A year and a half ago I wrote an article about oomph- the mysterious power behind all our endevors. I just reread it and discovered there were a few references to walking, and how my early attempts at long distance walks failed through lack of oomph. I think it's worth another look so here is the link:
I have a new book out on May 23 2013: Red Nile- biography of the world's greatest river. It's on Amazon for preorder. Otherwise I am writing about extreme places and extreme people in a new novel about the desert.
For a different take on exploration and new expeditions go to theexplorerschool.com
"No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit." Helen Keller.
When people talk about changing the world they mean, often, altering the system so that they are less excluded. In other words- they want power, or more power.
I’ve just finished reading a fascinating (if somewhat verbose) account of British ambassador Geoffrey Jackson’s imprisonment for 18 months by the Tupamaro urban guerrillas of Uruguay. What he noticed was that his captors almost never had a clear vision of what they wanted to happen after the apocalypse of the revolution. The alarums and distractions of ‘seizing power’ blinded them. He also noticed they did not practise delayed gratification- on a few occasions he saved his food to eat later in the day and his guards begged their prisoner for some bread since they had gobbled all theirs. They lived more in the present than the future, a future which remained vague, a hazy compote of egalitarianism and the withering away of the state. Changing the world was not really their interest, destroying the existing world was what really drove them.
Another meaning for ‘changing the world’ is to alter some key element of the way the world ‘works’. For example, getting rid of money, or abolishing multi-nationals, or forcing people to grow their own food. Each of these would surely change what we did each day, and our power relations- fat cat CEOS would be out digging instead of raking in their salaries…but it would not change such human basics as our need for attention, our interest in good conversation, our desire for meaningful work. Now, the fact that people choose to work long hours to live in nice houses and drive nice metal is their choice. Much of the modern world is like it is because people like it that way. I may prefer a yurt and a sleeping bag (I do) but anecdotal evidence suggests to me I am very much in the minority (no one else in my family does).
But my minority is fairly vocal. And maybe we could force our views on everyone…thus changing the world ie. gaining power.
Maybe we have a right to foist our yurts on the world because the world is destroying itself…
Is it? I guess this depends on how stupid you think people are. Are people so stupid that they will allow the world to be destroyed? Maybe the bit they don’t live in, perhaps. But increasingly we all live everywhere, kind of.
It seems to me that the basic human instinct to not crap on your own doorstep, reinvented as ‘sustainability’, is the new form that morality takes. Now that nationalism is waning.
Is nationalism waning? I think increased travel and internet use has watered down natural barriers. When I write now, I know I am addressing people all over the world. This is a very large change in the last twenty years. Nine of my friends are married to people of another nationality- none of our parents were. We are living in the era of the hybrid, the hybrid world citizen. This is how nationalism gets worn away.
The world changes, but not fast enough for some people. Amazon probably speeded up ebook use by five years by aggressively selling kindles. Maybe three years…such is the perceived inevitability of a thing when seen in hindsight.
The world changes- but does YOUR world change? Because all this talk is predicated on some kind of continuity between ‘your world’ and ‘the world’. When people say they want to change the world they hope this changed world will make them happier.
I suspect that a common motive for wanting to change the world is feeling bad yourself. “I’m not OK. Who is to blame? The world. Alright change it.” A happy contented interested person is not usually an advocate of bombmaking. A bored person could be though.
Boredom. An issue rarely confronted by politicians, teachers, and other producers of mass boredom. Yet boredom drives a great deal of what happens in the world. It drives casual TV viewing. It drives gaming. It drives terrorism. It drives drug use.
Irving Welsh very truthfully stated “that everyone needs a compelling drama in their lives.” For him it is involvement in the film industry, writing books being rather a boring main occupation. He points out that drug use involves you in a compelling drama of petty crime, evading arrest and feeling cool. It’s not the drugs, it’s the lifestyle that comes with them.
Boredom is the opposite of a compelling drama. And ‘changing the world’ is a compelling drama. Just as revolution is. Some compelling dramas are benign, some aren’t. An expedition is a benign compelling drama. Robbing a 7/11 at gunpoint less so.
