This is my first (and likely only) post for which I deliberately use next to none of my photos. I have gigabytes over gigabytes of them, no worries. But they might distract from what I want to say. (plus my internet connection is awfully slow, so I would not be able to post many photos anyways…)
It is Dec 31, the last day of the old year. I am lying in my bed in Bandar Abbas at the Persian Golf, trying to get over an upset stomach, pretty tired and pretty exhausted. But before I vanish to Qezhm island and will likely not have internet access for a while, I wanted to write down some thoughts about being. Just being.
One of the crucial moments I encountered in the last months, an eye-opening one, was when a friend of mine was offered a new job. That’s when I realized that I was jealous. Jealous of the thought of having regular days, structure, but mainly: jealous of getting appreciation. A job does that for you. Even if your boss does not realize the genius that is inside everyone of us, even if you do not get cudos for your work, you still get a salary. Money is a compensation for the time we spent at work, but it is also some sort of validation. Someone, at some point, thought that you deserve that amount of money for the work you do. And unless that someone or someone else is utterly dissatisfied with what you are doing, you will keep receiving that money. Your bank account will show that form of validation every month (unless, of course, you are a freelancer and people expect you to work for free, because ‘you love what you do, don’t you? It must be so much fun designing things!’, e.g.). Don’t get me wrong, this is not about me wanting to earn money right now (even though I wouldn’t mind getting some). The job offer my friend got simply made me realize that there is a part of me that yearns for validation. That part of me has a hard time accepting one of the most crucial lessons I am learning at the moment: That I can just be. That I will still be loved if I just am. That I am still a valuable human being. That this journey needs no outcome, no social media, no blog posts, no nothing. That is hard to grasp (speaking for me personally).
We are trained – by society, by our bosses, … – to fulfill expectations. We do our job (as good citizens, good children, good employees) and are then given a reward: social acceptance, love, appreciation. Somehow, at some point in our lives, we start confusing things. We start believing that we will get social acceptance, love, appreciation BECAUSE we are doing things (and do them properly, mind you!). That we get those rewards ONLY when we deliver. Our ‘system’ (the environment we live in) will surely not stand in the way of this ‘learning process’ – after all, this turns us into such formidable expectation-fullfillers. Since we rarely (or never) step out of this system, we don’t realize that this might not be true. That we might still be loved and appreciated when we decide to just be and not do.
The inner judge
Our heads are filled with a cacophony of voices (see the ‘system’ above: the voices of teachers, bosses, etc etc), voices we have heard so often that we have accomplished the amazing feat of internalizing them. In fact, we don’t need the outer ‘system’ anymore to tell us that we should deliver (and keep delivering). We are our own judges. And very effective judges at that. We might even manage to judge ourselves more harshly than anyone from the outside might (think of ‘I am not good enough for this job’, ‘I don’t deserve such a great significant other’, …). So we ‘happily’ accept jobs that are below our qualification, significant others that are not at eye level, … and live a life that is not up to our potential. My point is: we deserve all of that. And more. For doing… NOTHING. For just being. I am not encouraging you to stop being a good friend /employee / child / … Just to make the step from separating these aspects from the fact that you deserve appreciation, love, acceptance. You deserve that great job, that wonderful partner, you name it. Unconditionally. Because you are a great human being. You are BORN to be a great human being.
In retrospect, this might have been one of the subconscious reasons for me to seek solitude so often on this journey. I am, by no means, a very sociable traveller (or cyclist). I enjoy getting to know people on this journey – locals, travellers -, but I very much enjoy to be alone. When you are alone, you can listen to the cacophony of voices in your head. Or, more to the point: you realize that those voices exist. That ‘bad gut feeling’ you have when spending a day doing nothing is not your natural intuition. It is what you inner judge tells you. But before you argue back to that judge, you have to be aware of it. Solitude also takes away all and any outer validation. There was a time when I even asked the people closest to my heart to not contact me. When I ignored all attempts of communicating with the outer world. When I just cycled in the mountains, alone with myself and my thoughts. Meeting nobody, talking to no one. I wanted to see what happens when nobody tells me I was doing a good job, that I was attempting something brave, that I was doing something inspiring. And guess what: the world didn’t stop turning. All that happened was that I was alone with myself. And I was fulfilled by that. It is just that we rarely take this chance of being by ourselves because we are trained not to be.
