Over a year ago, when my time in Antarctica had concluded, I landed in New Zealand and went for a long walk.
After meandering down from the city of Christchurch on the southern island on the curving roads of the New Zealand countryside, my companion and I spent two days in Bluff, the most southern town in the country. We hiked a trail that took us to the cliff side that overlooked the ocean, facing directly south. We got there just before the sunset and we stood on the edge of that stony outcropping and watched the world turn dark, looking out over the only waters that lay between us and the continent we could no longer refer to as our home.
Two days later, we began hiking the Te Araroa, a trail that runs the length of both the south and north islands of New Zealand. Our initial plan was to take a little over a month to hike the south island.
When you hike with someone else, you spend a lot of time with them. My companion and I walked on the sides of roads with trucks whizzing by us, scampered up rock covered mountain tops, schlepped our packs through the muddy trails of the woods, and navigated our way through sheep and deer pastures in the middle of the countryside. Together, the two of us covered a lot of ground, both literally and emotionally. It was as if we had both been released from our sentencing of four months in Antarctica and traversing the wilds of New Zealand was the most abrupt and powerful way to bring us back to the real world.
Being in Antarctica meant that I had formed close bonds with all of the people around me. Even if I didn’t have access to everyone in the world, there were still dozens of people I was close to while I existed with them on the continent. I think this intense feeling of absence, brought on by not being around my friends anymore, played a large part in bonding me with my companion while in New Zealand. Together, we covered a wide variety of topics in our discussions around the country. We had ample time together, certainly, and most of the time it was just the two of us. Two people, traversing the country with the same goal in mind: Head North.
It sounds like some sort of scenario people would come up with in order to entertain each other: If you had to be isolated in the woods with only one person for an extended period of time, who would it be and what would you talk about?
My companion had indeed been my friend during our four months on the Ice together; however, he wasn’t someone who would have come to mind to answer the above question. Come to think of it, no one really comes to mind. This made it especially interesting to be isolated with him and to have the opportunity to really connect.
It should come as no surprise that, at one point in our time together, we thoroughly covered the topic of the future, and where we both imagined ourselves going. He had his plan and told me all about the jobs he was hoping to pursue, the house he wanted to buy, the girl he wanted to marry, etc.
And I listened. And I hiked. And I found myself waiting for him to say something, but he never did. And so, when he seemed to have reached his conclusion, I asked him:
But when are you going to help people?
He didn’t have an answer.
Having listened the entire time with a curious ear, I was a little perplexed, but I didn’t say anything more, we just kept hiking. This is how it came to be that I scribbled down in my journal one evening: when are we going to help people?
It’s been over a year since I floated around in Kiwi country with my friend, and this sentence has periodically jumped into my mind in the time that has passed since. I think what gets me about it is that it makes sense to me. At some point in a lifetime, doesn’t a person want to help other people? This has to be the thinking of everyone I come across, right?
Nope. And that’s okay. This isn’t how everyone’s brain works. It is; however, how my brain works. This took a little bit of time for me to think on before I came to the conclusion that it is okay if you don’t want to help other people. It’s okay to go about your life and treat people with respect and take care of yourself. It’s okay to buy yourself a house and to live extravagantly, so long as you aren’t hurting anyone. It isn’t a requirement to help other people.
I grew up with parents who had professions in the helping fields. A teacher and a social worker. They met while serving homeless youth in New York City, and they made sure that volunteering was something that my siblings and I were, at least, aware of. Due to their hearts, I was more or less destined to live a life where helping other people would land somewhere on the list between buying a home and getting married. It’s just something that needs to be done at some point.
When being interviewed for some of the volunteer programs that I ended up being involved with in my earlier twenties, I used to answer that I liked to volunteer because I was selfish. And that was the truth. One of the best parts of volunteering was the high that I got off of it, simply because it made me feel so good to be doing meaningful work. Maybe some other people benefited from my existence in a certain place at a certain time, but I was too, and I liked that.
At the end of the day, when everything is said and done, I’m not trying to paint myself into some heroic light. It’s not like there is any rule book for this human existence that says we have to do anything. Other than breathing, taking up space, and dying, I’m pretty sure we’re not obligated to do anything. I just know myself enough at this point to recognize that meaningful days are just about all that keeps me going. Fulfillment is my jam.
Having moved through multiple jobs that I’ve loved and multiple jobs that I…haven’t loved, I’ve been able to pinpoint the deciding factor for each one in terms of whether I like them or not: Fulfillment. Either I felt like what I was doing mattered at the end of each shift or I didn’t. And that was that. Nothing else was a deciding factor, not location or climate or even the amount of pay. Fulfillment was it.
So, when are we going to help people? That’s the question, yeah? I find myself asking it frequently, constantly keeping myself on my toes because I want to make sure I’m putting my existence to good use. This summer, I’ve felt kind of bound up in my place of work. Things have been fine, but I’ve been lacking fulfillment (there’s that word again) in the job that I do 35 hours a week. My existence has been enhanced by some of the smaller side projects that I’ve created for myself that have left me linked to the refugee crisis in Greece, but the monster that keeps me employed and drops money into my bank account falls short in the fulfillment category.
And that’s why I’m heading back to Greece, and back onto the refugee trail. I always find myself a little extra motivated to kickstart some excitement in my life after I’ve completed a fulfillment dry spell. So, I’m very grateful for the many lessons I’ve learned along the way, especially while trekking in New Zealand with that sweet cook I met in the kitchen in Antarctica.