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Adventurers who want to be looked after

Being looked after. There is an excellent book by psychoanalyst Arthur Deikman called The Wrong Way Home. In it he talks about how ‘cult behaviour’ is really the extrapolation and realisation of the desire to be looked after, a manifestation of that childhood sense of family security when you are being driven late at night and you’re all cosy drowsing on the back seat while Mum and Dad sit in the front effortlessly whisking you home.

Wake up and smell the coffee instead! No one is going to look after you like your parents- and for very good reason. Wanting to be looked after, beyond the usual requirements of childhood or extreme illness, is one the most damaging desires in the world.

Extreme stuff. Damaging because wanting to be looked after makes people vote for tyrants, take jobs with bullies, do work they hate, live with men or women who abuse them, and do nothing when the thing looking after them exacts a huge and unwarranted price: such as asking you to serve in a murderous army, or turn a blind eye to civilian disappearances. It is a commonplace, perhaps, to assert that leaders aren’t the problem, followers are. What if Hitler had been ignored, left as a man spouting racist claptrap in a tramp’s hostel? He was made dangerous by the followers he was able to attract. Instead of ignoring or ridiculing him people imagined he could look after them.

One reason the West is inferior to the East, is that in the West people are encouraged by many of society’s institutions to want to be looked after. We encourage people to imagine that this is even possible. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting we shouldn’t look after people, but we need to be able to do it without infecting ourselves with the desire to be looked after as well.

There is a traditional story about a man who watched a limbless fox living in a small cave near a water hole. Whenever a lion brought his kill there the limbless fox would wait until midnight and crawl out and eat and drink his fill. The man concluded that was all one needed to do so he sat in the market place living off whatever scraps he could find. Often he went hungry. Most of the time he was bored and depressed. But he soldiered on with his ‘limbless fox’ strategy. Finally God spoke to him- “why be a limbless fox when you can be a lion?”

One man who appeared to live the life of a lion was Freddy Spencer Chapman – mountaineer, explorer and WW 2 hero. While still at Cambridge he took part in expeditions to Greenland. He climbed in the Alps and the Himalayas, making a first ascent of the 7326metre peak Jomolhari in 1937; a peak which wasn’t ascended again until 1970. When WW2 started in the far east he was in his mid thirties and elected to be part of a group who would stay behind enemy lines and harass the Japanese. He managed this for three and a half years, spending 17 days once in a malaria induced coma. At one point he was actually captured by the Japanese, but employing his theory that escape becomes exponentially harder the longer you leave it he broke away the night he was captured, literally running away through the jungle with only his shirt on his back.

There was no question that Spencer Chapman was a hero and yet even he wanted to be looked after. His fatal flaw was a fear of financial ruin. He eschewed the life of an explorer after WW2 for that of a schoolmaster and later Warden of a residential hall at Reading University. However, when he was due to retire worries about financial security drove him to take his own life. Though he feared he might have cancer this was found to be untrue. And many accounts substantiate the fact that he was worried about not being able to survive on his pension- which was small but perfectly adequate. Bizarrely and tragically his final note expressed his desire to ‘not be an invalid’- he pessimistically assumed he would become one. Chapman wanted to be looked after financially; he sensed this was wrong and this became perverted into a delusion of being a burden when this was simply not the case. There is no question that if Chapman had been given a generous pension or had been allowed to work until he died that he would never have killed himself. It was his inability to believe that he could look after himself that drove him to take drastic action. He was like the man starving in the market place rather than taking control of his life.

Oddly enough this pattern is not unusual- both Peter Fleming and Wilfred Thesiger lived at home with their mothers, whilst Bill Tillman lived with his sister- looked after while they planned their next big adventure. In a sense some explorers are really still like boys, with a hypertrophic sense of adventurous self-reliance but an underdeveloped sense of social self-reliance. For some ordinary life is just too dull to be taken seriously. But I suspect a big part of it is a failure to root out once and for all that warm and cosy desire to be looked after…



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