The Only Thing that Matters | Finding Clarity in the Face of Death

A statue of Jizo sits in a meditative position at Mt. Koya's Okunoin.

In the early summer of 2018, the world tragically lost the American celebrity chef, author, and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain. In the time since his baffling suicide, I have often brooded on how a man who seemingly had everything could feel so compelled to take his own life. In many ways, the late Anthony Bourdain was nothing short of the epitome of what globetrotters like myself aspire to be. I mean, who out there hasn’t dreamed of following in his trailblazing footsteps? Nevertheless, if a man of his accomplishments could be so unhappy as to put an end to his own existence, one must really pause to reflect on what the hell actually breeds contentment.

As I sit down to write this, I am currently at the famed Kitasato Hospital in Tokyo awaiting surgery to remove the metal implant supporting my clavicle. Honestly, I must say that the experience is more than a bit unnerving. While I am not at all afraid of being cut open by the surgeon’s knife, what terrifies me is actually the other patients here. Elderly and largely immobile, these venerable souls represent everything that I dread about my own mortality. After all, what is the point of continuing on if you’re bedridden and unable to partake in what makes life worth living? Frankly speaking, the only thing that I am more afraid of is losing my cognitive functions to something like Alzheimer’s Disease.

While this might seem tangential for now, know that for the last six months or so I’ve been mentally torturing myself over what to do professionally. You see, at the end of 2018, I published a piece titled Rejecting my Ikigai where I proudly proclaimed that I was opting out of working in travel despite ample opportunity to do so. While little has changed since then, I’ve also had to standby and watch as some of my more brave and foolhardy colleagues have, despite all odds, actually made some decent headway. Though Japan continues to be just as far behind digitally as it was then, I’m constantly tormented by the thought that those success stories could be mine if only I were willing to put in the work.

Additionally, throughout all of this, I’ve also witnessed two of my closest confidants really go all in on their career ambitions. Though their dedication to their chosen destinies is indeed admirable, I have been unable to conjure the same hunger and drive in myself (at least insomuch it comes to revenue generating activities). Caught between my latent potential to be one of the top marketers in Japan and my utter lack of any real business related aspirations, I’ve been flip-flopping weekly from conclusion to conclusion. Of course, much existential angst has ensued and the constant job offers for lucrative positions that I receive have not exactly alleviated the situation either.

An elderly man sits in a wheelchair at a Japanese hospital in Tokyo

Thankfully though, being surrounded by so many irrefutable examples of impending old age here at the hospital is leading to profound clarity of thought. Faced with the prospect of my own eventual demise, it feels as if all of the bullshit is receding and the answers are finally starting to manifest. As blatantly evidenced by the patient wristband on my right arm, I am currently thirty-three and seven months old. Assuming that I manage to live to at least the age of eighty, this means I have only a little over 2,400 weeks remaining. I don’t know about you but that certainly doesn’t feel like a lot of time and the clock isn’t showing signs of stopping.

This brings me to the title of this article. Long term readers will know by now that I am very big on the concept of neurochemistry. As Tom Bilyeu often says, “The only thing that matters in life is what you think about yourself when you’re by yourself and have nothing but your own thoughts.” Essentially, I believe that life is a game whereby one wins by optimizing his or her levels of serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters. At first glance, this doctrine seems like it would lend itself to hedonism but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, human beings are only able to take full advantage of their biology when they are striving towards a worthwhile goal.

Alas, what turns the crank of one man will not do so for another. For example, though I know not why, I am oddly attracted to the lost historical narratives of a country that I am not even from. On the other hand, many classical Type A personalities are entranced by the notion of climbing the corporate ladder or by having windfall success in business via an IPO. Here, it’s important to remember that while it’s one thing to desire the end result, it’s an entirely different matter to crave the actual journey with all its setbacks and hardships. In my case, I look at all of the things that my career minded friends struggle with and see nothing but a recipe for neurosis.

What’s Actually Important

A man walks down a tunnel towards a point of light in the distance.

