08 October 2006

The Greatest Expedition: In Search of Oneself

By Anthony Savoia

I grew up in Florida and spent a lot of time in the woods behind our house. We had an inside corner lot at the edge of a fairly new housing development, with only untouched Florida wood and grassland for miles behind our property.

Heaven on earth to any young boy, this seemingly vast wilderness lent itself to endless hours of making trails, exploring new territory and building forts, club houses and bridges across the drainage canals that criss-crossed the area. My childhood imagination would run wild there and I would dream of being one of the earliest settlers in that area and staking a claim to this new land where I could build a new life. I would think about Lewis and Clark and often wished I could have been part of those early explorations, seeing this untouched land for the first time. It was easy to imagine how much fun it would have been to be a great explorer.

Stories about expeditions and explorations both real and imagined still stir my curiosity. Science fiction shows about space travel where new planets and strange things are discovered still appeal to me today, and I know I’m not unique. Most of us can at least understand the fascination that drives the efforts of our own, modern-day trailblazers.

Dr. John Splettstoesser has 55 years experience in Antarctic exploration. He is now an onboard lecturer for a cruise line that specializes in Antarctic trips. He is often quoted as saying, "If a person embarks on a voyage with known itinerary and destination, he is a traveler. If the same person embarks on a journey where the itinerary and destination are not known, he is an explorer.”

This is a grand statement and the more one examines it, the more the truth of it becomes apparent.

Although Splettstoesser doesn’t specify what sorts of destinations a traveler should choose, today’s society has almost overwhelmingly decided that it’s a moot point. The way of the explorer is much more exciting and brings greater virtue and rewards than the way of a mere traveler.

Cancer survivor, Jerry White, wrote a report in which he urged people to, “put aside the mode of thinking that locks them into somebody else’s itinerary and open their minds to put on the explorer mentality. You just may be amazed and pleasantly surprised by where the journey leads you.”

The appeal of being an explorer is one that is easily embraced today. Applied to the grander scheme of life, rather than just specific instances of a particular situation, this becomes a very romantic ideal in the sense that it seems to inspire one to seek out the new and unproven rather than the old and ‘tired’ ways of the generations before it. But is it really as romantic as it sounds?

Many a marriage has foundered on the rocky shores of “exploration.” Without a clear destination, we justify abandoning our commitments in order to “find ourselves.” Because any and all destinations are equally open to us without regard to their worthiness or the worthiness of those things we might have to give up, we no longer have a steady path or a solid end in view. We find that we need to “discover who we are.”

Unfortunately, the problem with finding ourselves through exploration is simply this: we don’t know when we’ve arrived at our destination.

Is it really more fulfilling to be an explorer whose itinerary and destination is not known? Or is it better to know who we are and where we are going?

When we don’t stop to ask for directions

When and how did we come to accept that “finding ourselves” meant throwing away all the maps? The decade of the sixties often takes the blame. After all, it was a time when a young generation began questioning the moral and ethical cultures of the day by promoting the antithesis. Jumping from one ditch into another is a common mistake of youth; and in the sixties, youth demanded society must become more “progressive” (read: permissive). The goals were to ensure that society would enjoy freedom from oppression and intolerance, while advancing the cause of civilization through social reform. Speaking in generalities, the generation was out to find itself. Millions of youth in the “civilized” western world set out to find themselves by pushing the edges of moral and ethical boundaries. Free sex, rampant drug use and disrespect for established institutions were all part of this “self-exploration.”

But to really understand what happened, says Melanie Phillips, a staff writer for Britain’s Daily Mail, “you have to realize that "the sixties" didn't start in 1960.” In a 2004 essay entitled, The Peter Pan Establishment, she notes, “Following World War Two, the revulsion against Nazism turned into hostility towards all forms of repression. This fuelled the rise of the therapy culture, on the basis that suppressing any desire was harmful for the individual. The fact that this happened to be essential for civilization was unfortunately overlooked. No, what became sacrosanct was how we felt about ourselves.” Phillips calls it, “an agenda of radical self-centredness.”

