Life is one of the most vague concepts mankind could ever attempt to define, but interpreting it as a journey is a metaphor many people relate to and agree upon. This metaphor rings true in such a way that one’s entire existence and sense of purpose is infinitely woven into this idea of a journey. The only variants, then, are how each individual reacts to the twists and turns, and what they believe the purpose of the journey is. Therein lies the beauty and obscurity of this metaphor. Mankind keeps track of life through documenting its stages. Time is of the essence because this journey has an unknown end date. People, places, and opportunities come and go. Individuals often strive to find others who perceive the journey the way they do, or those who are simply willing to share it with them. Even one travel partner makes all the difference when facing hard times or getting lost in joyous moments. Still, others look only to an unseen guide, the orchestrator of the journey. Ultimately, a perceived end-goal is what drives everyone’s decisions on this path. Although the transition from our current existence to the next holds unfathomable events, this life is an inevitable, one-way journey blanketed in decisions that create finite consequences.
Life is often referenced as “beginning” with birth and “ending” with death. This metaphor surfaces in casual conversations, when people say things like “the baby arrived at 7:15 this evening,” “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” and “I am at a crossroads in my career.” People also try to grasp life’s more complicated aspects by viewing it through the lenses of a journey. This is reflected through spoken concepts of “moving on from things and people,” “setting out to be certain kinds of people,” and how lives can frequently “take us in unexpected directions.” All of these examples convey a sense of motion, signifying that life will progress and develop whether the individual wants to continue the journey or not. Even time delayers like detours (calling in for work due to an illness), layovers (going on a vacation), and customs stops (processing paperwork for buying a home) are still perpetuating people forward in life; the clock never stops ticking. People can choose how they want to react to the journey’s circumstances, but they cannot stop the events from occurring.
Like many journeys, life is a one-way ticket. Although one can stay at a given destination for a period time, departure is inescapable and there’s no returning to a place one has been. For example, a man may leave work one evening, only to return the next morning. This would at first appear contradictory to the initial claim, but is work truly going to be the same for the man that following day? Perhaps his outfit is different, the weather has varied, a new client arrives, a raise is granted, a write-up received, coffee is spilled all over the desk, or his lunch break is skipped. The point is that no matter how intently people try to regulate and control various aspects of their daily lives, evading any form of change, life only moves forward. There’s no way to replay a moment, no matter how accurately the elements are duplicated. On a more drastic end of the spectrum, no relationship will ever be the same either, nor will any year play out like the one before. All of this illustrates streamlined similarity to a path that is only traveled one-way, for there is no backtracking in life.
Travel experiences always vary from person to person, and detours are bound to occur whether one foresees them or not. The journey of life is nearly identical with regard to these characteristics, as no individual’s path is indistinguishable from another, and life never goes quite as anticipated. Each person’s journey through life brings them in contact with various individuals and situations that most people don’t experience. Even if two people were to have the exact same encounters at the exact same times, which is already near impossible, they would interpret them and react in different ways based on their unique characteristics, creating a variance between the lives. Nothing is constant in a journey except for the individual and the perceived end-goal. All long-term travel partners will depart at one point or another as people die, friendships fail, jobs force relocation, and lovers grow apart. In most cases, no person in this mortal life is consistently present from another individual’s birth to death. Others may partake in largely important chapters of a person’s life, as with marriage, but the journey still belongs solely to each individual.
This concept of life as a journey is so deeply embedded into the American mindset that it all but pollutes most conversations revolving around life and choices. It reflects a great deal about society’s view of this construct, specifically in light of the term appropriately coined “the American dream.” For one, it shows that people are prone to schedule out life, much like they would a journey. So much emphasis is placed on goals and achievements in the modern American society, and people are often found basing their life’s value on how efficiently they measured up to those preconceived notions of success. People keep track of important moments in their journey by highlighting landmarks, such as birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, seasons, and so on. Advice is sought out from the more experienced travelers, and people get their hands on as many resources as they can muster to be better prepared for what lies ahead. It also brings a sense of unity for mankind, as everyone is aware they are awaiting an inevitable passing from mortal life. People strive to prolong it, embellish it, and understand it, but the journey remains the same, and in a moment it will end. Some may pretend what does or doesn’t lie ahead is irrelevant, but one’s view of the end goal-consciously or not-sways what paths they choose and ultimately, their destination.
The metaphor of life as a journey has an intense impact on one’s state of mind. Nature as a whole is in a constant state of change; no creature is exempt. When mankind interprets that process as a journey, it simplifies that alteration in a way that resonates and implements a presence of lasting meaning. Much like a horse with the blinders removed, this concept allows people to be freed of a narrow mindset, one that is bent on present affairs only. It opens the door to grasp and even welcome life’s uncertainties instead of living in fear. When people realize they are not on this journey alone, though the choices are their own, they feel a sense of fellowship. Lastly, it allows one to embrace the concept of becoming as opposed to simply being, for lives are but a work in progress. The journey is not reviewed and reflected upon until the end, nor is a life finalized until physical death ensues. One mistake or decision does not define the remainder of a life.
The crowning significance, then, lies not in overcoming change itself, but in finding joy through the journey and discovering a rarely found hope in the destination. People use it to reason and rationalize where joy comes from. Some put the focus on success and earthly achievements. Others want to better society for the next group of people on the journey. Many relish time with loved ones. Still, others seek out instant gratification, living for the present. How one experiences joy, or lack thereof, is a part of their unique journey. But what they believe comes after the initial journey defines the essence of their life. The answer lies ahead then. Perhaps J. R. R. Tolkien said it best in part three of his beloved Lord of the Ring trilogy, when he wrote the following:
“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.”
Society cannot prove where each individual’s life events will lead, but people can live in an enlightened state by viewing this time on Earth as a metaphorical adventure, seeking joy and love, and fixing their eyes on what lies ahead of the journey. The rest will follow suit.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. Print.