I write a blog to entertain, inform and perhaps sometimes inspire others. I also write it to learn; choosing to share with others demands of my greater discipline in thought and word, and feedback from others helps keep me honest – whether challenging me or offering alternative viewpoints. I’m lucky to have readers willing to take time to do this and I value it.
I wrote the previous post mainly to assuage a sense of incompleteness. I was thus surprised and genuinely touched by the response it received. Only one other post – about the life and death of the young rider, Al Farland – has received more views and shares on the day it was published. And the comments the post elicited – some of which were honest beyond reasonable expectation from people I do not personally know – have genuinely helped me evolve my thoughts on this topic and find a greater sense of ease around it.
Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, these responses have encouraged me to continue writing, and not necessarily about motos and traveling. Interestingly, I have realised on reflection that my most popular posts have, in fact, been about neither.
Normally, I respond individually to those of you who take time to comment. But on this occasion I am choosing to write a collective ‘thank you’ here. I am also going to answer those of you who commented through this post; I may not name you individually, but you have all contributed to my evolving ideas in one way or another.
Before I offer some more thoughts on the subject of identity, it may be useful to highlight what I am not saying. Firstly, my thesis is not about how others label you – that doesn’t bother me. It is about how you label yourself. In fact, it is more fundamental than that – it is actually about the importance of being your true self – something a sharply-defined self-identity will prevent.
Secondly, I’m not suggesting that to avoid taking on such identities one needs to stop doing things, having goals or even seeking a sense of purpose. On the contrary, do all you wish, but don’t allow yourself to become that ‘doing’. I may have misled some in this regard, having said I am taking time out from the adventure motorcyclist role; I am doing so only because I want some time to press the reset button and check in with where I have reached along this particular section of life’s path.
This is an important topic in its own right…
I have not yet reached an age where I feel comfortable offering sage advice to the younger generation. Nevertheless, one observation I do choose to share, which the last three years has taught me in ample measure, is the imperative to periodically stop and take stock of where life has delivered you. I did so after leaving university as a 22 year old, deferring my entry into the Army by a few months to question whether it really was what I wanted. The next time I did it was 18 years thereafter – far too long a wait, I now realise. Yet at least I did it; many choose a path in their early twenties, put their head down, work hard and only come up for air when it is time to claim their pension.
With the passage of time we change, our personal world changes, those around us change. Yes, of course it is hard to pause and look around when you have a family, a mortgage, the need for a secure career to provide financial support and all the other commitments life can throw at us; and I acknowledge that I am in a privileged position, with ample time to indulge in reflection which others don’t have. But nevertheless, I think it is verging on irresponsibility – to ourselves and those close to us – if we fail to check our compass bearing every few years as our respective life paths twist and turn through an ever-changing and unpredictable personal landscape.
This process of ‘checking in’ with yourself needn’t take the form of a long journey on a moto or a protracted period of abstinence from this or that lifestyle. It is primarily about learning the art of self-awareness – practicing it and more importantly acting on what you find during this inner reflection. It’s about learning to be honest with yourself and having the personal integrity to stay true to the ‘yourself’ that you discover through this self-awareness, no matter how hard that may be. A long journey in foreign lands certainly facilitates this process; but a ten-day meditation retreat for example, or even a week-long holiday alone in the mountains with the commitment to to some ‘inner work’, can achieve a great deal. Just be with yourself and in silence for a while.
I recognise the need to take on roles and wear masks in life – be that due to familial or professional commitments, and dare I say social responsibilities and expectations. I admire greatly those people I occasionally meet who genuinely do not allow their peer group or wider society to shape their behaviour (most seem to be French, I’ve noticed), but blunt honesty is usually not well received by the masses. Some people may possess an actor’s skill, able to play a role whilst not becoming it; but my sense is that even those who are relatively self-aware struggle to see the extent of the identity they have taken on whilst playing out a well-defined role within a well-defined environment.
When I was a soldier, I often discussed with non-military friends the topic of military indoctrination versus the ability to ‘being myself’; I vigorously asserted that the Army, and particularly being an officer in the Gurkhas where our style was much more relaxed and eclectic in some ways, allowed me a lot of latitude to be myself. There existed boundaries which I could not cross but within which I could move relatively freely, and these boundaries were expansive, I said. When I finally left the Army, I was only then able to see that these boundaries had actually been much narrower than I had thought; the caveats applied by the system to being oneself were, I retrospectively recognised, numerous.
Given the inevitability of playing out at least some roles in life, perhaps the best advice which several of you commented on is to have as many ‘roles’ as possible. By doing so, the external forces which can push you to wear a metaphorical uniform are diminished. The concrete is never given time to set. By doing many, you cannot be just one. You are then better able to enjoy just doing what you are doing without a sense of attachment, which further weakens the magnetic pull of the need for an identity. To live in such a way creates a virtuous feedback loop, perhaps?
Yes, for me it was very much the opposite for 18 years and more – I did too much soldiering at the expense of other pursuits – and thus naturally I have allowed the pendulum to swing back the other way; in fact, it is probably a necessary process in order to find the point of equilibrium. And I have always been a thinker, someone who cannot contain the urge to look under the carpet of life on which we walk. A degree in Philosophy honed this characteristic, the Army was only partially successful in blunting it, and three years as an unshackled soul has allowed it to blossom. So I don’t expect everyone to be on the same page as me with this identity thing. In fact, I don’t expect everyone to even agree that taking on an cast-iron identity is a bad thing.
But if you will allow to offer a little advice, it is this…. Don’t neglect your inner world. As I posted in response to one comment, a simple quote from Dennis Kimbro sums it up beautifully for me: “Life is 10% what happens and 90% how we react to it”. In reality we spend most of our life in our inner world – amongst our thoughts, emotions, desires, aversions, prejudices, fears, dreams…. and identities. Even the outwardly busiest and least reflective of us are not spared such an existence. So best we pay attention to it and navigate it with awareness and a bit of application.
I could most likely write parts three, four and five on this topic, and I have already well exceeded my self-imposed word count in this post. So I must sign off for now. But I can’t resist summing up with a bastardisation of a classic Army maxim that only those of you who wear or wore khaki will fully appreciate: “Stay [inwardly] alert; stay [truly] alive.”
You can read Part One which preceded this post HERE