The baby boomers aren’t the only ones with this agenda. According to popular Australian parenting coach, Michael Grose, “Now the years from 18 until 25 and beyond seem to have become a distinct stage of life, where young people seem to have lodged for a while, staving off the responsibilities of full adulthood. This phase has been dubbed the 'twixter' stage…their babyboomer parents don’t want to grow old – they don’t want to grow up."

Nicole Gordon, who writes for Colorado's Mountain Gazette takes issue with being labeled. “I won’t deny that the quarter-life crisis keeps myself and a lot of my twixter friends up at night,” she says. “I would love to find meaningful work that unites who I am with what I do. But I also find the whole thing offensive. The basic premise of labels like kidults, permakids and adultescents is condescending.” Gordon doesn’t believe the generation before hers is any more “adult” than her own. She makes an interesting point. “Why does one need a stable career, mortgage, spouse and children to be considered an adult?” she asks. “Are people who have these things somehow more responsible and mature than those who don’t? And do their lives really have any more clarity or sense of purpose than anyone else’s? Considering that our parents’ divorce rates top 50 percent, the average American household supposedly carries about $9,000 of debt and a recent survey reports that two-thirds of Americans dislike their jobs, I don’t think so.”

Maybe Gordon is right. Perhaps each generation is simply “exploring” on different continents—neither has the edge over the other, because neither generation has a clear destination in mind. Perhaps none of us can find ourselves precisely because we’re too self-centered. We’ve forgotten that humans are social beings—we aren’t islands. Finding ourselves requires shoring up the connections we have with others and honoring our commitments to them.

In other words: if you want to find yourself…you have to lose yourself first. But lose yourself how? In modern terms, losing oneself can actually be a self-centered proposition. One that doesn't allow for furthering interpersonal connections.

It often seems that when someone goes out to ‘find themselves’ they generally end up finding themselves divorced and alone or finding themselves in debt. If we don’t have a clear idea of the kind of person we want to be, we can “find ourselves” in all kinds of unpleasant situations. If we really think we have “lost ourselves,” it usually only means we’ve lost sight of our destination. Yet, the first thing we do is abandon everything that has been part of our “selves” because we seem to believe that these things distract us from seeing who we are. The reality is we do need to lose ourselves, but not in the ‘usual’ way. Instead, one gains more clarity and purpose by losing the focus on one’s “self” and turning one’s focus onto those around us. As we find and build our relationships, we find our real “selves,” and we regain our purpose.

There are times when focusing inward can actually be helpful, of course. It’s called self-examination, but it’s very different from the “agenda of self-centredness” that Phillips talks about. When we search ourselves to compare our “current” selves to our “destination” selves, this helps us make adjustments in the way we approach our relationships—not selfish adjustments, but adjustments aimed at raising the quality of life for those around us. The bonus is that when we raise the quality of life for those around us, our quality of life skyrockets alongside.

Searching our inner selves is about being rooted, grounded, planted. Knowing what our goal is, and pushing ourselves to reach it. It’s about finding out what we have inside of us that we can give to others. It’s not about pushing everyone else out of our lives so we can figure out what we ‘want’ life to give to us.

Choosing a Road

Our travels through this life are more fulfilling when we have a clear vision of what we expect of ourselves, and less fulfilling when we expect to find happiness in blind exploration and experimentation. But having a clear notion of where we want to end up doesn’t mean we’ll be trudging along a mind-numbingly boring, well-worn path. Robert Frost’s ‘Road Less Traveled’ illustrates that we don’t need to blaze new trails to experience fascinating, life-enriching choice.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The person Frost describes is not blindly exploring. There was a destination, but also a choice of paths, both of which had obviously been taken before. The individual is a self-described “traveler,” who realizes he may not ever be at the crossroads of this same choice again. This is the sort of choice we have when we decide on a career, or make a commitment to a marriage. When we are at crossroads like these, we ‘look down' our paths as far as we can before making such life-defining choices; and after making them, we are kept committed to the path because our destination is part of our identity. The clearer our view of our destination when we start out, the happier we’ll be in the end with the paths we’ve chosen to help us get there. Actually, in these post-modern times, just having a destination at all puts us on the ‘road less traveled by.’ And our commitment to it is what makes all the difference.

(Mr. Savoia died from the effects of Kidney Cancer in March of 2006.)

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