At some point, however, you meet people again. After all, humans are sociable beings and we need to talk to others from time to time. That makes you realize another aspect: even if we have accepted something inwardly, we still project our doubts to the outside. We get nasty questions from others, because, deep inside, we ask these questions to ourselves. By now, I have come to, well, not enjoy those nasty questions, but to take them as a sign that I am not done with this learning step (and, truth be told, I am very much not done with this step).
One of my ‘favorite’ questions is ‘so, how many kilometers have you cycled so far?’. My honest answer is ‘I don’t know and I don’t care.’ For me, the eternal fulfiller of expectation, the athlete-from-childhood-on, the over-achiever-no-matter-the-topic, this is a huge step. This journey is not about ticking off sights, countries or kilometers. I don’t exactly know what it is about, but this does not matter, either. That, however, is never accepted by the questioner. ‘But you MUST know how far you cycled, don’t you?’ It is so much easier to categorize people by quantifiying them. How many countries, how many years, how much did your bike cost. I don’t care. I couldn’t care less when others tell me the quantifying details of their lives. But I am stuck with this question. ‘How many kilometers?’ And I hate it. I hate it because the athlete in me, somewhere, deep inside, WANTS to fulfill expectations, to be able to tell a grand number. But during this journey, I developped away from that athlete, far away. My priorities vastly changed. I spent an entire week just walking through the Wakhan valley in Tajikistan (pushing my bike the entire way), because I wanted to have time to take in the landscape and talk to people. I spent two weeks living in Esfahan (Iran), because I had the chance to live with two great friends (Iranian and Swiss) and utterly enjoyed getting to know everyday life in Iran a bit better. The small mileage of this journey is the result (see, I am still avoiding answering the question…). And yes, the road conditions were awful at times, the altitude and gradient made cyling a challenge, my visa were sometimes too short to manage cycling an entire country. Everything I wrote above is a rational explanation (and there are reasons), but I would enjoy getting beyond that. I don’t want to justify anything. Neither justify it in front of other people, nor in front of me.
And even if you move beyond the quantifyable details (I might be on the way, but clearly have not accomplished that), there is still the meta level: what did you learn? And – surprise, surprise – we still expect to see results. If we leave everyday life behind (whatever this means for you personally) for an extended period of time, we expect to learn things that we cannot grasp while we are inside our very own ‘everyday’ bubble. There is a learning effect somewhere out there, and we are somewhat waiting for wisdom to fall from the heavens. Fact is: maybe wisdom comes. Maybe it doesn’t. Fact is also: it does not matter. And accepting this, REALLY accepting, is a lot harder than it sounds. I remember vividly how I complained to a friend two weeks ago that I still don’t understand what lesson is waiting for me to be learned in Iran. There has always been a lesson so far, for every stretch of this journey. Sometimes, it was obvious. Sometimes, I didn’t realize until later what I had learned.
So what IS the lesson to be learned here in Iran? The lesson is that there is no lesson to be learned (even though, if you move one meta level higher, you can argue against that, of course: that the lesson is that there is no lesson). The point is that I just accept to exist. If any learning happens, great. But I stop waiting for it or expecting it. I am actually quite sure that I am learning things here, lots of things. But I am also moving further away from quantifyable details than ever before. No, I did not visit many cities. No, I did not cycle many kilometers. No, I did not write much. I tried to understand how people think here, how they live. And I tried to just be. Nothing harder than that. Nothing more liberating. Give it a try.
PS: 1,634km as of Dec 31st. Feel free to judge me. I will try to not care.