

When I read the list of symptoms and identified with the majority of them, the realization that I could have this deadly disease hit me. I could die in less than eighteen days, I thought. I looked up from my Google search results.  

“I cannot die. I’m not finished with my book.”

Just like that, in the face of death I found clarity. And it was that one thought that helped me realize that this book, You Might Die Tomorrow, is part of my life’s work. See, I believe that thinking about death, or the possibility of dying, or remembering that life is short or whatever you want to call it, strips away everything to reveal what is truly important in one’s life. There’s something about being faced with one’s own mortality which provides perspective like few other things can. In a life or death situation your brain quiets and your intuition screams out. Steve Jobs said, “Remembering I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death.”

steve-jobs-on-death

Last week when I was convinced I had only a few days left to live as a result of amoebic meningitis, every day that I woke up I was thrilled. I had made it another day. My coffee tasted more delicious. I worried less about money. I bought less stuff. I had another piece of chocolate. Traveling with my sister, I realized I would be content to die doing something so special and meaningful. But most importantly, I realized I’ve got to finish this book. Even in my imaginary near-death experience, my lessons were life-changing. 

I’m still not in the clear from my hopefully imaginary disease. It can take up to fifteen days for the serious symptoms to present. I’ve realized I’m most likely just getting a cold, but I wouldn’t trade my imaginary brain-eating amoeba for anything. In the face of a fatal disease - imaginary or not - I found out what’s truly important to me. 

 Me trekking back down the track, simultaneously contemplating the pain in my back and purpose in life.

Me trekking back down the track, simultaneously contemplating the pain in my back and purpose in life.

Reasons I'm Traveling the World

 

I've recently embarked on a round the world trip - my Soul Vacation, as I call it. Here's why I'm quitting my job and leaving everything to go explore a bunch of places I've never been to.

kate-the-great-rtw

 

To Break the Habit of Buying Stuff I Don’t Need

I’ve gotten into the habit of, ‘I like it, I buy it.’ I even stopped paying attention to prices, which led to the fateful day in which I got home and realized I had purchased tortillas at Whole Foods for $9.99. Tortillas. For ten dollars. On the road, I’m forced to schlep everything I’ve got on my back, so I only buy things I really, really like and for which I’m willing to potentially get a backache. But it’s bigger than the backache: I’m conditioning myself to spend my money on experiences instead of things. That’s the stuff I’ll gladly schlep with me everywhere until I die.

 

To Learn New Things

To learn that people are mostly good. To give surfing a try. To do stuff I’ve never done that puts me outside my comfort zone. The collective experiences will either age the shit out of me or keep me forever young. Either way, I get to keep ‘em forever. I’ll gamble.

 

To Be Young Before I Look Old

I’m turning thirty-one in a month, guys. Lucky for me, people usually estimate 27...but that ain’t going to last forever. I've spoken with more than one older-than-I traveler who said it's lonely on the road for them, because they are often avoided by wary and likely immature young fellow travelers, and found it difficult to make friends.  I like to think I can still pass as one of the ‘them’ in a group of drunk 25-year olds for a night just enough so they treat me as one of their own. Most of all, I don’t want to waste my youth and put off for my retirement what I want to do now.

 

To Fall in Love

What would a round the world journey be without a few broken hearts along the way? Falling in love is crazy fun, and I intend to feel heartbreak more than once when I have to push off for the next city and leave someone awesome behind.

 

To Be Alone

The other night I walked by a bar with a super fun live band playing and people dancing. So I went in, and after a few minutes of awkward internal debate, I started dancing. By myself. And I had the best freaking time.

Doing something solo is a huge confidence booster for me. It reminds me that I like me, and I’m a badass. It’s not easy, but it’s absolutely worth it. Want to give it a try? I believe there are three levels to solo dining badassery:

Level one: sit in the back and bury your face in your phone. It’s okay - this is your first time and you’ve got to ease into it. Level two: dine al fresco on the front patio, but bring a book and be fabulous. Level three - and this one isn’t for the weak, but will pay confidence dividends: Dine al fresco on the front patio, solo - no book, no touching your phone - just watching the world go by. Good posture is a key piece of the badass energy you’ll be projecting, so no slouching. Now go take over the world.

 

To Learn About People

And improve my empathy and understanding in the process. I’m one of the first generations to grow up in the Information Age and the 24-hour news cycle. Images, videos, news - they’re everywhere All. The. Time. I’m afraid I’ve become desensitized to the stuff I see on TV. I’m desperate for the real world. So I’m going out to see it for myself. I believe that people with difficulties appreciate sympathy but really value understanding. They want to be treated as people. So instead of eating everything on my plate to save the starving children of Africa (mom), I’m going to go say what up to people who have less and live differently than I do, and get to know them and their story.

 

To Do the Thing Now I’ll Regret Forever If I Don’t

You might die tomorrow. You never know. I had it in my head that I’d travel around the world when I retire. But what if I don’t make it? I decided to take control of my life, align with what I feel in my soul, and do this thing now that I’d regret forever if I didn’t. It feels incredible.

