There was a day last Summer when I understood what it means to have biological limitations.
I was on a road trip across the US with a couple of good friends, and we were pulling into New Orleans after spending the night driving thirteen hours from Ft. Myers, Florida, which was our previous stop on the trip.
I remember that morning clearly because the sun was coming up along the horizon, bringing with it beautiful blues, pinks, and oranges. As I counted the colors in the sky, I was struggling, focusing all of my energy, willpower, and mental strength so as not to falling asleep, crashing the car and killing everyone inside it.
I was exhausted in a bad way. Even with the all-nighters I pulled in college, I couldn’t remember ever feeling so tired that, despite the fact that I held the lives of three people in my hands (which were carefully positioned at ten and two on the steering wheel), my eyelids continued to drift downward, tugged heavily by the increased gravity of adenosine and melatonin.
This is the kind of limitation that can be fought, but not completely beaten (yet!). I managed to get us to our destination, but as soon as we arrived, I crashed and didn’t wake up until much later that day.
The thing about biological limitations is that there can be value in fighting them, even if they exist for a reason. It’s smart to get sufficient sleep, but that doesn’t mean you should sleep while driving.
A good friend of mine from Iceland described her own combat against the biological limitations of certain emotions (jealousy, for example) as floating on, rather than swimming through, the flood of hormones and instinctual reactions. In this way she can be aware of the emotion, but isn’t forced to deal with the consequences of acting upon it irrationally. Any response to it can be logic-driven, if a response is even warranted.
I make use of a similar tactic when it comes to certain emotions, especially those related to missing the people and places that I’ve been. Because of the lifestyle I lead, I’m always leaving someone or something I care about behind, and if I were to let that absence overwhelm me, that longing for the company of these good friends or the familiar habits of a place I’ve come to think of as ‘home,’ then I wouldn’t be able to meet new friends and plant roots in new homes. My life would be one of regret, rather than one of happiness punctuated by positive change.
But it’s an imperfect system at the best of times, and because of this I’ve had to augment my strategy a bit. I have also come to realize that allowing myself to feel these emotions as fully as possible has a practical application, so long as my mourning period is structured.
The balance that I’ve found works best for me is to give myself a short period of time during which I can miss the hell out of the people and places I’m leaving and then move on. I let the emotions wash over me and take what creative insight I’m able to draw from them, and then stop, still aware of them, but rationally remembering that ‘goodbyes’ are simply ‘see you laters,’ not absolute, permanent farewells.
The time I give myself to fully experience these emotions is the time I spend in transit: on buses and planes, mostly.
For example, I’ve just arrived back in Columbia, Missouri to visit my family, and I spent about eight hours on a plane to Chicago, followed by eight more on a bus to Columbia (with a handful of hours camped out on a friends’ couch in between).
That period of 21 hours sucked. Bad. I wallowed in the realization of what I was leaving behind and the sadness that came with it the whole time, making myself nearly sick to my stomach with regret and longing.
When I arrived home, I felt great.
The friends I made in Iceland are still friends, and if we’re not able to see each other every day, that just means we’ll have more stories to tell and more layers to discover in each other the next time we are able to meet up. Reykjavík, my home for four months, will still be there the next time I want to visit, and the changes that occur in between will allow me to be a visitor again the next time I arrive, allowing me to discover it once more.
During my transit time, I was also able to write three short stories, illustrate a half-dozen t-shirts, and come up with a few new ideas for projects I’m working on. It’s amazing what being overwhelmed by even negative emotions can do for your creative drive (if used in moderation and channeled correctly).
The act of travel has become my buffer in dealing with the downsides of full-time travel.
Instead of cutting out the tough parts completely, I’m using the whole buffalo, enjoying the good, learning from the bad, and embracing the emotional in order to make sure I emerge from the experience a wiser, rounder person than I was when I entered it.
Everyone deals with this kind of biological limitation differently, but what’s important at the end of the day is that you take away as much as possible from it, and are able to stave it off when you need to, long enough to make it to your next port in the storm.
Update: February 10, 2017
I was definitely gutted after leaving Iceland, because of the many friends I made there, but also because I had started dating a girl the last month I was in Reykjavík, only to accidentally have things go really well. Which is a strange thing to say, but we were both intending to leave it as kind of a fun fling, only to find we were both wanting things to go longer, afterward.
Thankfully, we managed to make it work, staying in touch and deciding that she would come live with me a month or so into my next location, India. We continued dating off and on for years, and are still good friends.