A Chapter Left Unfinished – Part One
Over the last month or so, I have been conscious that my input into the blog has faded away. To the reader, the story must have seemed to have abruptly stopped. For me, this situation feels incomplete – as if something remains unfinished. Whilst of course I have no obligation to this blog, I feel I should share why I am no longer writing and thus close this particular chapter properly.
The reason for the silence is, by and large, simple – I am no longer on the road and as such my attention is no longer directed towards the moto and the world around me. Paulina has sold her moto and is short of money, so enabling her to replenish her bank account is now a priority. I am also back in familiar surroundings – Pisac in Peru’s Sacred Valley, where I spent three months in 2012 and to where I have returned on two other occasions since. Under such conditions, it is difficult to feel inspired to write posts about the bike and one’s observations of life.
But there is also a more profound reason for this switch in my focus. It started back in October last year when I was in the States.
So often in life, it is only after one steps away from something in which they have been immersed and observes it from afar, that they can see it for what it really is (or was). It was thus when I left the Army. As I slowly adjusted to life as a civilian (and one who had chosen not to step back into another defined organisation or job), I started to appreciate the extent that I had, as a soldier, taken on an identity to fit into my environment. Through that identity, I had been afforded a sense of purpose, as well as a mechanism by which to validate myself. And by willfully adopting an identity which ‘fitted’ with my chosen community, I also felt a sense of belonging.
The military is an institution in which this social dynamic is very obvious. We are literally, as well as metaphorically, given a uniform to wear. And on that uniform we attach symbols which clearly define the person wearing it; badges of rank, regimental insignia, medals… Furthermore, as a job based on service it is easy to find a sense of purpose. However, this phenomenon is by no means unique to the Armed Forces or other ‘services’ such as the police, fire brigade, medical services and the like. The more I have observed it from afar, the more I recognise that it seems to be part of human nature to need a defined identity, as well as the purpose and sense of validation that comes with it. Most jobs provide it. And furthermore humans can embrace it through almost any activity: “I am a mother”, “I am religious”, “I am a rugby player”…. These are all roles or identities.
Some may argue that a role, a purpose, or a sense of belonging to a community is important – indeed maybe even essential – to the human experience. I believe there is a fine line here, which is usually not recognised. Doing something worthwhile can be very rewarding; so can the experience of feeling a connection with a group or community. However, at a fundamental level we are not that activity and we are not that community. We are unique individuals, and our true essence lies buried beneath these identities we take on. The problem is that this essence can get lost, to others but also to ourselves, hidden under layer upon layer of these externally-facing identities.
I learnt this through the anonymity of being a lone biker in a foreign land. I was no longer part of a group or organisation. I had no clearly defined role, or definable purpose in life. Being a foreigner with almost no understanding of the local language, I was effectively existing in a form of solitary confinement; even labels such as my accent which can define me in my home country were no longer applicable. Arguably, I was experiencing life without a mask for the first time since I was a young child.
It wasn’t always a comfortable experience, especially in the early days. The feeling of having no purpose and being a social outrider was at times very difficult to reconcile. But as time went on, I started to feel a profound sense of liberation. Not only was I able to truly be myself at last – behaving as I wished, dressing as I wished, doing as I wished – I was also getting to know parts of myself I had lost contact with many, many years ago.
But then in October last year, I attended the ‘Overland Expo’ in North Carolina. Here I was surrounded not only by travel enthusiasts, but also people who were making a living from travelling. I started to recognise once again the uniforms and badges of those who had taken on an particular identity: as the medal ribbons I had worn on my chest as a soldier told others where I had been and what I had done, declarations of how many countries these travellers had visited or how may years they had been on the road fulfilled the same function. Some were even afforded ‘expert’ rank by being invited to speak on panels about particular aspects of travel.
