This is part three of a series. Click here to read part one and part two.
… A long hike provides plenty of time to think as well as a new, invigorating, environment to stimulate the mind. It was a great experience, and after being rejuvenated by the challenge and the sweeping natural beauty, I want to pass on to you some reflections of a more philosophical nature …
Frankly, in the first ten minutes I must have asked myself ‘why am I doing this?’ several times. I am very physically fit, but the hike was a proper challenge (not least because I did the first day on one hour of sleep) and throughout the two days I repeated this question, consistently having to dig deep and propel myself forwards. I was carrying a bag which was over a quarter of my body weight up and down steep slopes with aching feet and legs, the straps bruising my torso tender. The most steps demanded full concentration due to the risk of losing my footing and falling or twisting an ankle, and I must have twisted my ankles 5-10 times.
But I kept on walking. Why? It is interesting to consider this matter, not because our hike was an extraordinary human accomplishment (it wasn’t), but because it is a microcosm which provides insight into the core of human motivation and even the meaning of life itself. I found it an immensely beneficial exercise which ramified into the rest of my life.
So what was my answer? Well, most concretely it was ‘agh, shut up, keep going …’. There was a plaintive monologue which would have defeated me if I didn’t refute it or dispel it somehow. This is always the case in life. Our minds present us with moaning and self-criticism which we can either accept or overcome. We just have to tell it to shut up or we’ll be miserable. Often, arguing with it is giving it too much of a platform. If you can, it’s typically better to just slam the door in its face without an explanation.
It is quite a circular idea, but one reason I enjoyed the hike was figuring out how to combat this negative narrative, resisting that cowardly voice which wants nothing but to crawl into bed and exert no effort. To put one foot in front of the other I had to be very skilled in managing my own thoughts. At my most tired and sore, I would scramble for anything to throw back at my own negativity.
As such, it was an exercise in testing what I am made of. We need extreme circumstances to learn about ourselves, to discover the fault lines and the powerful flows. We need extreme circumstances to refine our character, like a knife needs a whetstone to become sharper.
A hike has the advantage that it is entirely voluntary, as opposed to some of the grueling experiences we can find ourselves braving. Although, I have come to think that the best challenge of all is the one which you don’t choose or which you don’t want. That is the challenge which tests you the most. It is much easier to pick a challenge which you like, such as traversing several mountains. It is much more difficult to face a challenge which you’re sick of, or which was foisted upon you, or which is boring and has little opportunity for glory, or which just involves you treading water.
If we want to prove to ourselves that we can face a challenge, rather than some voluntary or exciting subset of challenges, then we ought to look right where we are at the unglamourous, drawn out, and tedious, demands of the day.
My Pride and Joy
Returning to the question of ‘why am I doing this?’, it is time to consider that idea of proving something to ourselves.
But first, let’s get the admissions out of the way. Yes, I would be embarrassed in front of my friend if I gave up (even as a Stoic!), ashamed to be wimpy, and feel foolish for attempting what I could not accomplish, as well as guilty for disrupting their plans. It is funny how much we care about what others think.
Yes it is reasonable to be concerned about hindering others, but overall these are stupid reasons and unhelpful ways of thinking. By the way, note I said reasonable to be concerned about hindering others, rather than guilty. I think guilt is almost always counterproductive. What really matters is what people do, not how they feel. If you do something wrong, correct it as much as you can and change your behaviour so that you don’t do it again. Guilt doesn’t necessarily have any role in that process. In fact, guilt often functions to make us self-obsessed. We become focused on how bad we feel rather than on the objective circumstances.
It’s one of those emotions, like anger, for which there might be an argument that on very rare occasions it is necessary and helpful, but which is otherwise a waste of time and destructive. I am currently trying to eliminate guilt as much as I can from my life, and lo and behold I am not turning into a psychopath. Anyway, guilt is worth an article in its own right, at least, so let’s move on.
On the opposite side of the same phenomenon was being able to say (read: brag) to others that I did it. And here I am (not really). We can impress people such that they approve or disapprove of us, but regardless of the sense – positive or negative – the concern is with impressing others.
From a Stoic perspective, embarrassment is not a very interesting motivation since it is quite irrational, and neither is bragging. But another kind of pride was operative, something which is far more interesting and important. I didn’t want to let myself down after committing to the task. My ability to make a decision and stick with it until completion despite discomfort is very important to me, and it is part of how I define myself as a person. Being able to follow something like that through makes me happy to be me. Giving up would have meant that I would have to go about my life from then on knowing that I capitulated. Continue reading