When we talk about must-have life experiences, overly obvious things often come to mind: falling in love, having a child, landing your dream job. But what else?
The best experiences having staying power. Years later, they come back and make you think, “Man, I’m so glad I did that.” They are perspective-changing. They make you smile in the darkness on your sleepless nights.
Something greater than yourself
One of my absolute favorite life memories came when I was volunteering as a coach for the Special Olympics swim team. I was at a swim meet, standing at the edge of the pool, getting ready to watch one of my adult swimmers, Peter. He was 40-year-old with Downs Syndrome. I love working with people with Downs Syndrome because of their happy, childlike spirit. It’s intoxicating and contagious.
That day, Peter was about to compete in the 50 meters freestyle, which is down and back in the pool. They blew the whistle. The swimmers stood on their blocks. The buzzer went off. Peter jumped in and started paddling his heart out. I was cheering him on. He was winning. I was yelling “Go go go!”
And then when they got to the wall to turn around — he just climbed out of the pool and ran off, chasing one of his friends into the crowd to go play. He thought the race was over. I put my face in my hands with a smile.
I don’t know if I’ve atoned for my sins. But volunteering for that team did little to help; I was the one who was given a gift. I have a dozen great memories like this one.
Try giving your time and energy to something bigger than yourself, where there is no money or prestige to be gained. Volunteering is proven to be good for your health and happiness. In a world where everything is “get get get”, giving is the fruitful contrarianism you need.
The closest thing to time travel
“I’ve lived in Florida for 10 years so I’ll be fine,” I said, full of karma-inducing overconfidence. My friends had warned me about the warm weather before leaving.
Two weeks later, the burning equatorial humidity slammed into me as I stepped off the plane in Belize. I was on the verge of coughing at first and, for the first 48 hours, thought I was going to die.
We hired a guide and traveled far into the jungle, where it only got hotter and more humid and I, again, thought I was going to die. The brush was incredibly thick and the jungle was all steep hills. However, it all became worth it as we emerged to see huge pyramids waiting for us.
I’m not the most religious person. But it was an unexpectedly spiritual experience. I felt like I’d arrived at the birthplace of civilization. The structures were massive, logistical masterpieces, with hints of their original art all over them.
Here was a society that began 3,000 years ago, had its own mathematic systems, agriculture, and incredibly, had developed a near-perfect calendar, only 13 seconds off on a 365-day calendar, done without the aid of any modern technology.
Humans crave novelty and need diverse experiences to feel content. Go see something old, very old. It’s your closest option to time travel. The feelings of shared humanity and the grandeur of civilization will sneak up on you. You’ll see our amazing capacity to innovate and survive in the harshest conditions.
Go see the galactic fire and awe
Because I spent my summers living near NASA, where my grandfather worked, I had the opportunity to attend a few space shuttle launches.
You’ll feel the power. A shuttle launch creates a massive amount of pressure, enough to blow over a building. During liftoff, the shuttle quickly resembles a fireball as its flames extend much longer than the shuttle itself.
It’s unbelievably loud. Even from the viewing area, it hurts your ears. The rockets have this bizarre, cutting, crackling sound that’s both deep and high at the same time. If you stood too close, you could easily lose your hearing, entirely, and forever.
But therein lies the awe-inspiring power of this innovation. It shows how far we’ve come. The Mayan engineers would be proud.
Soon, we’ll have more rockets reverse landing and you’ll have the chance to see it. It will make the hair on your arm stand up. Go see a launch.
The ultimate screentime escape
If you ever go into a big bustling city, try looking up at the sky to see how many stars you can see. You’ll find that between the clouds, it’s mostly black and has little to offer besides the moon.
My parents live out in the country in Virginia. At night, it gets very dark. And when I walk out in between their vines, the night sky suddenly lights up and you can see stars and constellations dancing above you. But if you go further out into the woods, the sky comes to life even more. One night, we were able to spot a satellite flying overhead. Go far enough, and you can’t see your hand in front of your face, but Orion shines like a bunch of flashlights.
There is freedom in being away from society and technology, even for a moment, where nobody can hear you. The unbridled and infinite expanse of space is worthy of your gaze.
Recap for memory: Four things everyone should experience
1. Travel to see an ancient historical site. Learn about the region and its history. Get connected with the past.
2. Give your time and energy to a cause with nothing to be received in return. It’s these experiences that enrich you the most.
3. Attend a major rocket launch. Experience the cutting edge of human engineering. Behold the power and fire and awe around you.
4. Go away from the big city. Experience nature and see an unfiltered night sky come to life above you.
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