March 31, 2020
My small bungalow is just steps away from the beach. It has four walls, electricity, a fan, and a desk. There’s no kitchen, no hot water, and my mattress is rock hard—but the rent is less per month than a joint cell phone plan.
Hardly a Spartan existence; but I think we all become accustomed to certain comforts overtime. I’m more surprised by all the things I don’t miss.
Regularly, and in anticipation of good coffee, I walk the beach to one of a couple cafes where my order is predictable. I sit alone and read, or interrupt a friend who’d had the same plan. Meeting people on Koh Lipe (Thai for Paper Island) is almost too easy, making anonymity hard to achieve. And even though I regularly crave solitude, I’m still grateful for the warm and diverse group of friends I’ve collected.
I’m also a professional scuba diver now. Certainly not something I intended when I set out on this trip—or when I took my first recreational dive just three months ago. Nonetheless, I’m developing a tan line on my left wrist from my dive computer, and am going blonde from the repeated sun and salt water exposure.
Maybe it’s the boats. Maybe it’s the crystal blue waters of the Andaman Sea. Maybe it’s my tanned, pierced, tattooed, care-free colleagues. Whatever it is—this work, this life, the sea—something more than gravity is keeping me here.
This is my life at the moment. And as each day comes to an end, and the earth churns unceasingly forward crushing the sun down into the waves, I find that I am happy.
So how did I get here? Certainly not by design. Creating the flexibility to change my life at will, and embracing the ambiguity of solo, foreign travel, necessitated this life. Not the dive life, or the beach life—the free life.
Letting things go, not chasing them, has allowed me to cultivate a sense of contentment that feels unforced; to build a life and a philosophy that feels authentic.
This type of lifestyle is not always easy, though, and no one path looks the same. Everyone finds heaven or hell in their own way and in their own time.
A few years ago, not truly knowing what would be left, I began loosening my grip on anything that didn’t feel like me. First it was alcohol, then it was a career, then it was an apartment and a relationship. At one time, I loved, appreciated, or at least enjoyed all these things. In one way or another, though, they were not suited to the version of myself that now feels inescapable.
To lack fear of uncertainty is not enough to create a new life, one must have an affinity for it. Which is how I ended up living on a small Thai island spanning less than three square miles.
“The more Ups and Downs the more joy I feel—the greater the fear, the greater the happiness I feel,” Jack Kerouac wrote in Big Sur. Actually a quote from Milarepa, the accomplished Tibetan Buddhist poet and reformed murderer, Kerouac uses these words to describes his own complex and fluid mental condition.
Attempting to escape the torments of life and fame (and alcoholism), Kerouac spends a few solitary weeks at a cabin in Northern California. The waves of pure joy and brutal torment he recounts are jarring—yet familiar to the acutely self-aware.
Unexamined, Kerouac’s existence sounds torturous, a cautionary tale even. But what if there were no other way to achieve peace or happiness? What if, for some, turmoil eventually necessitates tranquility?
There are those people for which too much comfort means pain, total certainty becomes fear, and unchecked pleasure demands unhappiness. They may be hard to spot, though, because they are rarely in the same place for long.
These people must also be mindful of their attachments—certainly more so than I have been. When the terms of stability for someone else means disquiet for you, feelings will surely get hurt. And it is up to you, the rambler, to address this contradiction long before your things go into long-term storage, the pack settles on our back, and stamps begin to litter your passport.
Deriving happiness from fear can just as easily be referred to as uncertainty. And to find uncertainty we don’t have to go across the globe, across the country, or even across the street. How far we travel from home is irrelevant—what matters is how far from comfort and certitude we are willing to travel in our minds.
“I felt a certain mental thrill, and a transformation unaccompanied by fear, due to the novelty and the unpleasantness of an unusual occurrence,” Seneca wrote.
Tribulation in the present will, in time, be recognized as growth and appreciated as achievement. So stay the course—especially when things are at their worst.
For me, learning to use hindsight properly took thousands of miles of unfamiliar scenery and hundreds of thousands of words of unfamiliar text. Acquiring knowledge, especially about myself, was often as painful as it was agreeable. “As it is pleasant to see the sea from the land,” Epictetus wrote, “so it is pleasant for him who has escaped from troubles to think of them.”
There will be ups and downs everywhere you go. It rains at the beach, too. Amidst our most fearful and painful moments, though, it helps to ask, Who might I become because of this? What can I learn?
Near the end of Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus is instructed by the prophet Tiresias to take an oar from his ship and walk inland until someone mistakes it for a shovel. In this place, amongst a people who know nothing of the hardships of the sea, Odysseus must make a sacrifice to Poseidon. When this is done, his troubles will finally end.
For some, this is exactly what is necessary to find happiness: Striding out into the unfamiliar, establishing yourself amongst a people who have no idea what trials or triumphs you’ve been through. To live in a place where you’re not easily understood, and the things you’ve brought with you are a mystery.