Although we had 103 friends in common, were members of the same travel blogging group on Facebook, and had commented on each other’s posts in the past, I didn’t know Anita Mac personally. But still I was shocked and saddened yesterday when our mutual friend Robert Schrader revealed that the blogger behind Travel Destination Bucket List had taken her own life at the age of 43.
Anita seemed like a lot of our travel blogging friends– outgoing, adventurous, and happy. Her Facebook page was filled with enthusiastic posts about weekend plans and gorgeous photos of food, friends and fun on the road. As Robert said, her mission was “to inspire and empower people to live their dreams.” On the surface, she seemed to be succeeding. But, as “What do you do with a broken heart?” (her final post, on August 22) revealed, Anita struggled with private pain that ultimately tore her life apart.
I’ve been struggling to come to grips with her passing for 24 hours now, trying to figure out why the suicide of a person I barely knew upset me so much. Her death led me to re-examine this industry we’ve become a part of, questioning why we blog about our travels and wondering about “the dream” we, as a community, encourage our readers to live.
There are as many personal reasons for getting into writing about travel as there are bloggers in the sphere. Some just want to document their “gap year” getaway or round the world trip for their friends and family. Others simply want to find a way to fund their travels.
But one of the recurring themes you’ll notice after a while is people launching a blog as a reaction to something. For many, it begins with frustration with the 9 to 5 world– a rebellion against the notion that the Rat Race is the “normal” existence we’re supposed to endure. For others, life on the road begins after a crisis, whether it’s a personal health issue or the death of a loved one. Many travel bloggers seem to be trying to fix something that’s broken, whether it’s their relationship, their financial situation, or their own spirit.
Mary and I are no different: We started GGT at the end of a tumultuous year that included the death of my beloved grandmother, the finalization of Mary’s divorce, a tree falling on her house, and the loss of a job she’d had for 10 years. I was also growing increasingly frustrated with the fluctuations of the freelance writing market. In building our own business, we hoped we could take control of our financial destiny, and hopefully see the world in the process.
The point is that, for many of the professional bloggers we know, travel began as an escape from a reality that they chose not to accept, and the pursuit of something better.
So let’s talk about this new, better reality we create for ourselves. We travel the world, getting to see amazing sights, go on grand adventures, and explore exotic cultures that 99% of humanity will never get to experience in their lifetime. Some bloggers travel on a budget, some are fortunate enough to travel in exchange for coverage, and a lucky few actually get paid for doing so. They’re truly “living the dream,” right?
But what we bloggers rarely reveal to our readers is what goes on behind the curtains of this Technicolor Oz of global travel we’ve created for ourselves.
We don’t talk about all the obstacles we encounter along the way– the frustrations, the sacrifices, and the emotional toll the pursuit of the dream takes on you over time. We don’t talk about the 14-hour workdays, the stress of building our business, the financial strain of balancing travel and work, and the constant battle with burnout. We don’t talk about how “living the dream” creates walls of disconnection between you and your friends/family, some of whom simply can’t relate to your life of adventure, and others who resent you because they can’t come along for the ride. We don’t talk about how hard it is to hear people describe us as “lucky,” unable to convey our personal struggles for fear that we’ll be seen as ungrateful for our many blessings. We don’t talk about the loneliness, or the sense of isolation.
But what’s worse are the walls of disconnection dividing bloggers themselves– the petty jealousies that arise from humble-bragging about our good fortunes, the feelings of inadequacy that arise from the sense that we’re not keeping up with the Joneses, and the unspoken boundaries separating veterans from newbies and “popular” kids from outcasts. Revealing that our relentless pursuit of the dream is anything less than an optimistic yellow brick road to Emerald City shows weakness and vulnerability, so we simply don’t talk about it.
Instead, we talk about our latest adventures, and where we’re going next, and where we dream of going. And, whether consciously or subconsciously, we sell this message of inspiration that “living the dream” is easy if only you’re willing to “throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor, and catch the trade winds in your sails.”
But the truth is that happiness– REAL happiness– is much more complex than that.
Looking back on Anita’s tragic death, it’s clear that none of her friends in the blogging world had a clue about the private pain she was struggling with. My heart aches, both for her family and the friends who spent so much time with her at the TBEX conference in Toronto, some of whom have expressed regret, wondering if there’s something they could’ve said or done that would’ve made a difference in her life.
But the truth is, if we don’t share our struggles– if we don’t find some sort of personal safe harbor in which to convey the depth of our most heartfelt emotions– then we are truly lost at sea.
“Living the dream” isn’t just about getting away from the life we don’t want, but about constructing the life we DO want. And Anita, like so many other people we know both inside and outside of the travel blogging sphere, was clearly struggling to find that balance in her own life. It pains me to know that she left this mortal coil so desperate, so alone that she felt she had no other options.
Despite what some may say, travel is not a miracle salve that heals all wounds. Like any other distraction in life, we can use it to escape our problems for a while. But ultimately we’ll find that either those same problems are still there when we return, or we’ll find new problems that pop up along the way. So, while travel and adventure can inarguably enhance our lives and expand our worldview, I think it’s time we stop selling it as some utopian cure-all.
Buddhist doctrine suggests life, by its very nature, is flawed and difficult, with pain, disease, aging and death all inherent in the process. So maybe we should focus on learning how to be happy in spite of all, finding a balance between home, travel, family, friends, work, play, adventure and routine. Instead of pushing ourselves relentlessly in pursuit of a dream that may or may not ultimately prove to be all that we imagine, perhaps we should click our heels together three times and take a good, hard look at the blessings we already have.
It may not be as sexy as a RTW adventure, and it may not help sell as many airline tickets, hotel bookings or tours. But if we, as bloggers, can learn to be open and honest about our struggles, and to accept them as an integral part of our growth and evolution, both in business and as people, maybe we can find a way to be happy whether we’re traveling abroad, or just enjoying some downtime at home.
To me, that’s the truest possible definition of “living the dream.” –Bret Love
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