As I observed this going on around me, it began to dawn on me that I too was, in fact, now one of them! Only days before, I had given a presentation to about a hundred motoqueros about my travels. And that very day I had done a podcast interview for a motorcycle website. The more I looked into the mirror, the more I saw how I had inadvertently re-defined myself – as an ‘adventure biker’. My blog had become a key activity for me, absorbing much of my attention. I was writing articles for bike magazines. And beyond the tangible activities and outputs, I realised that I had been feeding the need for an identity and purpose through my travels. I was no longer just a free-wheeling anonymous face in the crowd.
Three years on since leaving the Army, the internal programming which tells me I need an identity and role remains strong. It seems to be a deeply-embedded human condition. Yet I remain convinced it is one we should not succumb to. Of course, we should continue to do things – life would be decidedly unfulfilling if we didn’t; but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be those things.
So I am redressing that. For the last couple of months I have stepped away from the bike and out of the bikers’ uniform. I am parking up for a while and re-directing my focus inwards back to myself. The rally project is on hold. I’ll be back on the blog when I’m back on the road, and I suspect the occasional topic may catch my eye over the next few months and inspire me to write something. But for now, please excuse me whilst I spend some time with me.
I have followed this post with Part Two, HERE.
I love reading your blog and wish you all the best. I can certainly understand your feelings, but I do believe you will find that a life turned inward is an empty life indeed. Still, each of us must follow our own journey and I will look forward to reading more from you in the future. Best-Mari
Hi Mari. Thanks for your kind words.
I came across a beautiful quote recently by a guy called Dennis Kimbro: “Life is 10% what happens to us, and 90% how we react to it.” I think this captures so succinctly the imperative to spend at least some of our time focusing on what goes on ‘inside’. I agree with you that a life spent entirely focused on this internal landscape would start to feel empty – the external world is way too rich and exciting to ignore – but getting that internal stuff better organised, so to speak, makes the outward-focused stuff run so much more smoothly.
I have described my blog as a motorcycle blog but in reality my blog is a “whats ever on my mind” Blog. I love motorcycling but the fact is that I have a full time job which I extensively travel and a family to take care of, so I cant ride all the time. If I rode all the time, then I would write about riding all the time because that is a passion but that is not the case. I write about what ever is on my mind. This week, its been about my struggles with PTSD, next week it may be about my a 3 days journey on my FJR, other times its just random thoughts. The key is that it lets me vent and get my thoughts out there. Its your blog, make it what ever you need it to be. Despite my profound love of riding, life is more then two wheels. If you like to write, keep on writing even if you are putting up the spurs for a bit of time. Im sure you got a ton of great stuff to say.
On a side note, when I got out of the military, I so much felt like there was a “LACK OF PURPOSE” in my life. Even work had little meaning because it seemed so not important. I mean in the military lives were on the line, missions needed to be complete. In the corporate world, there was no such reason to get the job done with the exception of the big money picture. It was a hard transition for me and still is from time to time. After a few years I found that any job is important because its not “WHAT YOU DO” its “WHY YOU DO IT” which makes our jobs important. Hopefully at the end of the day what every career or job we find is a rewarding experience.
Keep on that path of self fulfillment…
You’re so right. I have been considering starting a fresh blog, to help me explore the personally difficult journey of leaving the Army and finding a sense of peace with where I currently find myself in life. Like you, I have found it tough and confusing at times.
But also like you, this blog has never been exclusively about motos, so like you say, why not keep writing on whatever I feel needs to be said? Perhaps I don’t need a new blog. I find the discipline that blogging instils into my thoughts and words very beneficial: it forces me to really think about and clearly articulate ideas that emerge in my mind. So I suspect I’ll be back on the keypad soon!
Paul – your blogs have always been interesting and provided a reason for me to reflect on my own life – at times I was living vicariously through your blogs and your videos and your adventures. I wish you all the best for the future – whatever that may bring. Whilst you may have been part of a group – you still imparted your own identity and perception on those things going on around you. Take care.
Thanks Phil – I appreciate that observation. I suspect I’ll be back on the blog in due course – as TwoTireTirade points out, I needn’t write only on bike and travel stuff.
