by Bruce Grierson
The artist Jenny Holzer once created a piece called “You Are Still Here.” Just those four words, etched on a bathroom mirror.
It’s a reassuring thought. But, strangely, one most of us don’t often dial up.
The work of these two psychologists suggests that if we each owned a Jenny Holzer mirror, and we let those four words sink in first thing in the morning—You … Are … Still … Here — and then considered the alternative, we’d be better off.
When people vividly imagine their ticket getting punched, it makes them acutely grateful to be alive, surrounded by dogs and friends and ice cream. Gratitude is good. Gratitude puts our problems in perspective. It throws the moment-to-moment joy of living into high relief. Gratitude is a “happiness prime.”
In a 2007 study, University of Kentucky psychologist Emily Lykins and colleagues found that sustained meditation on mortality tipped the psychological response from “terror management”—where we pull up the drawbridge and hang on for dear life to who we used to be—to “post-traumatic growth,” where we allow ourselves to become something else. We need to have the guts to stare deeply and intently into the abyss, until gratitude blooms, and we vow to get everything we can out of our one wild and precious life.
With all this in mind, and with summer getaway season upon us, here’s my idea for a unique travel plan.
I call it The Kismet List.
Kismet meaning luck, or fate.
Like a Bucket List, a Kismet List is a partial inventory of nice places to visit. But it has another layer of meaning. Each destination marks a spot where you dodged oblivion.
Of course, none of us will ever really know how many times fate zigged instead of zagged and we squeaked through. But pretty clearly a lot had to go right, over and over, starting three-and-a-half billion years ago when conditions were suddenly Goldilocks-perfect, and microbes appeared in the new oceans and life was off to the races . Think of that kind of luck, again and again, right up to last night when a driver in the oncoming lane sneezed into his coffee and almost lost control of his car but didn’t.
Let’s face it: it’s crazy that we are here. But we are. Sometimes we need reminding of our astronomically good fortune. What better than a sustained meditation on how it could so easily have been otherwise, in a vacation spot that’s sweet in its own right?
Here’s my own Kismet List:
1. Chicxulub, Mexico
You can’t see it in the photo, but this primo spot on the Yucatan Peninsula is home to a great big dent in the Earth. That’s where the meteorite hit, 65 million years ago, that (scientists mostly agree) wiped out the dinosaurs. Which left a niche for … us. If that meteorite shows up even five minutes later, it misses the Earth, the dinosaurs survive as the apex predators, and you and I are not here. Enjoy your margarita.
2. Lake Toba, Indonesia
This vast crater lake in Sumatra is all that’s left of a super-volcano that erupted much more recently, a mere 70,000 years ago. There were plenty of humans on Earth by that time. But this event—which darkened the skies for a thousand years—darkened the skied for a thousand years and changed the climate and wiped out 99.9998 percent of them. There were barely enough of us left to reproduce. But they did. The population recovered. Very close call.
3. Gulf of Cazones, Cuba
This sparkling inlet was known by a different name in November of 1962: the Bay of Pigs. Site of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The most perilous moment of the Cold War. The Russians and the Americans frozen in a standoff, fingers twitching on the doomsday triggers. And terrified families all over the world huddled around their TVs and radios thinking, This is it.
You know the rest. Humanity pulled a Houdini. And if you go to this region today, you can hear great music and enjoy a cold cerveza after exploring some caves. There is vibrant life, enough to almost make you forget the spectre of mass extinction that loomed here.
Now, here’s the point where my list and yours inevitably start to diverge.
4. Ypres, Belgium
Passchendaele. One of the bloodiest battles of WWI, took place on a ridge not far from these woods. And my grandfather, William C. Bruce, was in the thick of it. He crouched in a trench like the one above, with water up over his boots and his rifle jammed with mud and by god it was grim. So grim that the soldiers on both sides were welcoming just about any way out, including swift death.
But my grandpa came home. Met my grandmother. And the chain of life continued. If you visit Ypres today you can see the war memorials, then have coffee and cake in the back garden of a café in the old town. And knock on wood.
5. Sunjin, North Korea
This is where my father, the son of medical missionaries, was born. But he almost wasn’t born. He was a “blue baby.” The umbilical cord got wrapped round his neck in the womb. They thought Dad was D.O.A. when he emerged, and the delivering physician — his own father! — gave up on him. But my Aunt Hazel, who was at the bedside, saw his finger move. “He’s alive!” she shouted. And it was game on again for Dad. And the family story resumed.
6. Spilsby, United Kingdom
Dad was 25 when WWII broke out, and he promptly enlisted and trained as navigator. He ended up in the Pathfinder squadron, one of the most dangerous details in the war. His Lancaster went in ahead of the bomber stream, alone and exposed, dropping flares for the other planes to aim at, a sitting duck for anti-aircraft fire. Somehow, Dad made it home.
Near Spilsby, a farm town on England’s East Coast, there’s an aviation museum. There you can taxi down the runway in a restored old Lanc. So I could sit where Dad sat with his little navigation instruments, and try to imagine the dread he must have felt as they prepared for takeoff.
This is the place I want to go first.
7. Sifnos, Greece
Where I almost died rock climbing.
8. Holetown, Barbados
Where I almost died scuba diving.
9. Strathcona Park, British Columbia
Where I almost died, along with my good pal Mike, trying to get up and down that mountain in the back, called the Golden Hinde.
And that’s my list. These are the places that pluck the strings of my DNA.
If you try a Kismet-List holiday yourself, I can almost guarantee you’ll enjoy it more than your last holiday, the one you didn’t put that Jenny Holzer frame around. Convincingly conjuring brushes with oblivion likely makes us more mindfully aware of our surroundings—the way that actual brushes with death do. In other words, the mango will taste sweeter, the sky will be bluer, your partner will be funnier, your sandals more comfortable, the ocean more amniotically relaxing. Your glass will clink louder as you make a grateful toast.
And you might find yourself putting your good fortune under a microscope.
You Are Still Here.
Bruce Grierson is a writer in Vancouver. His most recent social-science project is One Big Day.