Adventures, society and sanity

In the summer of 2018 I’m going to take a tent, a sleeping bag, some clothes, some tools and a few other essentials, strap them to the back of a bike, and cycle through France. This is known as bicycle touring. But why am I going to do this? Because one of the cycles of life I’m trying to institute is to, every six months or so, go on an adventure. To “go on an adventure” is to do something exciting, to do something which has the uncertain and the unexpected as a primary feature, rather than a risk to be eradicated or mitigated against. Bicycle touring fits that model. To traverse a large distance on two wheels, not taking a rigidly planned route at a definite pace, carrying only what you need, camping who knows where, eating who knows what, and doing so alone, in a country other than your native one; sounds like an adventure to me.

Typically, when I fixate and decide upon something like this my excitement and curiosity compels me to read about it, to talk about it, and to watch videos and documentaries about it. This time is no different. One mini-film I came across during my scouring of the web for all things related to bicycle touring had the hideously bad title of  Life Lessons from a 7000 Mile Cycle. On the surface, it’s a short film about cycling a bike around the world, but really, it’s a short film about a different way of life. During it, Jeddidiah Jenkins says, “Routine is the enemy of time”. And you know what? He’s mostly right. 

In The Way to Love, Anthony de Mello talks of the sea’s spell: 

“Have you ever sat on a seashore spellbound by the majesty and the mystery of the ocean? A fisherman looks at the ocean daily and does not notice its grandeur.”

De Mello’s point is that we don’t see what is always there. Our perceptive apparatus is designed to pick up on differences, not similarities. Thus, even the most wondrous of sights fade and become banal after consistent exposure. This is what Jenkins is wrong about; routine is not the enemy of time—time flies during adventures just as fast as during the drudgery of routine. No, routine is the enemy of awareness. The deadening of perception, the greying and fading of experience. This is what Jenkins is really trying to combat. By deliberately and repeatedly breaking his routine, he is forcing himself to live with eyes wide open. As he says in the film, he wants to get to eighty-five and be exhausted because he’s done so much, because he’s seen so much.

It’s a beautiful idea. And it’s not new either. The human pursuit of an intense presence is a pursuit that has been ongoing during the entire existence of humanity. But unfortunately, like many beautiful ideas, it is an ideal not an achievable reality. Imagine everyone sought presence instead of productivity. Imagine that we all disavowed work in order to travel and experience. It’s not sustainable. Society depends upon the contribution—the sacrifice—of its users. For one person to travel the world, there has to be ten, or a hundred, or a thousand who are doing the dirty work, making sure it doesn’t all go to shit.

It reminds me of a fundamental philosophical orientation; you can either focus on what the world can do for you, or what you can do for the world. The two stances could be termed, respectively, “presence” and “productivity”. Focusing on “presence”, on absorbing the wonders the world has to offer, on being where you are and doing what you’re doing, conflicts with “productivity”.  To fully experience a moment, we can’t have an eye on producing or deriving something from it. We have to have none of our attention turned towards what this moment will yield, and all of our attention on the attempt to immerse ourselves within it.

Naturally, it’s not as black-and-white as it seems. In the same day, we can attend to society’s need for productivity and the human need for presence. But it’s worth keeping in mind that while society demands productivity, our sanity demands presence, and a life well lived is a life that strikes a balance between the two.