I’ve been out of the Marines for four years now and have experienced the liberation and the doubt you describe and concur with your observations. I wish you all the best in your quest for freedom and authenticity as your challenge yourself and others around you to see things as they are.
I am going to share your blog on Facebook with some more thoughts.
Excellent article and I identify with your struggle to shed the identity we assume in the military to find something more authentic. Have you ever tried to answer the question ‘what do you do’ without describing your job? Job description as self-description is a trap nearly all of us fall into and escaping this is a goal worth striving for. I wish you all the best on your journey to be truly free.
I am often asked by friends who are leaving the military to meet with them to talk about the transition. Inevitable they want to talk about how to find a job they pays a certain amount, has a certain level of responsibility and authority, has a certain title and is in the right part of the country. These are all reasonable aspirations and questions but I always challenge them.
Leaving the military is a fantastic opportunity to ask and answer much more fundamental questions but it takes a lot if self-reflection to do so in what is already a stressful time. It takes even more courage to live consistently with the answers discovered and that is even harder to do, particularly when military leavers often have many financial and familial commitments. Nevertheless, if these questions aren’t asked then they invariably never get asked.
You’ve been missed Paul … and the publications that have been lucky enough to receive your writing will have to fall back to “run of the mill”.
Thoughtful insight, originality and intelligence are a rare commodity in our small Moto ADV journo world.
Totally get your taking a break. “identity”, “community”, “sense of purpose”. All important. Seem to be a pretty common need amongst we Western travelers. Guilt comes into this for some. (Protestant work ethic)
But you’re bound to have a let down after so many years riding high whilst crossing continents on your bike without a care in the world. Nothing lasts forever.
I know the isolationism that travel can bring … and in some communities a “Gringo” will never totally fit in … accent or no. Living in a “foreign” community full time can be exhausting and isolating … even when you’ve got a “job”, duties or obligations, even with pretty good language skills.
Many travelers with nothing “to do”, no job or obligations on the road end up feeling like Bums, feel guilty … and locals may reinforce that perception. After all, look at what most travelers do everyday. Not much in the way of “work”. So I get the urge to “get going” onto something new … it’s what I did after 7 years on the road.
For sure take the time you need to work out where you want to be … and what you want to be doing … or heading towards. I can assure you of one thing: you’re a talented writer (IMO) and I hope you can use those skill in future endeavors. Sadly, corporate types neither recognize or want to pay for good writing. They think everyone should work for free … except for them! 😉
Good luck and keep us posted when you can.
San Rafael, CA
It was really touching to read this, and as someone whose career followed the same twists and turns as yours it is easy to draw parallels. I suppose I am the antithesis of your adventure – having moved straight to a large corporation where my identify is defined by my Division within the bank, role and level, but where there is not that obvious sense of service, that sense of giving of yourself towards something bigger and certainly no costume jewellery. And from having felt like a somebody in the Army, I often feel like a nobody as a young 24 year old buck straight out of Harvard speaks to me like I’m something on the bottom of his shoe.
But for me the focus has shifted from it being about me and what I want, with all the attendant damage on my family, to my service to them. To have to spend 4 hours per day commuting was never in my plan, and I almost never get to see the sun set, and I certainly don’t get that sense of camaraderie as I did from working with you and the rest of the Gurkhas, but at least I’m providing a firm base for my children as they grow up and we have a bit of money so we don’t worry. I’m still having great trouble reconciling it all, to be honest, as I’m sure you are. As I get more time/financial freedom as the cooks leave the nest I’ll want to find something else that lets me give back more than I get – the balance still feels like I’m taking more than I get – and to get that sense of purpose from it – that is what I think we all strive for.
I recently met a bunch of guys still serving in the military and the chat was predictable and whilst comforting is now quite alien to me. I sense that life moves on and you can’t harbour for old times like a hippy who still wears flares and yearns for Woodstock. It’ll never come back, as we have both moved on, but I’ve come to realise out of the military that success isn’t about rank, title or who people can say you are at a cocktail party, but it’s much more profound and you seem to be a long way further into realising that than many others.
