For most of human history, the range of experience open to most people was narrow and limited. Untold millions of people lived and died never traveling more than a few miles from their birthplaces and never meeting more than a few hundred other individuals from their own communities, their horizon largely limited to the handful of miles that could be easily traveled by foot. Crossing oceans, though it was possible, was a risky and dangerous endeavor that could take weeks, months, or years. Local events and local people, for the vast majority, formed the horizon that circumscribed their world.
In parallel with the limitations of the physical horizon were the limitations of the intellectual horizon. Humanity’s intellectual reach, for the most part, consisted of small, local pools of knowledge largely cut off from each other, mainly limited to the folk wisdom and tradition that each community needed to make its own living. And again, though some ideas could and did travel long distances, their transmission was slow, limited, and imperfect. For much of the time in which they existed, books were rare and expensive luxuries, and libraries the domain only of scholars and the rich.
But none of this is true any longer. The explosive growth of technology for conveying our information and our selves, and the concomitant merging of many small human groups into one global civilization, has blown open the doors of our limitations and opened up a vastly wider pool of potential experience and understanding to a far greater number of people. I wrote in “The New Ten Commandments” that even the smallest facet of the world holds enough intricacy for a lifetime of study, and a fortiori it is even more true that the world as a whole holds enough richness and detail to occupy a thousand lifetimes. Though one life is all we have and so we cannot hope to grasp it all, we should nevertheless seek to enrich that life to the highest degree possible with a diversity of wisdom and experience, the better to make its living worthwhile. Life is like a great and untapped well, one from which we should seek to drink as deeply as possible – to seek out as many new experiences as we can, to learn as many new things as we can, and to absorb, as best as possible, the fullness of adventure, companionship, and wonder that this world has to offer.
Personally, I know this desire well. There are so many places I want to visit in my lifetime, so many experiences that I want to have had for myself. I want to stand on the shore of every ocean and dip my fingers in its waters; I want my boots to be stained with the dust of every continent. I want to stand beneath the humid green cathedral of a tropical rainforest and upon the vast icy expanse of a glacier; I want to see the fierce bright stars of a desert night and the dancing lights of the aurora, and I want to sit on the beach and watch the sun rise. I want to travel through every major city in the world, immerse myself in its culture and breathe the air of its history, and speak to its people in their own tongues. I want to visit the places that are part of our global heritage and walk where the ancestors of humanity left their footprints; I want to trek through churches and temples and observe for myself all the ways human beings have imagined to interact with these strange beings they call gods; and I want to learn as much as I can about every field of human knowledge – if not the fine details, then at least the bright outlines – and follow the methods of the determined men and women who uncovered them. I want to reach out across the ages and touch the thoughts of history’s greatest minds. I want to do all this and a thousand other things as well, so that I can know, when the end of my life draws near, that there is not a single experience I sought and did not find, not a single opportunity I missed and lived to regret. And I am confident, dear readers, that you feel the same way as I do. (My philosophy of drinking deeply, for example, I find to resonate strongly with Richard Chappell of Philosophy, et cetera‘s ethics for living.)
But although there are vast and beautiful vistas awaiting us, and although the gate is open, the path remains largely untrodden. Despite all the knowledge that is out there waiting to be found, all the adventures waiting to be had, far too many people are content not to explore. In the remainder of this post, I will try to examine the reasons why people choose this course and offer reasons to dissuade them.
First, following this philosophy does not require luxuries available only to the wealthy. The mistake of most people is to believe that drinking deeply of life requires a person to be rich, but nothing could be further from the truth. For all its glittering allure, the path of riches is an illusion. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that money cannot buy happiness. Once a person has sufficient resources to provide for basic material needs and comforts, additional money does nothing at all to increase one’s level of happiness or contentment, and may even decrease it. If anything, great wealth often has an isolating effect, sowing seeds of envy and suspicion and distancing people from the genuineness of human contact and experience that truly instills life with meaning. Many people believe that the only path to happiness is wealth, and work assiduously their whole lives to obtain it, while others believe that gaining wealth is impossible but that happiness cannot be had any other way, and so they do not even try. But both these groups are wrong. Although our superficiality-obsessed culture places enormous value and emphasis on getting rich, the implied promise of happiness is a phantasm. True joyfulness and contentment lie along another road.
Another obstacle to human flourishing is the tendency, found frequently but not exclusively in religion, to never seek out ideas or experiences that might disturb comfortable and long-established habits. Some people are content to drink shallowly, living in the deadening slump of unvarying routine, keeping their eyes on the ground and never seeking out knowledge or experience beyond what is necessary for them to make their own way through life. Many others live in an echo chamber of conformity, daily immersing themselves in a sea of unthinking consensus to better reinforce their own prejudices, and neglecting the many other roads open to them in the belief that one writer, one book, one culture or one church contains everything worth knowing about. This belief is in error, and again, both these groups of people are missing out. Drinking deeply requires treading new and unknown roads, yes; it requires facing and overcoming the challenges that life presents; and it requires a person to challenge themselves, to reach out to new realms of thought and leave behind the comforts of the familiar. These obstacles may be frightening to the timid, but only through them lies the true path to happiness. We can boldly step up to these challenges and surpass them, and be rewarded for our effort; or we can avoid them and fall by the wayside, and spend the rest of life hobbled by what we have lost or never tried.
In truth, drinking deeply is less a plan of action than it is an outlook, a state of mind. Though it can involve physical travel, it need not. Pared down to its essence, drinking deeply means seeking out new ideas and new experiences, coming in contact with worlds of thought different from your own, and stumbling across things you may have never considered or known of. And, I firmly believe, this philosophy of spontaneity and openness to adventure is the only true way to fill a life with happiness and meaning. Those who never seek out the new can never know true contentment in this life; but on the other side, those who try will be well rewarded for their trouble. To all the lonely and confused seekers out there, to all those who feel their life is lacking, to all those who are searching for something they know not what, I urge you – take a drink from the well of life before you! Its waters are pure and sweet, and whoever takes a deep draught will not regret it.