I talk a fair bit about walking on this site, and walking is not very dramatic. Strolling to the shops, plodding through fields- pretty yawn making isn’t it? But walking, with just a little thought, becomes more compelling. A long distance walk IS a compelling drama, especially if you don't speak the laguage of the country you walk through. But you don't need to go that far afield. A friend of mine just walked from Yoxford in Norfolk to Oxford in Oxfordshire and his account is the very opposite of ‘bored’- because the key to a compelling drama is not the drama- it’s being at the centre of it.
Boredom is being on the outside looking in. Boredom is non-involvement. Boredom is being a consumer not a producer, a producer is at the centre of things.
Of course a great drama, like a war, always sucks you in. Hence the addiction to such events by war reporters. The more dramatic something is the more you FEEL involved just by observing it. Your account becomes important in itself. Your account puts you at the centre of things even though you aren’t really involved at all.
But on a long distance walk you really ARE at the centre of things. Where will you sleep? Can you get food at the next village? Is this mountain the one on the map? Trivial events, maybe, yet when you are on the ground they completely absorb you.
There ought to be some kind of boredom formulae. The compulsion of any potential drama is related to one’s distance from the event. And we seek not just one off dramas- but ongoing compelling dramas. We want our lives to resemble a Holywood movie not a film by Andy Warhol (who famously filmed people asleep for hours on end).
The ‘problem’ of modern life is that it is boring. We are placed by institutions at the edge of things, looking in. We are informed by the mass media that this is a good thing rather than a pitiable thing. Take the Olympics. A great spectacle perhaps. But we are just consuming it. The real action is being a participant, one of the elect, not a prat in the stadium clutching a vat of coke.
Start your own Olympics. Start your own political party. Run your own festival.
Some of the above requires getting others involved. That might not be easy. But going for a long distance walk IS easy. You only need some basic gear (all available on ebay for very little) and the desire to set out on your own compelling drama.
Change the world.
Be yourself we are told time and time again. No problem, if only I knew which of the many ‘I’s within was the ‘real one’. What I always wanted to know was- who is the ‘myself’ referred to?
As I have mentioned earlier, the central ‘I’, the only one you can rely on at all times is the observing self, what Adam Smith termed ‘the impartial spectator’. This is the self that simply notes what is happening, as it is happening.
But doing battle with the world requires action and despite some of the evidence out there, at least a smidgin of personality. So, an internal brew of familiar thoughts is shackled to a way of acting/speaking/appearing-in-the-world to become ‘us’, ‘the real me’, ‘my work self’ etc etc.
I just read a self help book where the author says her biggest aid in ‘being herself’ is say to herself: ‘be Gretchen’. Her name, as you may have gathered, is Gretchen. Somehow it conjures up all the annoying qualities this woman displays in her worthy tome…you can see how it works though. By calling herself ‘Gretchen’ instead of ‘I’ she puts a halt on behaviour that may be determined over much by others. By using her name she reminds herself that she exists, that there is another person in the room here.
So ‘being yourself’ in this situation really means ‘don’t get pushed around’. And isn’t that a concern with a lot of people doing jobs they may not like and living in a world with an awful lot of rules and regulations? ‘Being yourself’ becomes more like ‘I want to feel free’.
The truth is we are several selves, each one seamlessly segueing into another as the day goes by. Go from dealing with an unfamiliar situation down at the police station to drinking with a good friend and different selves will emerge. What is constant, though, is the impartial spectator observing the change from self to self.
I know that when I have been writing a long time there is a very inward almost shy self in the driving seat. If I have just completed ten miles with a rucksack on my back I’m ready to have a chat with anyone I meet and even armwrestle them into the bargain. Different selves.
Since you can’t talk a self into existence you have to do something to make him or her emerge shy and blinking into the limelight. How long does it take you to lose all vestiges of anger after some argument or another? Well that’s how long it’ll take for a new self to be levered into place.
Most of us just let it happen, but if you do competitive sports or perform on stage then you learn ways of making the self you want appear on cue.
In a curious – and fascinating- experiment I had to play for one evening the Victorian explorer Richard Burton. I knew that I couldn’t summon up his persona if I was already in company with the other actors (one of whom was playing the actor Richard Burton- as I said, it was a curious experiment). But I knew that if was already ‘in character’ when I met the cast then I could carry it off. So, after getting dressed in vaguely Victorian gear I psyched myself up by repeating lines and ad libbing as I walked double quick to the first meeting. And it worked. A lot of it had to do with getting the posture right- which is something emphasised by martial arts. If you get the posture right the right martial thoughts enter your head.
