Backpacking Around the World Won't Fix You

May 01, 2017 |Juli Cooper
Young man with backpack overlooking mountain valley

Feeling dissatisfied with your place in life? Consider these five truths to refocus and find greater fulfillment.

You're 25 (or maybe 30 plus), single and your life isn't what you expected it to be. Maybe you think you missed the marriage train. Perhaps you wonder if you'll ever have those kids you've dreamed about. Maybe your student loans hit you like a ton of bricks after graduation and your career prospects look bleak.

You wanted to save the world, pursue your passion, do more and be better. But instead of feeling alive, you feel trapped, drained by the grind of daily life. The unbridled hope of your early twenties has become a disillusioned sense of mediocrity.

You've been struck by an affliction that hits approximately 86 percent of us a few years into this journey called adulting — the quarter-life crisis.

To be fair, these aren't your parents' twenties. With extended singleness, greater job instability, lower base incomes, and decentralized family units and hometown communities, your young adult life likely looks different from that of your parents. Entering the workforce during a recession and accumulating the highest student loan debt in history doesn't help either. Even college degrees aren't the leg up they used to be. The entry-level job you're still in won't pay for the real estate prices in the cities where other young people seem to be somehow flocking.

And the overwhelming burden of choice in the digital age doesn't help matters. Millennials can peruse hundreds of jobs online or quickly scroll through thousands of potential suitors in search of a life partner. Our fear of making the wrong choice can become overwhelming. According to the psychological community, the average age for the onset of depression and anxiety has moved from the forties thirty years ago to the twenties today. Something's up with us, and it's not good.

The Rise of Escapism

Often the proposed answer to discontentment is an escape-from-my-reality adventure. Instead of questioning the dissatisfaction in our own hearts, we question our circumstances and place hope in a grand adventure or big move. This is a notion that was captured in Elizabeth Gilbert's popular 2006 memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" and Cheryl Strayed's "Wild." In these stories, young protagonists leave former lives and loved ones behind to find a more meaningful existence, embarking on self-actualizing adventure treks.

Here's the thing. Running off to the next big adventure isn't going to fix your contentment issues. I know, because I've done it. My Instagram feed would lead you to believe my adult life's been a constant thrill-ride. My followers have seen me riding elephants in Thailand, holding orphans in Mexico and sipping chai with locals in Kenyan mud huts. It all sounds pretty great, doesn't it? But the truth is, none of those experiences have fulfilled my inner need for purpose and identity.

At the end of the day, I still face the same nagging millennial disappointment as those who stayed in their hometowns. I wonder where I'm going, who I'm going with, and when I'll finally arrive. Don't get me wrong, adventure highs are nice, but they won't sustain you, and if you're always looking for the one that will last, you'll never get there.

From his clinical experience, psychologist Jeffery DeGroat comments on this, saying:

When I meet with people in their twenties who feel lost, uncertain and uninspired in their life, they often believe that if they make a change in their life, they will find direction, certainty, and inspiration . . . [but] unless these changes help someone leave a truly toxic situation, I often find that the person's unhappiness persists even after they make the change.

Living a Life That Matters

So if a big change or grand adventure isn't the solution, what is? Consider the following lessons I learned the hard way.

1. The comparison trap is detrimental.

I believe one of the biggest contentment killers out there is social media. We often find ourselves comparing our own lives to those on our newsfeeds to see how we measure up. I've barely even dated and they're having their fourth kid. Why don't I go on awesome trips like that? We graduated together, and he's already started his own business?

As Instagram feeds go, I've got a pretty good one. But if my travel pictures were proportional to my real life, you'd see many more photos of me hitting snooze on my alarm clock, putting in a load of laundry way too big for my machine, spending Friday nights home alone watching Netflix, and feeling guilty about ordering takeout for the third time that week.

The truth is, work is toilsome and life under the sun involves monotony. But no matter where you are, God has sovereignly placed you there. Don't disdain your place in His grand story, and remember that social media is only a short-sighted highlight reel.

2. You're not the savior of the world.

We all know that millennials are cause-oriented. We want to — and actually expect to — make the world a better place. But when our greatest longing is to see the epic story of our own heroism, ordinary days in ordinary lives become sources of discontentment instead of gratitude.

The truth is, we're not meant to be the hero. The world already has a Savior, and it's Jesus. When we try to make ourselves the protagonist of the grand adventure, it's not only frustrating, but it can become idolatry. Once we realize that our purpose isn't to save the world but to highlight the glory of the true Hero, we find freedom to delight in Him.

3. Practice everyday faithfulness wherever you are.

I have learned that the pursuit of holiness is more important than the pursuit of the next big adventure or accolade. The well-known missionary martyr Jim Elliot was onto something when he said, "Wherever you are, be all there."

When we spend our days longing for something more, we miss opportunities to glorify God precisely where we are. As Michael Horton writes in his book "Ordinary:"

Facing another day, with ordinary callings to ordinary people all around us is much more difficult than chasing my own dreams that I have envisioned for the grand story of my life.

Everyday faithfulness to Christ and our neighbor is a worthwhile pursuit, and through the encouragement of the Scriptures and the power of the Holy Spirit, we're free to truly let tomorrow worry about itself and be present where we are here and now.

4. A stable church community is invaluable.

In the midst of our identity crises and restlessness, we can miss out on one of the best gifts God has given us: the multi-generational local church. Plugging into this God-given community is a valuable alternative to striving for our daily fix of the young adult thrill-ride.

While having lunch with the middle-aged mom in our choir group isn't going to get nearly as many likes as our selfie with that African orphan, stable long-term relationships in our local bodies are God-glorifying, stabilizing, and grounding. It's hard work, but there's great value in commitment to a local church.

5. Whatever you choose to do, you're not going to miss out on your best life.

If we never feel like we "found it" or "arrived," it's because we haven't. And in this life, we won't.  We're sojourners living in a broken cosmos still waiting for its final redemption. Try as we might, we'll never find true fulfillment in our locations, our careers, our relationships, our adventures, or even our own identities. One day, though, we'll meet our Savior in the flesh and finally experience true imperishable joy in His presence.

When our real destination is in focus, we can echo Paul in saying, "I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God." (Acts 20:24) The best is yet to come. Don't despair in your unfulfilled yearnings, but recognize them, discipline them, and choose to yearn in the right way. In the meantime, live foremost to bear witness to the gospel while you await Jesus's return.

Travel or move or change jobs if you want to, but don't miss your real target. Jesus is both your highest calling and your greatest reward. Only He can fix you, and if anyone tells you anything else, it's a lie.

Copyright 2017 Juli Cooper. All rights reserved. 

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