About life-changing experiences

I often hear people talk or write about a life-changing experience. Sometimes they refer to trauma or having a child born or having a religious turn-around, but most often, at least in my larger circle of acquaintances (read: facebook friends), they refer to an adventurous experience of some sort. It could be a kayak expedition, a week in the mountains, hiking a Camino, doing a big adventure race, a month on the South Pole, backpacking through Europe, the list goes on.

I just read another post by someone who claimed to have had a life-changing experience, and it got me thinking about this phenomenon. Does it really changes one’s life? What changes? Is the change permanent, or is there a limited lifespan to this change? If so, what is the half-life of the change? And if the change is permanent, how many times can one’s life be changed by life-changing experiences?

My hypothesis is this: One’s life can only be changed in a fundamental way a couple of times over your lifespan. By definition, a fundamental change should change your outlook on life, your habits, your relationships, your chosen form of relaxation, your body image, and so on. These things don’t change easily and don’t change often. If your life changes fundamentally on a regular base, you are probably suffering from a serious mental condition.

So what to make of these life-changing experiences? Is everyone lying, or have these just become buzz-words to describe any experience that is out of the ordinary? The fact that an experience is different from your every-day life, does it mean that it changes your life?

I have been fortunate enough to have done a whole lot of different missions throughout my life that would fall in this category of life-changing experiences. I often relate the stories of a 7-day hike I did in the Drakensberg when I was 12, and the 1500km bicycle ride when I was 16. The fact that I still remember these in such clarity probably indicates that they were indeed life-changing. But did they really change me, or were these missions just the result of who I was already? What about all the other missions I did since then? Was each just a natural result of my outlook on life, or was each mission the result of the experience from the previous one?

I don’t have the answers, but I do think that some people are naturally drawn to such experiences, born with a curiosity for what lies around the corner, and with enough confidence to do something about it and find out. For people like this, it is somewhat disingenuous to call these experiences life-changing, as they are experiencing exactly what they were destined to do.

Most people, however, seem to be naturally inclined to avoid out-of-the-ordinary experiences; it could be out of fear for leaving the comfort zone or it could be out of laziness. For people like this, it can indeed be a life-changing experience if they’re put in a situation where they are physically and emotionally pushed to their limits, or even just removed very far from their normal creature comforts.

However, if you claim that such an experience was life-changing, but you never do something similar again, or if no fundamental change took place in your outlook on life, nothing has actually changed. You only had an experience that had the potential to be life-changing.

Conversely, if you do end up doing something similar again, you can’t claim to have had another life-changing experience, because you are doing it precisely because your life was changed already.

So yes, I do believe that life-changing experiences can be claimed with honesty. But use those words sparingly, otherwise they begin to sound hollow and make the experience cheap.