When I was 33 I visited a German friend who was studying in Dublin for the summer. It took me 2½ days to cycle the 190 miles from my home in Leicester to the ferry at Holyhead, North Wales.
For some of the journey I cycled in pouring rain so when I arrived in Dublin my chain, now washed free of oil, was rhythmically clanking. I stopped at a bike shop and went in to buy a small tin of oil. The young sales assistant asked me why I needed it and came outside with me to look at the bike. He then went straight ahead and oiled my chain with his own tin of oil. He said it wasn’t worth my while buying a whole tin of oil just for that and would take no money for it. Of course I immediately came to the conclusion that all Irish people are wonderful.
In the evening my friend and I went out for a drink and at night I slept on the sofa. During the day while he was studying I cycled off into the countryside and came back in the evening. On one afternoon I came to a place above some cliffs where there was a panoramic view of the coastline. A couple of tourist buses had pulled up there and I also stopped and sat down on a bench to eat my sandwiches.
While eating I watched the elderly Japanese tourists file off the bus and dutifully form a group around the Irish guide who started telling them that this was the spot where Tristan and Isolde did something or other. I wasn’t really listening to the guide but instead was looking at a couple of elderly Japanese ladies on the outside of the group. At first they tried to take an interest in what the guide was saying but they were standing on the outside of the circle and probably couldn’t hear that well. Apart from that they probably new very little English and almost certainly had no idea who Tristan and Isolde were. I certainly didn’t.
This got me wondering what the ladies were doing there in the first place. If they didn’t know who Tristan and Isolde were or had no real interest in them, why did they come on this coach trip? Because it was something to do? So they could tell their friends and family back home that they had at least done something in Ireland?
This seemed like a poor reason to do something and it started me thinking about my own motivations. What exactly was I doing there? True, I preferred cycling to standing still and looking at nice scenery to the four bare walls of the Dublin house but even this didn’t seem reason enough. The truth was that I was probably motivated by the same reasons as the Japanese ladies: accumulating material to talk about once I got home.
I thought about all the cathedrals, churches and houses of famous people I had visited over the past few years without ever really being interested in any of them: not the architecture, nor the famous people themselves, nor the history surrounding them. Did I really visit these places just so that I could tell other people about it? If so I was no better than those Americans who do Europe in a week: Monday morning in Prague, Monday afternoon in Vienna, Tuesday morning in Munich etc. How…pathetic.
So I started doing things, not with the idea of later telling other people about it, but just for myself and guess what, gentle reader? I found that there was so little in myself that I ended up doing nothing. Doing things ‘just for myself’ was like pulling myself up by my own bootstraps: a nice idea but a fantasy. Everything started to look more trouble than it was worth and Samuel Johnson’s observation that the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland was ‘worth seeing but not worth going to see’ struck me as being true about almost everything.
All of which tells me that I would have made a rubbish Robinson Crusoe, I Am Legend or High Plains Drifter. Being a self-motivator appealed to me and the injunction to ‘live your own life’ sounded cool but for me it turned out to be a hollow sound-bite. It seems I need other people, not only to nurse me back to health, grow and sell me food and oil my bicycle chain, but to listen to my stories and just generally take an interest in me. Without Penelope waiting at home to tell his tales to on his return perhaps Odysseus himself wouldn’t have bothered venturing outdoors.
So doing things principally to tell others about it later no longer strikes me as ‘pathetic’, or at least no more so than having no motivation and doing nothing.