Through your parents, I knew you when you were born and now I am a Granny who derives much pleasure from her grand-children. I too have travelled a lot, understand the difficulty faced by all who leave the Forces, and have been very interested in your fascinating musings from foreign lands. I wonder where having your own family fits into your aspirations? I would like you, and your other bloggers, to have your own grandchildren to enjoy finally.
love, Lesley Gill
A ramble on any given Sunday.
Nice to see this and I was wondering when it would come – you have very little now in the way of ‘distraction’ and this leaves or affords you the time to explore reasons. Being in the forces I understand the rank and medal ideals along with changing my view, at least in the open on things to fit in with the group. I was a not commissioned and I have a firm belief that this is why I never lasted in the forces beyond 6 years. Even at 18 I was not going to let institutionalisation convince me that someone was better than me due to a uniform or a given position. We spoke of this and many things over pizza and the non conforming ideal remains with me today, while I sit and conform. Rather like when blue jeans came out as the symbol of rebellious youth. It was not long before there was a tribe of conforming rebels all in their very own new uniform.
I have plenty of distractions, being a farther, husband, provider, a job (another uniform), a son, a male and so the list goes on about what I am expected to do and what I feel socially obligated to contribute – of course there is also my instincts for my children that drive me.
Most people don’t get the time to even step back and look at things while they are in the zone of all this distraction – you must be away from it to have this philosophical insight of ‘who am I?’. Asking this question and wanting a real answer is a massive undertaking that many will not do, I know I haven’t! Too friggin’ busy with the job, magazine, family, society and everything else and taking time out for ‘me’ that may well take years would be considered ‘selfish’ by those in my life and of course by society, either that or they’d just think I’d ‘lost it’!
Often this kind of epiphany comes very late in life as those not in the forces or the police will not have stopped with the socially imposed identity until they retire and that comes at 67(?) with a life of toil for most behind them. Their life, for most having been spent looking after others or raising children and the life of their children becoming a vicarious form of identity to the parent.
So with all these ‘distractions’ that can of course be called ‘life’ and a life well spent tend to steer one away from looking in and asking what’s it all about, what am I all about? Joining a cause, a movement, a group or other as we are still a pack animal that feels that confidence in numbers.
Not always a good thing as this is seen in the city – as a person feels a sense of anonymity in the larger crowd then the feeling of social responsibility can come to be discarded as another person’s issue to deal with or an organisation to sort out, be that government, police, medical or other. In the bigger group we may become separated from that human connection and perhaps that has to do with a lack of identity of self – not my problem.
From childhood this is formed as we join groups and meet peers with grades and levels, uniforms for many schools, badges and awards for social achievements attained. I was one of those kids with a green sleeve full of badges in the scouts. I’m not sure what I would find if I just stopped… Nor do I know if I have the courage to go and find out and meet me!
One thing is for sure, it won’t be sorted out in one post from me or anyone else for that matter – no doubt I’d end up walking the streets ringing a bell with the declaration that ‘God was dead’ and that I read far too much.
So, I think I’ll just go for a ride on the bike and enjoy the countryside for a while, sometimes a cigar is …
Love reading the bolg – have some pizza or not – it’s your choice now 😉
Speak soon amigo
Very well written. Reads well, makes easy to follow sense, doesn’t deviate, smacks of the truth. Good luck looking at yourself. A thing you might want to do-the Dhamma Dipa/ Vipassana course, it’s 12 days of meditation, it’s tough on the body & it’s tough on the head but it is accelerated self inspection. Before you dismiss it…when I went one of the facilitators was a fellow who had been a Group Captain in the RAF just before.
Mark, only an hour before I read your comment, I was talking to Paulina about Vipassana and also reading a Stan Grof book in which he was talking about synchronicity!! I have done two Vipassana retreats and was hoping to do another in Hereford when I return to UK next month – but sadly they are full at that time. Yeah, tough for sure but very worthwhile – and I’ll definitely be back for more in the future.
