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Quest

“If one were properly to perform a difficult and subtle act, he should first inspect the end to be achieved and then, once he had accepted the end as desirable, he should forget it completely and concentrate solely on the means.” – John Steinbeck

When I am on a journey, I know exactly where I am and where I am going. It is a lucid break from the muddy waters of day-to-day life. I miss some parts of my normal life violently when I am away; my wife, comfortable familiarity, warm beds and cold beers. I often wonder whether it is worth it. But I also know that without adventure I find myself drifting. I don’t even treasure the things I miss when I am away. Another OK-but-not-great week. Another nice-but-not-memorable weekend. Not long until Christmas, to my next birthday, to my 40th, my 50th, retirement…

Time races on and I want to fill it with purpose. I want to keep the fire in my belly burning and to fall into bed each night satisfied that I have used my day well. This is why the feeling of being on a quest is an important aspect of my walk. Each day I am working hard towards an objective. That it is a relatively distant one can be demoralising, though it makes the eventual attainment more rewarding. A little time alone, afraid or forlorn is a worthwhile price to pay for feeling stronger, smarter and more alive.

Seeing it as a quest is perhaps grandiloquent. But the essence is the same whether it is a small journey like mine or the Odyssey. I’m taking a difficult journey and facing obstacles and doubt, in search of a goal. It ticks all the boxes of a quest.

The benchmarks for success and failure are clear. If I fail it will be my fault: because I am mentally or physically weak or because I am insufficiently brave. This will be painful but important to acknowledge in myself. Out here there can be no excuses, no sly shifting of blame. I have nobody to hide behind. There is no scaffolding of supporters propping me up. But I would rather attempt something difficult and glorious and then fail it than to merely trundle safely but tepidly onwards on life’s ordinary course. And, if I do succeed in the quest then that will be down to me as well. I will feel proud and more self-confident. Committing to something difficult is like stepping into a furnace, to blaze brightly and to emerge forged hard into someone distinct. It may not necessarily make me a better person, but it does sharpen my focus on who and what I am.

Before I ever really explored the world and stretched myself, I was pleasantly content. But each adventure seems only to stoke the virus of restlessness and agitate the demons. Perhaps then to taste the fruit was folly. Each trip may add to who I am, but it also fuels more ambition. It never takes long before I find myself reaching for my globe, hatching the next project. If there is one thing the quests have not yet provided it is an enduring feeling of completion.

Perhaps this time things will be different I think, as I walk on. Perhaps I will return home after this walk, after all this seeking and striving, satisfied at last.

This is an extract from my book There Are Other Rivers. I’ll post the next chapter here at the same time tomorrow evening. 

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