When Lisa and I were in Ladakh, we happened upon probably the greatest invention known to humankind: the Milton thermos. And we happened upon it everywhere. From tea to the boiling water we were forced to drink daily due to the competing concerns of avoiding dehydration altitude sickness and not dying of giardia, this thermos promised to keep any liquid at its starting temperature for 24 hours. And it delivered. We could leave tea or water in it overnight and it would still be wildly warm in the morning. At one point, we refilled prior to backpacking for nine hours and somehow it was still the same scalding temperature at the end of our day. I frequently negatively compared it to my Hydroflask, which started warm but seeped heat into the surroundings within hours.
As we hiked between Dipling and Lingshed, having little else to think about other than how much the climb at the end of our day would hurt, I mused about how much of the heat of my own life I felt I had lost after leaving college. I had left the science research I had loved for a more financially stable corporate research career, I was no longer pushing to optimize the .1% of my body’s running performance, and I was tired. My intensity and drive, all wrapped up into one small roiling soul, were all I had ever been: a Milton thermos of statistics knowledge and athletic intensity and unwillingness to ever do less than the maximum. Now, who even was I?
Interestingly enough, no one around me that we’d met seemed to be having these Gethsemanes of self. In fact, there seemed to be very little “self” involved in any of the way people lived. In both Lingshed and Dipling, privacy was a precious commodity, because people moved in and out of our space (not that it was ever really ours) without question, and did so with each other as well. Everyone talked to each other in loud voices that carried and kids played on top of parents threshing barley. Even at the town meeting, during very serious conversations about schooling and heat in the winter, life-changing things, kids played as loudly as they wanted to and people moved in and out at will. This is not a commentary on the ease or simplicity of their lives—a predominantly Western-driven and profoundly reductive description—but rather on the expectation of community: one lives and breathes and exists on top of and within and through others, loudly and openly.
And that is why, despite being the ideal vessel in theory, no one can ever stand drinking out of a Milton thermos. It’s always too hot, tastes like pure distilled water, and needs to be tempered by its surroundings before it can be useful for any of the purpose for which it is meant. And it reminded me that life, as remarkable and painful as it can be, is not measured in the ability to stick to one goal. It’s measured in the giving. In the learning from your surroundings, in the absorption of pain and the yielding of growth, in the joy in the offering — that is where living happens: in the giving away of the parts of yourself you always thought you would have, in exchange for the experiences and the sufferings and the friendships that make it truly meaningful.
I looked around myself in Ladakh, and noted that in a world this beautiful, I’d rather not be a Milton thermos: impenetrable and untouched by my environment. I’d rather be translucent, breakable, able to be poured out into other people’s lives and carry them into my own. After all, pure boiled water tastes terrible anyway.