 

What’s the thing you’ll regret if you don’t do? Do that thing.

 

 

 

So I guess I'm going to Bhutan.

UPDATE OCTOBER 2016: It turns out all tourism in Bhutan is controlled through the government, and they charge a flat fee of $200/day to visit, which is double my travel budget. As a result, if you'd like to support my research mission, I would be incredibly grateful if you donated to help me pay for this trip. Help me pay for my research trip to Bhutan! Paypal or Venmo manser.k@gmail.com.

 

You might have read the BBC News article, Bhutan's Dark Secret to Happiness, in which the author discusses the Bhutanese custom to think about death five times a day. The article was of course fascinating, but for me, also gratifying: to learn that an entire culture uses death as a tool to appreciate life was another notch in my theory-proving belt. 

So I guess I'm going to Bhutan. 

Look, my main goal isn't to get people to think about death. My mission is to empower people to take control of their life, shed fear and inhibitions, gain clarity on what is important to themselves, and develop an incredible zest for life.  Whether that happens through the awareness of life's fragility or through some other means, I don't care. But I do believe that having a healthy awareness of one's mortality is a valuable tool to find that clarity and appreciate life. 

Back to the Bhutanese. I'm still researching about their 'think about death five times a day' custom - where it came from, what it's rooted in, what they get from it - but my understanding is that awareness of death is deeply rooted in their culture. I can get down on some solid research in the library - which I will - but why not just go there? This guy in the article confessed to a Bhutanese man while he was there about the panic attacks he'd been suffering. His advice was simple:

You need to think about death for five minutes every day,” Ura replied. “It will cure you. It is this thing, this fear of death, this fear of dying before we have accomplished what we want or seen our children grow. This is what is troubling you.”

Fear is paralyzing. Yeah, yeah: flight or fight, I know. But in my experience, fear and uncertainty give me decision paralysis. I don't know what to do, so I do nothing, and let my life happen to me. Well, death is certain. We all have that in common. So I believe that if some of the fear around death is alleviated, we're more likely to take control of our lives and appreciate being in it. 

birds-helmet-gonna-die

 


This custom of thinking of death isn't the only reason I'm going to Bhutan. This is also a country that came to the table at the UN General Assembly with a proposal to add GNH - General National Happiness - as an country's measurement, in addition to GDP. And it passed. In July 2011, the UN General Assembly passed, without dissent, a Bhutanese-initiated resolution recognizing the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental human goal and noting that this goal is not reflected in GDP. 


Bhutan has a Gross National Happiness Commission, chaired by the prime minister, which screens all new policy proposals put forward by government ministries. If a policy is found to be contrary to the goal of promoting gross national happiness, it is sent back to the ministry for reconsideration. Without the Commission's approval, it cannot go ahead (Singer, ABC News). 

bhutan-gnh-un



The country that thinks about death five times a day is also on a crusade to measure and improve happiness around the world. Unexpected? Not for me. But I'm going to find out more. See you soon, Bhutan.

Living your dream feels like...

I’m on a transpacific jet hurtling from reality to dream. In just a few months I’ve dismantled a perfectly lovely life in favor of a feeling that there is something better for me. Something I’ve got to do. 

 My bright and cheery apartment pre-move out.

My bright and cheery apartment pre-move out.

 

I’ve now closed the door to my downtown Austin apartment, toasted goodbye to my Austin friends, and hugged my family and puppy for the last time for awhile. On one of my final days in town, I walked through the now-vacant apartment that used to be mine and thought about where I started when I rented it. The apartment is all white - floors, walls, ceiling - exactly how I felt when I rented it: a blank page ready for a new story. My story over the past year and a half has been exciting, and unexpected, and pivotal. I found myself with a broken heart at one point, I hosted fabulous parties for dear friends, I sewed myself deeper into the fabric of Austin through volunteer work and leadership, I lost a role model to tragedy, and I was exposed to the idea of living life differently. If you’re looking for a recipe for Big Change, that one proved effective for me. 

 

Over this past year, I contemplated my fragile existence a lot. You could die tomorrow, I thought. I surveyed my life and imagined how I’d feel at the end, looking back. I wanted more. I want to live. I want to die free from regret. 

 

For me, embarking on this Big Trip and sharing my perspective via this blog fulfils that right now. So I made a plan of action, and followed it step by step: Arrange finances (AKA don't buy shit). Move out of apartment. Sell car. Book a one-way ticket. 

sunrise

 

As I closed the door on that empty white apartment, I was struck with this odd feeling that, cognitively, I know I have taken all these steps to make this dream happen…but in practice it feels so fucking surreal. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that when you are living your dream it feels like, well, a dream. Right? So now the sun is rising over both Australia and my new reality. In a couple of hours I'll touch down into this dreamland and feel it firmly beneath my feet. It’s very, very real, and I am ecstatic.