But instead of being myself I was being another.
Strangely, though, this alien self was now another ‘self’ I had within me at my disposal. Maybe this new self could be used to get me a pay rise...
Sometimes to be ‘ourselves’ we need to do something that our everyday self can’t manage. So we need a more extrovert self to do the job for us. Paradoxically, to be ourselves we have to be someone else.
First way: We can select a more outgoing self we want to be by observing what behaviour brings them out: a long walk, a weight lifting routine, forcing yourself to talk to a complete stranger.
Second way: A bizarre old Samurai trick to bring out your extrovert side is to dab water on both earlobes, shout as loud as you can and snap a stick or chopstick. It’s an old Samurai technique for getting rid of nerves – and funny though it is (do it in private), it really does shift you into a new self.
Some people we act phoney around- but it takes two to tango. If they cause us to act phoney, they must have a good slice of phoneyness in them. Or else they are denying us the attention we crave, so we start to try anything to get attention.
Other problems come down to status. In many situations- school, work, ‘civilised’ surroundings we try and find out whether we are higher or lower status than our interlocutor. This determines how we should behave. But this is wrong headed. We shouldn’t be worried about what people think of us. Yet there is a lot of conditioning through education and other institutions so make us believe our status in any interaction is ‘us’.
This is another reason why I like walking. Out on the trail all men and women are equal. You don’t worry about status. Or, more correctly, status is malleable, not set in stone. Your personal history doesn’t count as much as simply being on the walk. You can set it aside and get onto more interesting matters.
Dr Johnson once observed that two men can never be together for more than half an hour before one forming the view he is the superior of the other. Maybe- but in some situations thinking you’re ‘superior’ carries a lot of implications. In others it’s kind of irrelevant. And out in the wild places it is kind of irrelevant. Humility is more useful when there are plenty of rocks to trip over. Of course you could get competitive about walking- who gets up the hill fastest etc- but that is so obvious it’s almost funny.
Third way: Rather than ‘be yourself’ try ‘don’t care what people think of me’.
Often when we say “ I just couldn’t be myself” we mean we weren’t getting the kind of attention we usually get, or desire. I discovered something interesting about this, when, as an experiment, I just communicated for a day through writing notes- I pretended to be mute. What I found was that I felt ‘really myself’- because though I could only get into the conversation from time to time, what I ‘said’ was given a whole lot more attention than mere words spoken. So though I said less I got more attention and so felt more ‘me’.
In the West there is a connection between status and attention. The higher your status the more attention you get. So people waste their working lives trying to be higher status than each other. But the game is flawed because by playing ‘low status’- ‘I’m ill’, ‘I’m useless’, ‘the underdog who sees through the overdog’ you can actually get more attention. Tattoes get you a good attention dose too..
In the East people are less attention starved than the West. Probably because they give and receive attention more easily. Social life revolves around attention interchange, whereas in the West we have to smuggle our attention exchanges in: hence pointless meetings, water cooler chat etc. We’re made to feel giving and receiving attention is somehow a weak thing. Hence, perhaps, our reliance on status to get us attention. In a sense it is because in the East people understand this, they are therefore not so stingy with their attention. They are, in this way, more civilised than us.
Once people have perfected a routine that gets them the kind of attention they like they probably think of this as ‘the real me’. But is it? It’s just one of many selves you have at your disposal.
Doesn’t this undermine the whole ‘being yourself’ project though? I think it shows that it is actually something else. What we mean by being yourself is: know what you like doing, what you should be doing and be in alignment with your path, what’s right for you and the people you care about.
What we mean by ‘be yourself’- is really- ‘stick to your path.’ If ‘being yourself’ means staying on your path, seeing the right way forward- then it’s a good thing. But if it just means fashioning an inflexible persona that simply exists to maximise attention then what’s the utility in that?
Fourth way: If you make a mental allowance before talking, seeking only to say your stuff without caring what kind of attention you get, you’ll find you can more easily ‘be yourself’.
