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The Essay

No one cares about my life-altering trip. Or yours. Add to ...

A surprising truth took hold for me recently. It is this: People do not care about my life-changing experiences. Or yours.

But that's okay. I think it's one of those later-in-life essential steps we all must take toward full maturity. At the same time, the realization that little I do or accomplish is of much significance to others is weirdly liberating.

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Take a recent example from my life. (Not that you care, of course, but indulge me anyway). My husband and I saved for four years to take our two boys on a round-the-world odyssey from July, 2009, to August, 2010. We've always loved to travel but it was a lifelong dream to take our sons out of school for a year to circumnavigate the globe, showing them different places, peoples and cultures and opening their eyes to new experiences.

We travelled to 17 countries, 18 if you count an unscheduled two-hour stop in Saudi Arabia en route from Egypt to Dubai. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, in the most genuine sense of that well-worn phrase, for we will surely never be able to do it again.

We lived for three months in the south of France, where my husband realized his dream of working on a vineyard. I volunteered at a hospital in Kenya, using my speech pathology training as part of a cleft lip/palate surgical mission. My boys, then 8 and 12, got to help out with a building project in Tanzania. We swam in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Zanzibar.

We saw the pyramids of Giza from the backs of camels and went indoor skiing and dune bashing in Dubai. We rode elephants in Laos and released our inner Indiana Jones climbing around the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We rode the Reunification Express train from Saigon to Hanoi. We explored ancient temples and bamboo groves in Japan and toured the east coast of Australia for a month in a camper van.

Our oldest son had his first scuba diving experience amid the incredible coral of the Great Barrier Reef. In New Zealand, we visited bubbling, stinky mud pools and a vast sheep farm where filming took place for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We spent a laid-back two weeks doing next to nothing on the South Pacific island of Western Samoa.

Then we flew back to North America and drove from Vancouver all the way home to Ottawa, seeing our own country at last. And we brought back a dog we fell in love with while volunteering at a dog shelter in Thailand.

Are you still with me? Did I lose you to the Sports section? It's okay. Let me tell you some of the reactions upon our return home.

There was the positive. Two sets of close friends threw us welcome back parties. Both Nanas were greatly relieved to have their grandsons back alive. We discovered that at least four friends had closely followed our trip blog. Well, three of the four were technically relatives. Still, there was a limited but enthusiastic sharing of our year away that we appreciated.

Then there was the negative. Perhaps negative is too strong a word. Let's go with benign indifference.

On my first day back at work, after being away for 13 months, a colleague asked me, "How was your summer?" I work at a school board. This is the classic conversation starter in early September. Some time around mid-January, it becomes "Cold enough for you?"

Most people had one or two polite questions, namely "You're back, how was it?" or "What was your favourite place?" But beyond that, they didn't have a whole lot to say or ask.

It's understandable. We are self-absorbed human beings. We spend most of our time dwelling on ourselves and our own supposedly unique issues. Am I any different?

Maybe it's self-centred of me to want others to share in my excitement over our year of adventure. I want to scream, "I am not the same person I was before I left!" Doesn't anybody get that? No, they don't. Up the steps of acceptance and maturity I reluctantly trudge.

But I'm just as guilty, I now realize. When younger colleagues at work describe their upcoming wedding or their first pregnancy, do I really care? I try to be genuinely interested and ask questions, but perhaps my eyes betray me with their look as glazed as a Tim Hortons doughnut. Just bought your first home? And you have pictures? Of course, let's see! It's fatiguing, honestly, trying to muster interest in things that don't directly concern us.

On the other hand, we can embrace the freedom that comes from knowing that no one cares. Save your time and energy and give the minimum response. Your terse reply frees others to run along and attend to what essayist Charles Hummel famously termed the "tyranny of the urgent."

We all have life-changing experiences. Is the answer then to keep mum about them? No, I think the secret lies in choosing with whom you share those key moments in your life: Show swatches of fabric for bridesmaid dresses only to other brides-to-be; confide childbirth horror stories to other new moms (I learned that the hard way too); describe in detail the colour of your infant's poop only with other new parents, and perhaps only the new parents whose infants have the same tummy upset as yours; and only swap travel tales with fellow travellers.

Beyond that, frankly, my dears, nobody much gives a damn.



Kathi Elborn lives in Ottawa.

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