I read your post with interest and having worked along time with the same company and about to leave indefinitely to ride around and explore there is some trepidation about loosing my sense of worth which employment, responsibility etc provide…… but in my case I’m going to try and turn it around and address my fears as a challenge.
Can I ask, did you enjoy speaking to the groups of people and providing podcast and articles (being the Adventure Biker)….. if so why not continue to do what you enjoy and if that means feeding your need for identity, is that a bad thing. At the end of the day I think we all end up following the the path of enjoyment, it’s built into us as behavioral creatures.
Understand your comments on the identity of a Soldier very well!
Your post resonates with me on many levels. I am immersed in the same journey, albeit unwillingly at first, but now with an increasing sense of submission. It can be (must be?) a lonely journey, and maybe Donne’s “No Man is an Island” is worth a read?
A true sense of self – that is, determinedly lived and breathed, is distinct and removed from ego, which can only be a good thing.
Please share more when you’re ready!
Hey El Forko,
much enjoyed reading your travel blog over the last couple of years, in particular as a fellow Ten owner. But as you say, life moves on. All the best with whatever you move on to, and from a purely selfish perspective I hope this involves some further moto travel blogging (as you indeed indicate may be the case sometime henceforth)! ……if ever your Ten’s shipped back and at some event or other, would love to see it!
Paul, Thank you for your situation´s report. I was wandering about what had been of your impresive adventure. The Sacred Valley, I guess, is a perfect place for planning the rest of your life and to wait for your winggirl as we fighters care for our wingman to have our 6 o´clock clear. Whatever you do we wish you the very best. Un fuerte abrazo! Sergio
This post has generated a stimulating conversation on this subject. For completeness, I’m copying some comments made on Facebook here…
Mucker, very honest / forthright as ever. Have followed the blog, enjoyed it and missed it and look forward to the occasional post in the future until you are back on the road. Good for your followers to understand the rationale behind the decision. Re the military, do not disagree with anything you say. It is strange, having left nearly five years ago, to adjust to the fact that now most of the new people I meet have no idea what I did for 16 years of my life and see me only as what I do now. What is even more amusing is when, after you get to know someone a bit, and it the conversation happens to reveal what I did previously, the surprise on people’s faces – not sure if that is a good or a bad thing! Stay safe.
Paul you’re losing it! Too much ayahuasca and too time to think, both equally dangerous. As you’ve touched upon yourself, the loner who stands apart from society, in itself becomes an identity amongst the society of others who have also chosen that path.
To answer your question, you imply it has to be one or the other, black or white: it doesn’t. You don’t have to choose between playing a role or being your own individual identity. That’s too extreme, and you’re correct there’s a human need for both. Choose the middle path, dip into each side as and when you need, assume many roles. You’ll find yourself there.
And seriously lay off that sacred dream walking shit. Come to Singapore and hang out in air conditioned malls and drink Starbucks. Get a shave first. Peace and love.
Pitch, as requested: after life in an inward facing hierarchical community that incentivises conformity and role play, it isn’t a surprise that the pendulum swings in the other direction. But being a biker is another, subtler form of identity submission, as you say; if it’s about stripping the ego of its need for recognition and approval then perhaps get off the bike and walk…? Hope all well, large salamis.
Sounds like you’re living the dream Paul…my experience of life though is that we are all here to learn, and challenges will always appear – internally or externally, no matter how perfect ones experience there are new levels of self development and awareness to attain…x
Mate I agree 100% with your blog. Very profound as always and spot on. I need to coral my thoughts though as there is something I want to say to you, but I need to get the words right! On the lines of:
Maybe it is in the quest to define ourselves that we push ourselves. Once we become comfortable with the journey (the quest) as opposed to the destination (the identity/definition) we start to know who we really are. We start to really live.
