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Commentary: Life is Short


I haven’t lived what most people would consider a conventional life. I’ve spent much of my life working, studying, and traveling in Asia, Europe, The Middle East, and Latin America. I have always been in a hurry to find meaningful experiences.

As I think back, so much of my eagerness to explore the world came out of the events of a single year.When I was seven, I lived with my parents in Omaha, Nebraska.

I was in the first grade. There was another boy in class who was having trouble with schoolwork, so my teacher asked me to help him. And, we became friends.

Early one morning my mother rushed into my bedroom, pulled off my covers and said I needed to come into the living room quickly. There on the TV was live coverage–a boy had been hit by a school bus and killed. They announced his name, it was my friend. I was devastated. Part of me still misses him.

Not long after, my great-grandmother passed. I remember watching her coffin being slid into a wall of a huge marble mausoleum. Witnessing this so stunned me, I had to go into school counseling to get out of my shell and start talking again.

Finally, that same year, I tested positive for tuberculosis. I didn’t have any symptoms but I was put on a medication, started yearly chest x-rays, and told to never, ever smoke. My doctor warned me that I’d be lucky to live through my teenage years since I still had the seeds of TB within me that could activate at any time.

All that left me with the feeling of being in a hurry, eager to start living. I was always a reader, and read the paper voraciously every day. I knew there was a big world out there to experience. All this nearness to death made me wonder–if life could be so short and so unpredictable, how did I want to spend it?

By the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to travel and see the world, though I didn’t have a very specific plan. My first trip overseas, I volunteered on an archaeological dig outside of Amman, Jordan. When I was 23, I was invited to study at a think tank in Singapore. I spent the next twenty years mostly in Asia…working in publishing, newspapers, and media.

On reflection, if I had thought in my twenties that I would have a longer life, I might have taken the time to get a Ph.D. - and tried to become a professor - or gotten an MBA or law degree and worked my way slowly up the ranks of some major firm as another way of moving around the world - and I probably would have had more money and job security that way, too.

But, I think I’ve had a more exciting and interesting life than I might have had if I had gone down some of those more traditional paths. And, now in my mid-fifties, I’m still amazed that I have lived past the age of thirty. I’ve come to welcome the serendipity of life. Some people collect coins or porcelain. I collect experiences.

Mark Gilchrist studies Communication at Columbia University.

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