In 1991, forty-six year old Frenchman Gerard D'Aboville rowed a boat from Japan to Washington State. By himself. Across the entire Pacific Ocean. He rowed ten to twelve hours a day, 7000 strokes a day, and the entire voyage took him 134 days. Over four months. By himself. In a rowboat. On the water.
The urge to do senseless things to find some kind of sense in life seems, on the surface, nonsensical. What kind be learned from acts that, by their very nature, reek of excess and indulgence? (Not to mention irrationality, and, quite possibly, death.)
We are raised, if we are lucky, to enjoy comfort. To seek out success as the ultimate prize, as if life were nothing but an endless game of hide-and-go-seek where the treasured prize is found only by a lucky few. (As long as you keep playing the game, of course. If you think it's boring, or the game's rigged, or the whole thing is a foolish means of passing the time, fine. You can quit. But everybody else will still be playing the game, most likely.) Nobody willingly embraces a life of deprivation (except for the treasured few, usually monks, who are most often impoverished to begin with), and seeking to step outside of that which has nurtured us and nourished us is often met with skepticism, if not perplexity.
But everything's relative. (Even relatives.) Let us imagine that you were a young person from a conservative Muslim family in the heart of Pakistan who decided that Christianity was the answer that you were looking for. One could hardly imagine a more cataclysmic decision in such a place, amongst such beliefs. You would be eradicating an entire world-view with one simple choice. Indeed, you would, in essence, be destroying not only a 'view', which sounds quaintly like the opinions expressed on your local newspaper's editorial page, in between the used-car ads and tucked beneath the wedding photos and obituary notices. No, you would be destroying your world itself, the world you grew up in, the world your parents had so carefully cultivated for you. An eradication would begin.
Another analogy: Not owning a t.v. (Assuming you're middle-class, well-groomed, a regular watcher of American Idol, etc.) Perhaps not as radical as changing your religion, no, but let's extrapolate the consequences. Guests invited over for dinner would consider it odd that no television rests comfortably in the centre of the living room. Questions would be asked. Any answer, in our day and age, would sound slightly unreasonable, if not irrational. No T.V.? How...strange. Not, you know, freakish, but definitely within rifle-range of eccentricity's target.
Let's up the ante even more: No t.v., no computer, no Internet. Only the local paper, hand delivered early each morning by a chubby little boy who would rather be sleeping but desperately wants the new Nintendo Wii. No t.v., no computer, no Internet. You would be considered out of step with society. You would be accused of marching to the beat of a different drummer, except that, most likely, you don't even have a drum you're beating. You're tapping air with imaginary sticks.
It takes so little to throw us for a loop, and we are all so quick to condemn anything that exists outside of our own familiar orbit.
Let's consider anothe completely random and unrelated idea: the notion of the Iraqi parliament taking a vacation for the month of August, an act that has been routinely condemned by the American Congress as the highest level of audacity. American soldiers are dying, while Iraqi government workers are having their fun in the sun. (Or so they make it sound.)
Well, yes. It does sound somewhat unreasonable. People are being killed, daily, Irai and American alike. Blood on the streets. Smoke in the sky. But consider: What is the daily life of an Iraqi parlimentarian actually like? Think how stressful your job gets, and now multiply that by Baghdad.
I would imagine it's quite stressful, being in the Iraqi parliament. Trusting noone. Wondering if they'll be killed that night. I'm sure their security details are lightyears ahead of the average Iraqi, who has none, but I would also think that these same security details are susceptible to a certain amount of suspicion. Have they been bought off? Will they kill me on the way to work? Will my car be blown up on the road to my office? Will my family be kidnapped and held for ransom while I try to figure out who to bribe first? The western media daily details how Iraq goes to hell in a handbasket, but when the government decides that it needs a break, we act as if they are seeking an outrageous indulgence, when it might be nothing more than a chance to catch their breath in between the booms and bombings.
Vacations are okay for us over here, politicians seem to be saying, even though over there American and Iraqi lives are being lost, and even though we started this whole bloody war in the first place, but it's not okay for the Iraqis, who are actually living there, risking their lives on the way to work, when American politicians are risking, at most, a little gridock in D.C. traffic on the way to the Capitol.
Which brings me back to that brave (or foolish) Frenchman, alone, rowing across the Pacific.
"Why would he do that?" we ask. "What is he looking for?"
For me, questions like these are merely larger ones that mirror the smaller ones we ask everyday. ("Why would a Muslim become a Christian? Why wouldn't you want a TV or Internet connection? Why would Iraqi politicians take a summer break? Why would he write a book like that? Why would she dye her hair that colour? Why did you overcook the pizza? Why would he date a chick like that? Why do you think that movie's good when it so obviously blows?)
We can never really know why anybody else does anything at all. (Let alone why we, ourselves, do the things that we do.) All we can do is ask, and infer, and observe, and wonder, until we come to a conclusion that is probably false but that at the very least eases our anxiety and allows us to gain another night's sleep.
We are all trying to make our way through this world the best we can, and, occasionally, we look to acts of irrationality to affirm our own sense of purpose. To help us reach the transcendent, if only for a moment. (Or at least to liven things up a little bit.)
But let's leave the last word to Gerard D'Aboville, that determined, demented rower, who conquered the Pacific with a boat and some oars and a slightly superior, if not enlightened, outlook on life, who expresses some of what I'm getting at far better than I ever could:
Why do some human beings desire with such urgency to do such things: regardless of the consequences, conscripted by noone but themselves? No one knows. There is a strong urge to conquer the dreadful forces of nature, and perhaps to get consciousness of ourselves, of life, and of the shadowy workings of our human minds. Physical capacity is the only limit. I have tried to tell how, and when, and where. But why? That is a mystery...
Only an animal does useful things. An animal gets food, finds a place to sleep, tries to keep comfortable. But I wanted to do something that was not useful -- not like an animal at all. Something only a human would do.