Travis, who started the Advance Humanity Foundation, asked me to write something about encouraging people to "Change yourself. Change your world." You see, in 1996, I decided to hike the 2160-mile Appalachian Trail, which was the farthest thing from my life at that time. I was starting a new career as a Physical Therapist, the family was encouraging me to get married soon, I was even thinking of buying a house. But one day, for some unknown reason, I picked up a book called 'Walking the Appalachian Trail' by Larry Luxenburg, which wasn't really about hiking the trail at all, but about the people who walk the whole thing in one 6-month hike called 'thruhikers'. I'd been a Boy Scout and even backpacked in Kenya, but I'd left those adventures behind over ten years in the past. I didn't even own a backpack.
On August 16th, 1998, I hiked the last few miles to the top of Mount Katahdin, the end of the Appalachian Trail. I hiked 157 days, over 70 of those days with rain, and up and down almost 5000' every day with a 40-lb backpack. At the end I was thin but wiry tough with a full Santa Claus beard. Only 1 out of 10 hikers complete the trek every year, it's that tough. I loved it all, despite all the hardship and pain. My only regret is that it ended too soon.
I won't write about the hike itself. You can read about it if you want. In some ways it doesn't even come close to what it was really like. I guess you have to experience it yourself to really know. But what I can tell you is how something like that can affect you, your view of yourself and the world around you.
I can't say for certain how much it changed me, I always had felt like a round peg being forced into a square hole, but I know it opened my eyes. You see, up to that point, I saw the world through the eyes of my parents, by siblings, my teachers, my church leaders, my community. But walking through the woods day after day, your eyes begin to see things differently, maybe really seeing life as it really was for the first time. I was just too exhausted to make-up a 'story' of who I was. After the first few weeks, everytime you meet another thruhiker, it was a breath of fresh air, the bare honesty we showed each other. It just wasn't worth the energy to try to be something you weren't, or someone you thought you should be. You just were.
And since returning back to the 'real world' of jobs, family and community, I can tell you there aren't many people out there who will bare their soul and show you who they really are. But once you've experienced something like this, you can't unlearn it. You know it's possible, even crucial to work toward that goal.
I'm not married, I don't have any children, I don't own a home, my bank account is empty, and I've lost all my hair. Ha! But in my own mind, I see how wealthy I really am - I have my health, my family, my friends, my experiences, all priceless. And the 'adventure' I undertook over ten years ago has led me down another path, much different than any I knew. Maybe it's more difficult but I also think richer.
As rich as I know I am, I now give to others - the most precious thing I own, my time. I am currently a volunteer English teacher in Mongolia. I pour every ounce of energy I have into it because I know how much the students really need this. I'm not a teacher, I don't have much training, but I do have heart and passion so that seems enough.
In the end, the only person you can change, is yourself. But by changing yourself, you will change the world because we are all connected. Just ask my students in Mongolia.
This is a series of talks, sponsored by the Advance Humanity Foundation,
given by people around the world who are changing themselves and changing the world.
Jim Damico currently teaches English at the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition of Buddhism in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. To learn more about Jim, visit wanderingtheworld.com.
The Advance Humanity Foundation is dedicated to recognizing and encouraging greatness in people and organizations around the world. World peace is achievable when we attain inner peace within ourselves. Change yourself. Change your world. To learn more, visit advancehumanity.com.