We are at our happiest when we have made a connection. The connection could be to a new friend, or reviving an old friend. It could be connecting through joining some new club or organisation. It could be connecting to knowledge through learning something new. It could be the ultimate happy connection- a coincidence- these can make us absurdly pleased for seemingly no reason at all.
Coincidences occur in everyone’s lives, but some people seem to attract them more than others. Also, inexplicably, some places attract more coincidences than others. It is true, though, the better you are aligned with 'what's right for you' the more coincidences you will notice.
But, to return to the initial idea, why should connecting make us happy? Because, in a way, man is hard wired to connect. We are social animals who require a group in which best to survive- in a primitive sense. The idea that one man can, Rambo style, survive alone in the wilderness is implausible. There is simply too much to do- but with a small group one can divide up tasks and live reasonably well. Only in a non-wilderness can man afford to not be connected to others.
His natural connections increase when he lives somewhere teeming with food. Hunting and gathering require one to connect with nature in a way that maybe now only a naturalist is able to emulate.
But why should coincidences make us happy? Because they imply, or echo, a deeper connection to the very fabric of life, to the reality of our most complete experience of living. Perhaps there are deeper reasons too, beyond what we can reasonably go into here.
But don’t take my word for it- try it yourself. Do some connecting. Talk to people in shops. Call up old friends. Be on the alert for coincidences- then see how you feel. Good isn’t it?
One thing that divides the East and the West is our attitude to fashar. Fashar is Arabic and means..well- here’s an example. My wife’s Egyptian uncle went to Sweden in the 1970s and found that ignorance of Egypt was rife…so he told everyone he had an oilwell in his backgarden, which he had just sold…and, that the bag he lost (what a terrible airport Stockholm has!)- had almost all the money in it…
When he came home to Egypt all the relatives laughed their heads off.
This is pure fashar. Fashar is partly fastasising, but there’s a difference. In the West we assume a fantasist is self-delusional. We have very strict ideas that kids lie and make up self-aggrandising stories but adults don’t. Unless they are mad, or out to con you. Or a bullshitter. Unfortunately being called a bullshitter isn’t very pleasant; once you’ve been dubbed a BS merchant people make a ham fisted game of doubting everything you say even that which is glaringly obviously true.
But fashar is self aware. The uncle was having a joke at the expense of literal minded Swedes. Fashar is also harmless. There is often no end in mind apart from pure enjoyment, the enjoyment of telling a good yarn, the enjoyment of the attention it gets you.
This talk about fashar brings up another key difference between East and West. In the East it’s your business to discern the truth of a thing. In the West it isn’t. In the West we have TRUSTED AUTHORITIES. In the West it’s OK to say “But we believed our teachers/leaders/friends.” In the West, it is the liar who is guilty, the lied-to (perhaps lie-ee, or lieee?)who is the innocent. In the East the liar is innocent, casting his bread of deception like a fisherman spreading groundbait, and the lieee the guilty one. Like the fish, they’re a fool for being fooled.
People in the East build a trust-ometer over time. You can go into a corner shop in Cairo for the first time. You may not have enough change (no one has enough change in Cairo) so the owner will tell you to take the newspaper/cigs/drink and come back later with the money. He’s never met you but he has a well maintained trust-ometer. He’s sized you up and knows he can trust you.
I have a corner shop here in the UK I visit almost everyday. Once I didn’t have enough for my paper. The owner slid it out of my hot little grip, and, as if doing me a massive favour indicated he would hold it on the counter for me- after I had trundled home in the rain for the exact £1.20…It’s not that he didn’t trust me- he didn’t trust his own trust-ometer.
So, when our TRUSTED AUTHORITIES can't help us, we are helpless, not even trusting our friends.
One reason I like people who have travelled cheaply is that they have been forced to build their own trust-ometer. When you rock up with a tatty backpack in some dusty town in Africa you need to be able to trust- because you have nothing else to go on.
Back to fashar. Am I really advocating we should go round telling each whoppers? I’m not sure.
In the East the game of fashar means that you never confront the fashar head on if you rumble them. That’s inconceivable here. Our closest friends are the ones most likely to be policeman. They are constantly reminding us ‘that never happened’, or ‘when was that then?’ Partly it’s because in the East people never like to smash into each other head on, but partly because in the East truly incredible things do happen so what seems to be fashar could just as well be true. Of course truly incredible things happen here too, but usually they have to be validated first by the Sun or the 9 o’clock news for us to ‘believe’ them.
