I’ve been to Thailand seven times.
And I’ve never ridden an elephant there.
For some people, going to Thailand for a beach vacation and an elephant ride is a life dream. Such people might say to me: “Seven times and you’ve never ridden an elephant? What a shame!” There could be a feeling that I missed out on a unique opportunity, an experience that is often treasured by others.
I don’t have anything against elephants. In fact, I very much enjoy photographing wildlife. I certainly wouldn’t run away if an elephant sauntered up to me and hoisted me on his back for a little stroll. But I don’t go to Thailand to ride elephants.
My job provides me with the opportunity to travel to many places, and in most of those, I’ve rarely had the chance to do the run-of-the-mill tourist items. When I do have the chance, I enjoy it; I snap a few pictures and I check it off on my life experience resume. But that’s not why I go to these places.
I go to these places for people. I have specific opportunities to work with and serve certain individuals, and so I go. For many of these places, I only ever expect to go once. I have one shot to see the sights. But that’s not why I go there.
Am I wasting opportunities for potential life experience? Perhaps some might see it that way. After all, we only get one life to live, and some chances are indeed once-in-a-lifetime.
But is that my goal? Collect a resume of places visited, sights seen, photographs taken, experiences had? I confess, I’ve definitely gone through my seasons of wanting to collect passport stamps from many and varied locations, but then I bring myself back to this: that’s not why I go there.
If, at the end of my days, my checklist of places seen and things done is incomplete, if there are numerous and unnecessary blanks on it, so what? Will I have failed at making the most of my life? Will I have wasted too many opportunities?
For sure, certain experiences can be extremely worthwhile: educational, formative, altering life direction in very positive ways (I’ve had one of those trips as well). But on the whole, my life’s work cannot simply be to collect guidebook experiences.
I’m looking at a job change. The new job would also provide some travel opportunities, though I expect that those opportunities would be even more work intensive (though perhaps less frequent) than previous ones. Taking these possible trips would likely be even more physically, emotionally, and spiritually draining than the journeys I’ve made before. Some people travel for rest. But other people travel for war.
There are likely many things around the world that I will never see or experience. I want to enjoy the opportunities that I do get, but I hold this value higher: to be faithful in going to do what I traveled to do, maximizing my investment in people, rather than in my photo album.
Elephants are magnificent creatures, and if you do get to see one or ride one, it might be a very significant experience for you. But don’t let the elephant distract you from the people, from the special opportunities you have to impact the life of another human being, to serve them, care for them, connect with them.
You can’t take it with you. Not your photo album. Not your guidebook checklist. Not even your elephant.