Even though I lived in three different states growing up, I didn’t understand that people in other places were different than the people I was accustomed to seeing around me.
As I imagine there are many common traits among people living in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, so it is with people in Iowa, Illinois and the part of Ohio in which I was raised.
I was born in Iowa.
My parents split when I was 4 and I moved to Ohio to begin my school years. I spent a lot of time in Iowa and Illinois along the Mississippi River visiting my family throughout those years. Both places—Ohio, and the Mississippi River Valley—provide feelings of Home.
There wasn’t a ton of money floating around nor did I know anyone close to me with a passion for travel.
So I didn’t get out much.
Which is actually fine as it’s happening when you’ve never experienced anything different. Contentment is a highly underrated thing—a lesson I learned the hard way after graduating from college. What I lacked in material wealth and life experience was more than made up for in genuine contentment, surrounded by wonderful family and friends no matter which state I was in.
How do you manufacture a decent guy with a genuinely kind heart and good intentions who is capable of ditching his crying wife in the hospital hours after giving birth to his beautiful newborn son?
There are an incalculable number of factors, but I fear many innocent and well-meaning actions and conditions contributed.
I was born to very young parents. They were eightish years younger than my ex-wife and I when our son was born. I didn’t feel ready at 29. It’s hard to imagine how they must have felt.
I am, for all intents and purposes, an only child.
Because my mom is from a very large family of kind, loving people; and because my dad was from a mid-sized family who didn’t see me often; and because I made friends easily and was seemingly well liked by their parents and my teachers because I’m naturally outgoing and well mannered, I was showered with an almost-obscene amount of love, support and affirmation growing up.
These things feel good. And almost every day felt good. Being me was a very positive experience.
I think my dad spoiled me just a bit because of our unfortunate geographic situation which kept us from a typical father-son relationship. I think my mom took it pretty easy on me in terms of chores and responsibilities around the house because she was so accustomed to (and skilled at) accomplishing home management tasks from being the oldest of many brothers and sisters, so I got used to things just “magically” getting taken care of.
Folded laundry. Swept floors. Clean counters. Spotless bathrooms. Stocked fridge and pantry.
My only real job was schoolwork, and I could perform academically at a fairly high level without trying hard, and certainly without learning the material inside and out. After all that K-12 learning, followed by whatever I did to get a bachelor’s degree, I’d be surprised if I’ve retained even 10 percent of it. We’ll never know.
So what DID I “know”?
- Being myself makes most people like me, and I don’t have to work hard for things.
- I’m totally smart, which means when people disagree with me or challenge my beliefs, there’s an above-average chance they’re wrong.
- Life is beautiful, people are kind, and mostly good things happen, which means sad, depressed, angry or impoverished people just aren’t trying hard enough. Yay, life!
- People are mostly the same everywhere you go. It’s obvious because I’ve been between Iowa and Ohio my entire life, and it pretty much all looks and feels the same! Neat!
Certainly, attending a 20,000-plus-student public university after 12 years of Catholic schooling in a town with the same amount of people delivered some eye-opening moments.
Not everyone believes what I believe. Some objectively super-smart people disagree with some of my political philosophies and can articulate why without saying anything moronic. Also, I’m friends with black people!
But the real shock to the system happened when I braved a move outside of my little four-state bubble in middle America, moving to a Florida beach town on the Gulf side to take a newspaper reporting job.
Because we all live inside our own heads and nowhere else, and because I hadn’t done a lot of travelling, and because when I had gone to other places, they shared many cultural similarities with my hometown, I assumed people were pretty much the same everywhere, at least in the United States.
In other words, I thought I was moving to Ohio with Nice Weather and Beaches.
It only took me a few months in Florida to observe how incorrect my assumption had been, and to learn an important life lesson at the age of 23:
Different people in different places often have different beliefs and different life experiences than I do, and those differences feel as natural to them as my normal does to me.
Oh, the Places We’ll Go
Last week, one guy I met while living in Florida told his oldest son to pick any place in the world to visit for a father-son trip. The boy (I think he’s 11) chose Tokyo, Japan. And off they went, leaving mom and the younger two brothers behind. Those two looked like they had an awesome time, and I imagine both father and son will have grown significantly from the experience in some way.
As I type, another friend is in the midst of a two-week tour of Europe. She texted me some photos from Switzerland that made me want to drop everything and go there. Mountains. Waterfalls. The greenest greens. And those totally rad “Ri-cola!” horns.
A new friend, author and potential future collaborator routinely travels the globe, has lived in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, is married to a Dutch man she now lives with in south Florida, and returned less than a month ago from a speaking gig in Stockholm, Sweden.
That’s just regular life for her.
For me, that’s, like, whoa.
I started traveling domestically in my second job out of school, which had brought me back to Ohio. Every couple of months, I was going somewhere for a conference or industry trade show. It was then that I really felt as if I was broadening my horizons in my mid- to late-twenties.
I took a look at a map to evaluate where I’ve been.
Toronto, Ont. is my furthest trek north. New York City is my furthest east. To the south, Key West, Fla. And to the west, San Diego, Calif.
I downloaded an app where you can log all of the places you’ve been. I went through it carefully, marking my destinations.
Two countries. My homeland. And Canada. And let’s be honest. When you’re from the United States, and you occasionally get Canadian coins handed to you when cashiers are making change, and when the border is way closer than half of the U.S. states, it doesn’t really feel like international travel.
And unless I’m forgetting one, I’ve visited 24 states and Washington D.C.
About half of the states in my native country and a few cities in one Canadian province.
My new app was kind enough to calculate what percentage of the world I’ve seen.
That figure? 0.8 percent.
I’m 37 years old. And I try to write stories that I hope might help someone live and love better.
And I’ve seen less than 1 percent of this world.
There’s More to Life Than What We Think We Know
I’d seen and read a bunch of things about saltwater fish and coral reefs, but until I went snorkeling off the coast of the Florida Keys, I couldn’t accurately describe their beauty.
I’d seen and read a bunch of things about New York and Washington D.C. throughout my childhood, but until I walked the streets of Manhattan or sat on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I couldn’t marvel at all the steel and concrete that makes up NYC, or feel what a grateful American feels looking out over my favorite visual piece of our nation’s capital.
I’d seen and read a bunch of things about California and the Pacific Ocean, but I was 28 before I stood on Mission Beach for the first time and felt the awesome power of the largest body of water on Earth, and could finally understand why so many people are willing to move so far away and spend so much money to live near it.
I am a better, different, wiser, more intelligent, more balanced, more complete human being for having experienced the few life-expanding places and moments I have.
And I’ve seen less than 1 percent of all there is to see.
How much better, different, wiser, more intelligent, more balanced, more complete might I be if I see more? How much more might you be?
Maybe we owe ourselves the opportunity to find out.