What is this ‘belief’? Anyone who has ever had a story about them in the newspapers, including local papers, will know that there are always 2 or more glaring untruths in the piece- sometimes just down to sloppy reporting but usually things that just make the story better. Journos are our unconscious fashars here.
So is fashar just exageration and ‘improving’ a seed of truth? Often it is- for the average fashar. But, for the real masters of fashar, there need by absolutely no basis in ‘reality’ at all (just like a good Sun story). What do I mean by putting the ‘reality’ word in quotes? Well, once a fashar starts weaving his stories they sometimes begin to come true. Rather like the Graham Greene story where the spy sends the vacuum cleaner plans to his bosses and says it’s a secret weapon…and then, strangely, by using these plans a real secret weapon is uncovered, so the inspired fashar somehow connects to something ‘real’, maybe in the future, even though the fashar is just made up story telling.
Words get used up. Take the word ‘spy’. We think of James Bond. But a modern spy is actually a kind of journalist, checking all kinds of local media and sources for information that will give their leaders at home some kind of edge in negotiations or planning. It’s not like being a spy at all. Or take ‘bestselling author’- we have images of writing on a gold plated typewriter in the Bahamas, fancy publishing parties and long lunches with sycophantic editors. Nope. The reality is being a humdrum person forced to do ten interviews a day every two years, the rest of the time worrying about your sales rank and sitting at the kitchen table with your laptop like every other writer out there. So to give the true taste (words I prefer to ‘reality’) of one’s occupation- if you are a spy- one might prefer to use a different word: researcher, perhaps. This makes life ‘truer’ but more boring.
One the other hand life isn’t boring. Life is incredible. We only think it is boring because we are bored ourselves, too long indoors watching the rain and listening to Radio 4…or something. Life is a constant miracle- and that perspective is kept alive by fashar.
Perspective- if you look at life from the perspective of geology nothing much of ‘interest’ has happened for thousands, often millions of years. A ‘true’ geological account of things in the short term has to be boring, by its nature.
If your perspective on life is that of someone selling ice creams to make a living then life is interesting in a heat wave but right now is very dull.
The problem with the miraculous nature of everyday life is that we wouldn’t be able to do ‘everyday living’ if we were constantly remarking on all the small miracles of existence. Or we’d be worse at it. And modern life really extracts it’s pennyworth. You have to put in a lot of commitment to modern living to get the success you crave.
Maybe fashar can help you out.
We all know people who are ‘too heavy’. You may know people who by their studied attempts to be light hearted actually weigh things down, as if their very shallowness masks an inner lugubriousness, a real heaviness.
In truth, it’s rare to be light. To be someone providing light, who has a light touch, who is, in this way, enlightened.
Light people provide light. They make things seem easy. They stop obscurity. They don’t hide from facing up to life. They have an easy optimism. They make a joke of grind.
I think light people actually beam a kind of light outwards. They are generous. Taking, calculating, getting your ‘fair share’ are all heavy, all self-obsessed. Generousity is not only about giving, therefore lightening your load, its about focusing outwards, giving others impetus, making them lighter too.
Because the best quality of light people is that they lighten our load too, they make our lives less dim, lighter in terms of visibility and lighter in terms of the weight upon our shoulders.
How do the enlightened beam light at us? Quite literally by sending their light out, their affection, their generousity.
This is the start of lightness- giving things away without wanting anything in return. Lightening your own stash. The more you can give away the lighter you become.
Light people characteristically arrive unexpectedly and leave quickly having greeted everyone most fulsomely, spread a little light everywhere. They do not overstay, nor leave early just because that is the done thing. Lightness and an impeccable sense of timing and an absence of greed are all connected and maybe worth contemplating.
I am currently completely swept away by Tahir Shah's novel Timbuctoo. Odd that Timbuctoo is again very much in the news, his story follows the amazing adventures of the first European to visit this fabled city. This book is an incredible production, beautiful maps, wonderful paper...worth getting at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Timbuctoo-Tahir-Shah/dp/0957242905/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1339022075&sr=8-1