This cyclone of self-guilt leads me down all of the other times I’ve made similar decisions; charging into environments without maybe fully appreciating the circumstances until completely immersed without any way to back out. The first thing that jumps out at me is something that has shadowed my life over the past 7 years.
My tired feet stumble and with each misstep a shooting pain travels up my right leg to my hip. Grimacing, I curse at the ground and keep going.
Limping along in the dark, guided only by a faint circle of light from my head lamp, I’m unable to focus on the ground in front of me long enough to avoid the rocks and pebbles in my way. Each one feels like a little explosion up my side and the frustration really starts to set in.
It is well after sunset and a group of four of us are meandering down the bottom of Mount Taranaki in New Zealand, descending on the home stretch back to the parking lot, a good three hours later than we had originally planned – and 11 hours from when we first set out for the day.
I’m almost at the point of giving up, and seriously considering plunking myself down on the ground, curling into a little ball and settling in until someone can come and cart me down to the bottom. It feels like somehow the mountain has gotten bigger and this last stretch in the dark will actually never end.
My mind mercifully wanders away from the pain and I start thinking about how I got myself into this situation.
This attempt to climb a dormant volcano was very much a ‘prepared but not really prepared’ scenario. Apparently a ‘good level of fitness required’ was a decent enough warning by Kiwi standards and evidently I’m a bit shy of ‘good level’.
I start to blame myself for getting us all into this mess and also wonder why I didn’t turn back a bit sooner when I knew my leg was in bad shape. This cyclone of self-guilt leads me down all of the other times I’ve made similar decisions; charging into environments without maybe fully appreciating the circumstances until completely immersed without any way to back out. The first thing that jumps out at me is something that has shadowed my life over the past 7 years.
The thing sold as an investment into my future. My education.
When I decided to start university and get my degree after a couple years of working and traveling, I went to school out of province and away from home (cha ching) and lived on my own (cha ching), went on two student exchanges – one to China and one to Australia (cha ching, cha ching) [these are cash register sounds if you’re not immediately getting my bang-on sound effects]. Graduation happened, the global financial crisis hit – you know the drill. It’s all very excellent timing to owe people money. Before you know it, I’m staring at a metaphorical mountain of debt that’s going to take a good deal more than 11 hours to conquer.
Some of it was foreseen, I should have known better. The rest just happened through no fault of my own. [Mortgage-backed securities, anyone?]
Without thinking too hard about the accruing interest, I kept on going. More opportunities came up to travel and I took them. And I did another year of school to gain some technical skills (who knew an Arts degree wasn’t a sure thing in the land of employment?)
“How do you afford it?”
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that, I would have about eight dollars.
But really, it was a fair question and many people asked perhaps expecting - but not getting - ‘trust fund’ or ‘lotto winner’ for an explanation. Because, let’s face it, if your definition of “being able to afford it” is to be debt free and financially secure, I definitely didn’t fit the profile. Over the last ten years of travelling to 6 continents and 40 countries or so, I could only ever tell you truthfully that “I can’t. I cannot afford this. I have less than no money in my bank account and I am very, very broke.”
But I big fat did it anyway.
And this can make people feel a little bit uncomfortable.
We were bred to think that we need to suffer greatly in life in order to achieve anything. And while I do fully agree that hard work is necessary to be successful, I don’t think constantly putting off enjoying yourself until one magical, imaginary day in the future is a very good way to live. And doubly so if you are working hard without any real strategy, direction or purpose. Working hard on its own doesn’t get you anywhere.
I would never advocate getting into debt (obviously if you can avoid it, avoid it like the plague) and I know I could’ve made some smarter decisions, but I didn’t put off paying it all back because I was delusional – I did it because I backed myself to get it done on my own time and in my own way.
Each new stage in life came with a different set of rules and challenges so I tried to keep one eye on the future whilst remembering how finite this life really is – by enjoying the moment and fulfilling dreams, too.
When I officially ‘started my career’ at 28, it was not at home in Canada but on bank-borrowed money while on a working holiday visa in New Zealand. I worked hard, put myself out there and moved up quickly.
In 3 years I worked for three different companies – another move that is traditionally met with some judgement. But for me, knowing how much I owed and recognising that I had skills to offer in a growing industry, it was much more beneficial to move on quickly.
When you want to learn fast, rise in position and earn more money, the best way to do that is to keep moving. Sitting around waiting for someone to notice you and earning gold stars is a slow death and there’s no way I would’ve paid off my debt if I listened to the good little girl inside of me that said, ‘don’t rock the boat and be grateful for what you have’.
All of those books and articles about backing yourself are true – you need to make opportunities and ask for what you want. For me, it was scary and very often went against my agreeable nature. I tied myself up in knots worrying who I might offend by taking a job with a good offer instead of staying in a job that was toxic for me and would definitely keep me in debt for longer – all because they gave me a chance and hired me in the first place.
You have to go with your gut – and remember who has your best interests at heart. (Hint – it should be you). If you think something is off, then it probably is. If you think you know the answer, then say it out loud.
If you get caught up in what you’re ‘supposed to do’ and forget about your own dreams, you’ll be fulfilling someone else’s vision for you instead of your own.
Yes, I may have been able to pay off my debt a lot faster had I not gone on a safari in Africa, cruised to the Pacific Islands or hugged a panda bear among many other enjoyable life-giving types of trips and adventures I did over the years.
But if we’re playing ‘what if’ games here, ‘what if’ I didn’t go to university in the first place? Or ‘what if’ I was a lot smarter with money when I was in school? ‘What if’ I was born in Germany or Sweden and they just paid for my schooling? ‘What if’ they taught you things in high school that were actually relevant to being a tax-paying member of society? (Like how to pay your taxes).
We could go bat shit crazy thinking of all of the ‘what ifs’ that are out there for us to dwell upon. But of course it is pointless to play the blame game. The point is, I made choices that put me into every scenario I deal with today. They might’ve been misinformed, misguided or even unfair but ultimately still I chose the path and have to be the one to own it. And I will keep on choosing to handle things that come up in a way that works for me the best way I know how at the time.
This thought gives me another jolt of energy.
It was totally my idea to climb this mountain. I convinced everyone it was a good idea, and despite the fact that I have torn a muscle in my leg to get it done, and I’m so tired I could vomit, I won’t quit now. Deep down, I knew when I started that I was capable of doing it (even if I didn’t work out all the niggly details like say – long stretches of insanely loose and steep rock and other terrifying obstacles).
I start crying – but only in like a muffled pained/frustrated whimper that I can’t quite stop, making sure it doesn’t take hold to full-heaving tears – and I keep going, one step after another.
Finally, we see a sign of civilisation in car lights and street lamps.
We have made it down to the bottom. The sweet, sweet relief of sitting down in the back of the car and driving away is just about too much to handle.
I have a newfound respect for the mountain beyond measure and as we muster up a few words for exhausted conversation, we, with a mixture of pride and incredulity, question each other’s sanity on going through with the whole thing but agree that if given the chance, we wouldn’t have done it any differently.
And just as I found myself climbing that mountain of debt, getting higher and higher, I reflect on how I made it back down with admittedly a lot of pain but a lot more fun. The view – both on the way up and on the way down – was sweet and at times really scary. But best of all, it was my choice and my way and I wouldn’t change a thing.