Sunday, April 24, 2005


Having just finished reading Among Insurgents : A Walk Across Burma by Shelby Tucker, a memoir of the author's trek through Burma during the late eighties (when the country was in the midst of a civil war between indigenous people and the government that continues to this day), I've had confirmed what I've always suspected: our own adventures and epiphanies that we achieve in life are often, almost inevitably, overlooked or disregared by others, and that this is not only a good thing, but a necessary one, too. Necessary for our humility and sense of place.

Tucker decided to walk across Burma for the hell of it. Because it was something crazy and extreme. He met a young Swede in a bar, told him that he (Tucker) needed a companion in his journey because his wife would not allow him to go otherwise, and would he (the Swede) like to fill the bill? The Swede thought about it for a few moments, drank his beer, then said sure, why not, let's do it. A walk across Burma would be fun.

It was to be more than fun, of course; it included sneaking over the border from China, wandering around uncharted land while befriending and enlisting the services of various ethnic Burmese that were at war with the military government, and ending with a final vault over the border into India, where they were arrested and held captive for months on end, while the Indian government tried to figure out if this crazy Brit and his motivations could actually be true -- that he was not a spy, no, but just someone who wanted to walk across Burma for the hell of it.

There's a wonderfully telling line near the end of the book where Tucker notes the look of indifference that clouds an an Indian officials face when told of how Tucker and his companion walked, walked, through Burma; it was a hint, Tucker says, of the same indifference he would be faced with upon returning to Britain and telling others of his exploits.

What matters to us does not matter to others. This is a blunt and direct truth I've learned over the years. The transformations and experiences that shape us and mold us and wreck us and rebuild us are, for the most part, interior; when these same experiences are given a shape and a form, whether they are vocalized or put in print, quite often their power is diluted, or even lost.

Why is that?

It's not that we're not interested in other's lives, experiences, attitudinal shifts and religious transformations; we are, intensely so. We go to movies like Schindler's List and tune in to Oprah and read blogs like this on a regular basis (or, um, semi-regular? occasionally?) because we want to feel what others felt, and, simultaneously, want to see that our feelings and emotions have emotional siblings out there in the world, that strangers may think and act similar to us, that we are not alone. We live vicariously through others because we need to connect to ourselves.

There's a limit, however, and that limit is something akin to the space, the physical space, that separates me from you, her from him. There is a gap between people, and that gap is what we are constantly trying to fill. One of the greatest lines in the history of cinema was written by Sylvester Stallone for Rocky, when his girlfriend's brother, Paulie, wonders what Rocky sees in Adrian: "I've got gaps, she's got gaps, together we fill gaps."

We all want to fill gaps. But some gaps our ours and ours alone to fill. My experiences in Japan and Cambodia can't fully be appreciated by you, no matter how much writing I do, no matter how many pictures I show you, no matter how many books and documentaries I direct your attention to. What happened to me happened to me, and it is for me to process; you are welcome to join in the discussion, offer encouragement and commiseration, but if I expect anything else from you, any other declarations of empathy or enthusiasm, well, I'm setting my self up for disappointment.

You achieve your high school diploma. You become a dentist. You recover from a fall down the stairs. You finally pass the driving test (after four tries). You lose the ten pounds. Gain it back. Lose it again.

These are all worthy and trying and distinctly human acts. They are part of your own struggle to achieve in life. And their ultimate fulfillment comes from you and you alone, and that should be enough; that should be sufficient.

It usually isn't; we often want more -- more praise, more attention, more accolades.

The reality is, we ain't going to get it, because most people are locked into their own little worlds, and while, occasionally, we break out of those interior spheres, it's only momentarily, and it's only peripherally. The work you do and the life you lead has to be fulfilled by you and appreciated by you on its own terms. If it has weight and resonance, others will be inspired by your struggles, but such secondary inspiration shouldn't be your point.

The great novelist Paul Theroux asked a French rower, who had performed some ridiculously difficult feat of aquatic endurance alone in a rowboat, why he had done it. "Animals find something to eat, a place to live, protection for their children. All very safe and orderly. I wanted to do something only a human would do."

Yes. Something only a human would do. It is not sane to walk across Burma, or travel for years in Japan and Cambodia, but it is human. It speaks of what we are capable of and what we can accustom ourselves to. It lifts us out of life and into a higher plane of perception.

And it is, in the end, singular. The bike chain you fix on your own. The cookie you don't eat. The orphan you adopt. The card trick you learn. The rehabilitation for your knee that you endure. You can write a book or a run a marathon or walk across Burma, and, as the old saying goes, one billion red Chinese don't give a shit. And it's true. Others may be entertained or illuminated or even inspired, but the only person it will truly mean anything to is you and you alone. It will remain an insignificant and meaningless footnote in the ongoing history of the world.

That's the glory of it.

1 comment:

Craig said...

I've read 'Paddling the Pacific', and I've also read a number of his novels. He's certainly a prolific travel writer, but I think great novelist may be a bit overstated. I think his novel, 'Waldo', was probably his best. The essays he published in 'Sunrise with Seamonsters', a miscellany really, was better than the travel/adventure themes he pursues that tend to get too repetitive and are less profound than his editors were persuaded they might be. He's an excellent model for making a living as a writer, but personally I find him a bit too churlish.