Something like that! I need to ‘think on’.
I am so comfortable now with not chasing embroidery and just focusing on doing.
Also mate. PLEASE do not stop the blog. Your thoughts are just spot on. All of them. They stimulate thought and that is a rare gift. I would like to keep hearing your thoughts and observations, whatever you are doing. I would also like to fly out, sit with you at a local cantina (or whatever you have there), drink hooch and talk philosophy.
Take care mate. I will be in touch when I have formulated my thoughts better.
I think we can all wear different hats, Paul – as many or few as we choose, mindfully at any given moment throughout our evolving lives – without spreading ourselves too thinly. One hat such as motorcycle overlanding shouldn’t necessarily define who we are, even if people feel comfortable giving you a label to identify that aspect of your life. Let them, it’s nothing but well-intentioned. You yourself know what defines you on an all-encompassing life size scale and if you’re still figuring out a few things, I wouldn’t let a label hamper you along the way. Why do we consume energy about being defined by ourselves or others anyway?
To my mind, I don’t have a problem with folks generating an income stream from doing something for which they hopefully have a deep-seated passion: all things travel. If they’ve been dedicated to something for a long enough period, perhaps that does make them a little more expert in their field to: raise awareness of our beautiful world in front of an audience; present a set of inspiring ideas at exhibitions; and assume a leadership role as a guide by undertaking trips and expeditions with those far less experienced, those yearning for an adventure outside of their more safely boxed everyday and, or others that are simply cash-rich and time-poor. Good for them. Good for all proactively involved.
I still need to remind myself to ‘Live and let live’ but I’ll get there…
Pitch – When I left the army after only 6 years of service, I was in hindsight completely unprepared for the curve ball that would be thrown at me personally and professionally. It took a good 3 years to find some equilibrium and renewed sense of purpose, whilst in parallel presenting a front that all was great. I think I was trying to replicate the things that I regarded as positives from the military into the places where I started working. Frustrated by the apparent absence of many of those things I became quite stressed until I realised that things were not going to change and it was me that had to alter my perspective. This was the light-bulb moment for me.
Identity is a very interesting subject – and again for a while I was ‘former army officer’ – in many ways I felt like I was on secondment to the civilian world. But things changed as I began to recognise that ‘the job’ or ‘thing that I did’ element of my life was becoming less important in terms of how I defined myself – it became simply a vehicle to enable the things that really mattered to me and my family. Bizarrely, becoming happier in my own skin has opened up more professional opportunities for me and I’ve quietly bubbled up and improved my lot in the process, whilst maintaining a clear focus on where my priorities lie.
Like Quentin above – I now find the company of military types predictable and parameterised, yet for a long time I yearned for that comfort blanket and I think that is at the nub of the challenge all face when leaving the services. We go from a life of collective purpose and endeavour to one full of variables. From a job which is in effect a way of life to a life where a job is…..just a job. I’ve certainly found that the busier my life has become away from work the happier and more emotionally enriched I’ve become. I believe that there is a balance to be found and it’s about making things work for you – work hard – but don’t let it damage the things that are genuinely important.
I’m now not a marketing exec or a former army officer – I’m just me – whether that’s a Dad, husband, runner, music lover, totally inflexible yoga practitioner, sports fan, skier, mountain lover, reader, volunteer, theatre lover, poor banjo player, friend, lightweight drinker (no change there!). I didn’t do many of these things as a soldier – I was just a soldier and conformed to type. All these other things now matter and enrich me – I’m not defined by any of them. They all bring me into contact with very different types of people – very few of whom are defined by their jobs either. Knowing what someone does for a living matters less to me that it did when I first left the army.
Stop worrying about whether to be an adventure biker, or other ‘role’ or not, and enjoy living your life – there may well be space for adventure biking and writing in it, but there is also space for many other things that matter. Explore them and allow them all in – they’ll enrich you – and make you happy. Your writing is great by the way – thought provoking and illuminating – be a shame to stop that Mate.