What the hell just happened

I just read a good blog post about finishing. The writer completed the Pacific Crest Trail. The blog post is certainly a good read for people who are planning to walk the trail. That’s how I found the blog, actually. But the essay also shares some wisdom that is relevant to anyone on any journey. And since we are all on the journey of life, the wisdom is relevant to everyone.


The advice is simple, and is probably familiar to anyone who has been on the planet for a few decades: “The finish line, in itself, is not the goal. Enjoy your hike along the way.”

This phrase shouldn’t strike you as a particularly great insight. It isn’t hard to think of several variations of the phrase. Carpe diem. Stop and smell the roses. Every time I fly, the pilot tells me to “sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.” The message is the same: the experience of the journey is more important than the accomplishment of reaching your destination.

The writer uses the experience of finishing the trail to make the point real. He reminds the reader that the end of the trail, is not like finishing a race. There is no crowd waiting for you to cross the finish line.

“It’s just you, standing there in the woods, thousands of miles from where you started, wondering what the hell just happened.”

That particular sentence resonated with me. I remembered the feeling that I had after I finished my tour in China. Being back in America was significant to me, but not to the people who had been here all along. But while I really like the writer’s insight, the sentence bothers me, too. I think that the writer has a good point, and I don’t disagree with him, but I think that there is more to it than that.

After I returned to the U.S., I spent a lot of time thinking about what happened in those two years. I thought about what I had seen and done, and how I reacted to events. I like to think that I was being mindful at the time. I reflected a lot about what I was doing and experiencing. I wrote about some of those encounters and events in my blog. Even so, after it was all done and I left the country, I still needed some time to think about what the hell just happened. By having some distance from post, I could reflect about the time more objectively.

Maybe the journey is more important than the accomplishment of finishing. But there’s another aspect to consider. After it’s all done, and your are back home, you are a different person. This is especially true if you have been focusing on the experience at the time. The experience is transformative, and a truly reflective person should spend some time discovering what is different about himself as a result. Maybe that’s what resonated with me about the essay. Maybe it’s important to wonder what the hell just happened.

Six months after leaving post, I am deep into the next adventure. Language learning is an intensive exercise, but it’s just the preparation for another foreign tour in another new country. Although I have left the first tour behind, I’m still wondering what the hell happened then. And it doesn’t bother me that I’m not entirely sure. Maybe it isn’t necessary to have it all figured out. Maybe it’s good that I know I don’t really know what the hell happened. Maybe being in the state of wondering means that I am still open to new interpretations. And maybe that means that I can still learn, I can still learn, I can continue to transform.

When reflecting on an experience, the fact that you don’t know what the hell happened doesn’t mean that you don’t know that something happened. Maybe realizing that fact is more important than knowing exactly what that “something” was. Realizing that you underwent a tranformative experience can be an enlightenment, and maybe that’s enough.

As far as we know, we only get one go-around in life. This is it. Reaching the finish line of life with a feeling of wonder doesn’t bother me. In fact, it would be preferable. It would be more satisfying to feel: “holy cow, that was incredible!” than to feel: “yup, pretty much what I expected.” Maybe we don’t have to know what the hell happened. Maybe not knowing what the hell happened isn’t a bad state of mind, because it means that we are still growing.

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