It may seem trite to say life is a journey, but few metaphors are more apt for describing the human experience. Personal insight and awareness often have the same gradual, unfolding nature that mirrors the action of putting one foot in front of the other. Moment to moment we are keenly conscious about the desire to be somewhere else, to know what we don’t know, or to acquire something still outside our grasp. Far from being trite, understanding life as a journey is quite meaningful and useful for facing life’s difficulties. Humans respond to the call for a better life by moving from point A to point B, physically, mentally or spiritually.
The impulse to physically wander is inherited from our ancient vegetarian ancestors, and the need to settle down in a base, cave, den or tribal territory is characteristic of carnivores. So says the legendary explorer Bruce Chatwin in his intriguing collection of essays, The Anatomy of Restlessness. The omnivorous design of our teeth and the versatile structure of the human body hint at the acceptability of both lifestyles: roaming the land in search of sustenance or staying put in one place to construct agreeable ways to cook and eat. Even today for many, nothing says home like a great kitchen and dinner table.
So we have competing desires: the urge to travel, to move, to be curious, as well as the longing to nest and rest. The moment we answer the call to explore we’ve also sown seeds for the yearning for home. There’s beauty in that tension. To wander without a literal or figurative sense of home is to be lost, to be pushed without the stabilizing pull. The explorer may physically go in one direction, but psychologically he desires a round trip; to come back to his familiar self, but with something new added. There is a heroic departure from the norm and a return, hopefully with new gifts to offer, leading to a new and better normal.
Historically, Chatwin reports, the nomad doesn’t wander aimlessly, but follows known paths of migration; the geographic familiarity perhaps compensating for the absence of a fixed address.
You might say the nomad is uncivilized, if we accept Chatwin’s definition of civilized as “living in cities.” The true nomad or explorer is something of a disruptive influence on civil society. His path goes outside the boundaries, but his motives are constructive. His movement seeks provision or insight or economic gain, not escape.
Chatwin cites Herodotus, himself an exile and a traveler with boundless curiosity. In The Histories Book IV we find a fascinating description of the advantages of nomadic life. Facing military aggression by the Persian King Darius, the nomadic Scythians went on the move. But what appeared as retreat to Darius was nothing of the sort. The Scythians merely acted in accord with their accustomed lifestyle. In frustration, Darius sent a message to the Scythian King: “Why do you always run away?” The Scythian King replied, “I have never fled for fear of any man, nor do I now flee from you. If you really want a fight, find the graves of our fathers and then you’ll see whether we’ll fight. As for your boast that you are my master, go and cry.” Soon enough Darius was the one retreating.
Nomadic traditions are highly spiritual, having gave rise to the great world religions. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed – all nomads. Chatwin, an agnostic, writes, “…no great transcendental faith has ever been born of an Age of Reason. Civilization is its own religion.” Chatwin proposes, however, that the estrangement of physical movement from spiritual growth in civilization contributes to a stagnation we seek to recapture in focused migrations. The Muslim Hajj and other pilgrimages endeavor to balance the loss of human movement inherent to civilization.
Chatwin came of age in the 1960s. In many ways he embodied the daring and progressive lifestyle that typified those times. But he was primarily a freethinking intellectual who didn’t hesitate to call out the posers among his contemporaries. Chatwin disdained the recreational drug use associated with that freethinking age, regarding it not as counter-cultural but as counterfeit and still bound by middle-class material values. This didn’t endear him to “the cool kids” of his time. He saw his own generation as profoundly ignorant of the worth of travel and exploration as purposeful activities, ways to test one’s imagination and develop skills, not as excuses for idleness and indulgence. But since humans must journey, it didn’t surprise him that people were susceptible to seeking inferior journeys of the chemical kind.
Chatwin disrupted his society and spurred his own growth by moving his body. He believed walking was best because, taking his cue from nature, the best things in life are accomplished slowly and deliberately. Writing in 1970 he said, “All our activities are linked to the idea of journeys… our brains have an information system giving us our orders for the road, and that here lie the mainsprings of our restlessness. At an early stage man found that he could spill out all this information in one go, by tampering with the chemistry of the brain. He could fly off on an illusory journey or an imaginary ascent…. but true wanderers rarely fell prey to this illusion. Drugs are for people who have forgotten how to walk.”
The horizon of the inner journey is where Chatwin ultimately set his sights. His concept of adventure had little to do with adrenaline-pumping risks or gawking at the exotic, though he did take risks and he did witness the exotic. His concept of adventure involved responding to restlessness without surrender to rootlessness. There was boldness and maybe even impulsivity to his adventures. He stepped outside of his known territory but not outside of his consciousness.
His first and perhaps best-known book, In Patagonia, came about because of a conversation with an elderly friend. The friend said, “I’m too old to go to Patagonia now. Please go for me!” Chatwin answered the call and left immediately, famously sending this succinct message of resignation to his employer: “Have gone to Patagonia.”
If life is a journey then to sojourn well we must be in it for the long term and be willing to go beyond known territory. There will be long stretches where nothing seems to be happening. The true explorer is patient and makes peace with the step-by-step nature of the process. I admire the abandon with which Bruce Chatwin accepted those facts.
Do you desire to be a lifelong learner? Think of learning as a long walk. Better yet, take a long walk and explore. You get to know things better when they go by slow.