Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Sometimes I wonder about the fundamentals of life. There is food, water, air, shelter; these things are absolute. Then there is human contact, required by all but a few. After that, in deciding what I, as a human, "need," there is a lot of gray area. I have my job, my source of income, which my lifestyle demands I make an effort to keep. But my lifestyle goes way beyond food, water, air and shelter. I have my family, who provides love and support when I need it. But at the same time, I don't feel a strong drive to start a family of my own. What I have left are the optional things I "do:" socializing, reading, writing, studying, and of course, somewhere near the top is the cycling. These things consume enormous amounts of time and I wonder to what end. Certainly they are the choices I've made, but how much do they reflect my needs?

Of course the complexities of human emotions obscure any simple explanation about our needs. If everything a human needed was food, water, air, shelter and human companionship, we would all conduct our lives very differently, and would probably not have evolved into the intelligent but befuddled creatures we are. Some philosophers have hypothesized the humans are motivated by a need for meaning; those who fail to find satisfactory meaning are driven to further extremes. There is a lot of room for religion in this theory. But it also includes the drive of the explorer, who in modern times has few places to go but within.

A couple of autobiographies I have been reading both draw interesting conclusions about the need for exploration in their prologues. As both men prepare to launch into their own amazing tales of misery and triumph, they make simple statements that in essence express a belief that they are not crazy, and they are not brave. They simply did what they had to do. It's not unlike the Buddhist monk who, when asked why he made a walking journey of 3,000 miles by dropping to his knees, hands and face with every step, simply looked away in silence, completely serene.

In "Minus 148," Art Davidson's enthralling account of the first winter ascent of Denali, Davidson writes: "During that summer expedition, Shiro and I caught only a few glimpses of what the McKinley winter would be like, but they were enough to infect us with what many explorers have described as a fever to go back to a region or landscape that has a grip on you. Not really understanding why they go, men have returned to the sea or to deserts, to jungles or to frozen wastes in the Arctic, knowing they will be miserable and frequently in danger."

Gary Paulsen closes his prologue in "Winterdance," his account of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, by concluding, "I thought any sane man who was in his forties and had a good career going would quit now, would leave the dogs, end it now and go back to the world and sanity. I knew what scared me wasn't the canyon and wasn't the hook hanging by one prong, but the knowledge, the absolute fundamental knowledge that I could not stop, would not stop, would never be able to stop running dogs of my own free will."

It makes one wonder where the line between need and choice truly begins and ends.


  1. Every person limits are different, but I have thought that we push them simply to make our life our own. To break ourselves down to dust so we can see what is really there. I have often wondered what it is that inspires my wanderlust, what makes me save every penny, all just to roam until I find someplace new. I blamed it on youth, or lack of a fulfilling career, or even on the striking similarity that Davidson's quote bears to some of my relationships. Yet as those things have faded over time, and I am strapped with getting older and have a job that makes me happy, the desire for exploration only becomes more extreme in its necessity and graduates from simply exploring somewhere new to a drive to challenge yourself, to put yourself in situations that really test your limits so that when you land, you have the sense of accomplishment that comes from feeling like you have really grown, and the peace that comes from knowing that you did it for you.
    There Jill, I commented on your blog. :)

  2. Great post! I suppose you've read The heart of darkness?
    Maybe that odd compulsion is what it takes to truly feel alive?
    I know sitting here at my computer in air conditioned comfort doesn't have that effect!


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