I read this amazing little book the other day, The Expedition, by Bea Uusma. It tells the story of the Andree polar expedition in 1897, and it reminded me about something really important.
(Polar expeditions may not be your first interest, I know. But bear with me. I’ll get to the point in a little while.)
In short: Three men head out for the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon, confident they’ll make it there in just a few days and return heroes. But everything goes wrong. Three days into the expedition they are forced to land the leaking balloon on drifting ice, and for 89 nightmarish days they struggle to survive the fierce climate, the polar bears and their own lack of experience. It’s a hopeless struggle. Their bodies are found 30 years later on the shores of a remote island.
It’s a painful read, mainly because it is so clear that they should never have taken off in the first place.
None of them knew anything about surviving artic climate (they were dressed in wool sports jackets!). At the time, no one had managed to keep a balloon in the air for more than one day – and the one used for the expedition had not even been tested. The emergency supplies they brought along – sleighs, a lightweight boat – were found to be malfunctioning before take off, but weren’t fixed, as the travellers were so sure they wouldn’t need them. The balloon was actually severely damaged on take off, but they went ahead anyway.
The list of stupid decisions goes on and on.
Obviously, going on an adventurous balloon ride to the North Pole wasn’t really what this expedition was about. Some other, deeper motivation was driving these men, overriding alarming facts as well as their own intuition along the way. They wanted it (fame, recognition, an honourable purpose, a career boost?) so bad they were willing to risk everything for it.
That ever happen to you? Not the balloon ride, no.
But have you ever let your blinding need for something (usually something you don’t even admit to yourself you want) make decisions on your behalf?
I know I have. The consequences of my stupid decisions have been less dire, but still. The driving mechanism behind is the same.
I’ve stepped aboard projects even though I disliked the people in charge and their ambitions, and even though I knew – my heart and the knot in my stomach told me – that it meant trouble. I stepped aboard anyway. Wanted the glamour and the money so bad I ignored the warning signs. (Yes, it did end in trouble, and no, I did not get half the money I was promised.)
I’ve spent hard-earned money on plain tickets, because the images of sweet foreign places looked so much like my dreams of freedom and happiness. But since what I truly wanted wasn’t exciting travels, but an escape from myself, the destination somehow always turned out to be a disappointment.
I wanted a different life. I wanted healing. And that, as it turned out, I could not find anywhere outside of myself. (No, not even in San Francisco.)
I’ve had unprotected sex, plenty of times actually, ignoring the risk of getting pregnant and contracting some venereal disease. Ignored it because I so wanted him to like me. (And because I was so confused I thought unprotected sex had something to do with that.)
I could go on, but this list is depressing me. You get what I mean.
If you are to find a life that is truly your own, a life that is kind and true and successful (in every sense of the word), you need to be clear on what you want and why you want it. There’s no way around it. You need to ask yourself some uncomfortable questions.
You need to keep that hungry ghost away from the steering wheel, or you’ll end up making some seriously bad decisions. You’ll end up chasing some fake and possibly dangerous version of happiness, and you’ll be miserable when you get there. Or – more likely – you’ll get severely lost along the way.
(You’ll probably not end up perishing on a remote artic island, but ending up in a life that doesn’t feel like your own is a bleak enough prospect. Trust me, it’s a cold and barren place.)
You want to be a writer? Why? What about it do you want? The title, the money, and the recognition? Or the actual day by day life of writing, editing, marketing, fumbling?
You want a relationship? Why? Are you ready to let another person (and the accompanying mess) into your life, open heart, open arms? Or do you really just want confirmation that you’re lovable? That you won’t have to die alone?
You want to start your own business? Why? Do you want to carry the full responsibility, alone? Take the finacial risks? Shoulder every aspect of running a business, including sales? Or do you really just need a break from you demanding (stupid!) boss?
No matter what it is you say you want, ask again. Ask until you get to the very core of your desire. Get real with yourself
Maybe at the end of those questions, you discover you actually do want to become a writer (artist, dancer, skydiver, lover), everything included. That beyond the hunger for recognition, there’s also a very true love of writing.
Or you discover you actually don’t want to write. At all. You want something completely different.
Either way, it’s good news. That clarity is the soil in which to plant your feet (and your dreams). From there you can navigate safely and happily towards a dream that will actually feel like home when you get there.
Not to mention you’ll enter your zone of true genius. Which, my dear, is right where you belong.
(Check out Bea Uusmas’s fantastic book here. It’s not just a captivating story of an expedition, but also a fascinating account of how this book came about and the writer’s own obsession with her subject.)