As I sit here at the hospital among the sick and dying, one concept becomes imminently clear. Whatever you end up doing with your life, remember that your time in this world is limited. When I think about the fact that I have likely less than 2,400 weeks left to live, it really puts things into perspective. Face to face with the Grim Reaper, it’s clear there are only a few things I truly value in the final analysis. Everything else is merely a distraction. At least as far as I can ascertain, the following are what truly and genuinely matter to me…

  • Health, wellness and longevity
  • The minimizing of unwanted stress
  • Traveling to new destinations in Japan
  • Time with friends and loved ones
  • Achieving mastery of new things

Noticing anything absent from the above list? No? Well, one immediate standout that is missing is this blog! Upon further reflection though, this makes sense. After all, my obsession with traveling to Japan’s various hidden gems has never been about creating an audience as it seemingly presents with other travel bloggers. While I enjoy providing value, it’s naught but a byproduct. Instead, my longing for expeditions is something that has welled up organically over the years from the deepest recesses of my soul. Even if I were one day to stop writing for this blog, I would assuredly continue my adventures to the end of my days.

Additionally, despite my self-proclaimed apprehension about what industry I should pursue and whether or not I should go freelance, it seems that my career isn’t even on the list. Funny that. This signals to me that, unlike many of my driven, go-getter comrades, I instead need to focus on cultivating a simple life above all else. Rather than living to work as my entrepreneurial minded associates often do, I’m much more suited for the “work to live” camp. While I am still unsure about the exact job details that I’d want, whatever path I follow needs to be relatively low stress while also providing enough disposable income to travel once per week.

Announcing Project No. 47

A digital rendition of a map of Japan’s 47 prefectures

Speaking of my travel, lately my heart just hasn’t been in it due to all the introspective ruminating that I’ve been subjugating myself to. Though I have certainly enjoyed some of my trips this year, nonetheless something has been nagging at me. While I cannot put my finger on it exactly, I suspect that this unease stems from the fact that my future has been very much up in the air. Where once I would plan out my adventure weeks in advance, lately I’ve just been winging it on the weekends. What’s more, the lack of any real planned travels to look forward to has made common everyday stressors much harder to negotiate. Talk about a recipe for getting depressed!

It’s high time that I rekindle my inner passions and to do so, I need a set of clear and well-defined objectives to work towards. You see, as my bucket list has grown to epic proportions, it’s become harder and harder for me to decide where to go. What’s more, many of the locations I wish to visit are just not doable in a day trip meaning that I need to plan for an overnight excursion. While there are still a few spots in the Greater Tokyo region left for me to conquer, I am going to need to better plan if I ever hope to make a dent on this ever-growing list.

Enter what I’d like to call Project №47. Though I often bill myself as a pretty well traveled guy, there’s still several of the forty-seven prefectures that I have yet to pay a visit. Blasphemy, right? Well, it’s time to fix this inconsistency. Inspired by good blogger friend Cheesie who at last just completed her final prefecture, I am going to embark on a crusade to visit them all within one year of publishing this article. This will provide the necessary structure to navigate my seemingly endless catalog of hidden gems while also lighting a fire under my rear to ensure the challenging trips happen.

Now, you may be asking, why the rush? Isn’t there plenty of time? Honestly, I am not so sure there is, especially if I want to see it all. The maximum rate that I can travel without completely burning out is about once per week and, as mentioned, I only have several thousand weeks of life remaining. Though that may seem like an eternity to some, keep in mind that my bucket list overflows with hundreds of items and the list multiplies all the time. In all likelihood, I’ll never get to visit all the intriguing spots that I hope to. There are just that many alluring spots scattered across Japan.

A neon sign on a black brick wall reads “thank you” in Japanese

If you’ve made it this far, allow me to offer a heartfelt thank you for reading this random one-off rant. While I am aware that this is a major break from the types of articles that I typically post on this blog, I felt compelled to write down my thoughts while in the hospital. Though I certainly don’t have any concrete answers yet, I feel I’ve gained several important insights regarding the principles I truly value and the goals I hope to reap from this life.

Hopefully, these guidelines will allow me to honestly contemplate the many forks along the road that I will undoubtedly encounter in my future endeavors. While I understand the mentality of those who feel compelled to greatness, at the end of the day, I’m just a wanderer who forever belongs on the road.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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