I, thoroughly, hate advertisements. Yet one of the most profound things I read is from an advertisement. It is a shoe company that features the bottom half of an hourglass. In it, gray sand flows into the bottom, forming the shape of a mountain face. Underneath it is the caption:
“You only get 26,320 days, more or less. How will you spend them?”(Scarpa, p14)
This compelled me to figure out how many days I had lived so I could compare it to the advertisement. At the time, I had recently turned 21. I had just dropped out of college for health and financial reasons. And I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I was crippled by doubt, debt, and depression. But I distinctly remember calculating that I had lived 7,742 days. Looking back, all of the elements of life were compounding into that moment: the moment my existential crisis began. And it never really stopped.
From that day, I have on occasion, kept track of the number of days I have lived. It is a morbid curiosity that has the benefit of offering another perspective of time. I have become aware that whatever that number is on any particular day, is also the number of sunsets I have experienced. It leaves me wondering how many sunrises I have left. Thus, I find myself occasionally paralyzed with this chest clutching fear over what happens when my days run out. But this fear is not of death itself. It is the fear of regret. Time is the most precious currency, and the hardest to make up for. How many of us decide how to spend our time usually comes down to these questions:
- What are you good at?
- What do you love to do?
- What can you get paid for doing?
- What does the world need from you?
My childhood hero was Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter. Because I loved animals and science, I watched his show pretty religiously. He had a show where he would talk about Australia’s dangerous wildlife such as snakes and crocodiles. He always gave his animal subjects a sense of humanity, trying to show people the beauty of the danger. I mention this because it helped build the foundation of my best skills: research, interpretation and a sense of showmanship.
To give you an example of these skills, when I was about ten years old I remember me and my extended family going to the Detroit Zoo. And while we were there I became their private tour guide. I even remember other families listening in and asking me questions. Now, at that time, I was reading any science book I could get my hands on (research). And I was relating the facts I learned about animals to family and friends (interpretation). I loved it because I got to be the center of attention for a time and I got to give them something meaningful (showmanship). There were other instances of this throughout my childhood. And as I got older I only got better at it and became interested in other subjects.
These are skills you have to work at. But you also have to love doing it. Part of the reason I had a hard time choosing a college major is that I learned to love every subject. And you have to if you want to work as a National Park Ranger: which I am, periodically. For six months out of the year, I work at a 19th-century fort in New Mexico where it is my job to research, write, and connect people to our American Heritage. It is simple to just tell people facts, but you have to interpret those facts into stories: find the emotional core of something. And you have to be interdisciplinary about it. I have to know the history and culture of the park I work at. To tell people about the former Mexican citizens who proved their loyalty during the Civil War, and of the freed slaves who became the lawman of the West. I have to know the artistic skill of weaving: these beautiful tapestries that kept woman’s babies warm and sheltered them from the harsh mountain winds. I have to know religion to understand the Mormon journey to Utah. I have to know the science of astronomy, for New Mexico has the most brilliant and increasingly rare night skies that I want more people to see because to see all of the Eternity is humbling and awe-inspiring.
To reach out to people this way is what creates real change. I am inspired by the best in my field, whether it is fellow Park Rangers or more famous science communicators of the day. Whatever catches me, I know will catch others.
And that is what I think the world needs. The world needs to feel more connected. It feels like everyone wants to break up into parties, races, religions, ideologies etc. I want to spend my days contributing to the mindset that people can connect with the past, the present, the earth, the universe, to each other and put a better step toward the future. And I do that by continuing to do what I love and what I am best at. Whether it is helping people want to save otters, by telling them that otters hold each other’s hands when they sleep, or connecting people to something bigger than themselves by telling them the atoms in their body come from the ashes of dead stars. Whatever stirs my soul, I want to move theirs.
As of the date of this paper, I would have lived 9,437 days. I have no idea when that number will stop. And I am fearful of it. But it also keeps me from getting too complacent. Knowing that I have a limited time to make a difference just makes me want to work that much harder. In the words of Horace Mann:
“Be ashamed to die until you have scored some victory for humanity.”