“Any man who is a man can travel alone.” — Jack London
There is a guy — Ben Page — who decided to pedal around the world.
He self-documented the adventure. “The Frozen Road,” in particular, is the film about the winter journey into the Canadian Arctic. Not an easy route.
I’m on a special period of my life, reinventing myself on a solitary path. So, that film speaks volumes to me. What you can see in it is what you can see in many solitary ventures. Their reality, their rewards, their inevitability.
Watching that film is not needed to read this story but, if the quote from Jack London told something to you, there are no doubts that you should.
The guy had to decide what to do with his life. He decided on a journey.
He could have decided to apply for a job. Or manufacture and sell necklaces. Or become a monk.
Maybe he just wasn’t ready to commit to society. Maybe he was immature. Maybe he needed to put something of his past behind. Maybe he needed to see with his eyes what he had just dreamt till then.
Maybe 22 was the proper age for anything in life.
Who knows. He probably still doesn’t know all the reasons.
He started pedaling. Maybe a stupid thing. Maybe like judging what’s stupid. Who knows.
He started doing something. Something that made sense just to a single person in the world: him.
Was it the best thing for him? Nobody can know that. And, probably, he was the first to wonder, given that it was he who was risking.
Who doesn’t like freedom?
For some of us, freedom means being alone. Not all the time, but the solo part has to be there, someway.
You cannot be completely free when you have to compromise with someone.
Who finds room for loneliness in their life, starts seeing and feeling what you cannot see and feel among others. You can have a much deeper connection with your environment, with your purpose, with who you are.
Conventions are no more there to hide, shape, distort, harness.
At the same time, you build your own conventions. You see reality through your own filter. Maybe it’s a vision, and you’re free to see it — and to make it real — in its pureness. You can decide to see it. To act. What you decide is what you see. What you see is a consequence of what you decide.
Some people have the power to change reality. And they don’t do that by a brainstorming. They do that because they see what doesn’t exist yet, because they lived free, if not for a moment, and decided what to do of their freedom.
For those people, loneliness is thrilling. Threatening, but at the same time the only land for their creativity and improvement.
“The unending vastness crushed him into the remotest recesses of his own mind, pressing out all the false ardors and undue self-values, until he perceived himself finite.” — Jack London
Reality is not something you can easily change. Humans are heavily limited.
Turns out that to be able to change reality, or even understand it for what is possible, you need to know those limits. And you cannot really know them when someone helps you. Most of all, you cannot overcome your malleable limits — like fears, need for acceptance, pride, and so on — if you don’t challenge yourself.
When you face your challenges in loneliness, you’ll know your limits. You’ll know your authentic self. And you’ll likely prefer to let the crap out of it, because it’s a useless ballast.
You have no protection, when alone. Hiding your self is meaningless. You need to face reality as your best self.
If your limits are false and you overcome them, you gain access to a stronger self. Like someone who fears water and afterward learn to swim.
That’s the reality of writers, entrepreneurs, and so many other people. They need the access to their next level, and to that, they need to face the truth, to challenge themselves and reality itself, to dismiss some common schemes. You can advise them, but you cannot spare them the effort of learning what matters for their path, hard lessons included.
The biker of the film took risks. He risked his life. He had to take decisions. Thousands of decisions.
Nobody was there to advise him, if not some stranger. He could not share the weight of his choice, or draw some courage from a companion.
When you’re alone, you face a blank canvas. All possibilities are open, even if you don’t see them. Some choices are good, and you don’t know which. Some are terribly wrong. Some you can make them wrong or good, depending on what you do. You depend only on yourself, on your experience and your capacity to foresee.
That happens to the adventurer, but it happens to others too.
The moment the CEO of a company takes a needed bet-the-company decision he/she is alone, despite the many people he/she has around. Everyone will have advice. Everybody will have an interest. Everybody will criticize. Everybody will be quick to change attitude if things go wrong.
The moment a writer decides to give up a day job, or trash a draft, nobody can decide in their place. They can ask for advice. But the moment they decide, they’re alone.
When you’re alone in all senses, that is amplified.
But if you think you’re alone only in a forest, you’re wrong. Life has more alone-moments in store than you desire.
We often make sacrifices and overcome our fears for rewards. Money, status, appreciation, and so on. Rewards related to relationships.
What if the reward does not arrive?
It happens so often.
When you’re alone, completely alone, it’s the same. A lot of common rewards do not arrive.
But other rewards arrive, of different nature. Like accomplishment. Awareness. Core values. Appreciation of what’s underestimated by society or taken for granted.
When you’re alone, you set the rewards. And you have to earn them.
It’s about you, and the real value that rewards have for you.
You may scale back the value of a title on a business card. The value of money, of impressions, of false relationships.
Ben ended the journey into the Canadian Arctic with no one there to wait for him. No one with whom to share his victory.
He rested solitary in a toilet.
This can be hard to take.
The rewards of the journey you decided may cost you to have no one to share them with.
He now shares his experience and has had his reward. But what if wolves devoured him? Nobody was there to share that risk. Nobody was there when he overcame that risk.
Beyond the reward that he could have had after the journey, the journey had to be his reward in the first place.
As it should be. Because you have one life. The only real reward, here, is living it.
At some point we always need others.
We need parents. We need a dentist. We need love. We hope not to die alone.
And if we live in the society, we need much more than this. We need relationships. We want relationships.
Being alone brings powerful lessons. Makes us grow in ways you cannot say when supported by others.
But being together also teaches something, brings something. People empower and enrich our lives.
Ben was at ease, alone. He enjoyed the secret beauty of isolation. But at some point, he hoped to have someone with him. And would have hoped to share the finish line with someone.
Maybe, when you have seen reality in solitude, you value your social life differently.
Even if it may not be a perfect match for you.
Our society does not appreciate solitude. It’s not seen as an empowering complement.
Problems are too often not solved with reflection, but with brainstorming. Or with chatting. Or with persuasion.
Growth is not helped by making someone facing the right challenges. It’s instead guided by giving pre-digested knowledge, in super safe environments, with obsessive planning.
Society is organized to give you the soft lessons. Hard lessons are byproducts of society.
When you get the hard lessons, nobody can be there in your place. Sometimes, even your dears can’t be with you. Imagine society.
The inevitable cost
“He lacked wisdom, and the only way for him to get it was to buy it with his youth. And when wisdom was his, youth would have been spent.” — Jack London
The solitary road costs time.
And you cannot have your time back. You should spend it wisely.
There are no shortcuts.
Progress made by others can give you an airplane. Your spouse can give you love. Your friend can motivate you.
But progress can’t give you answers about religion. Your spouse can’t overcome a trauma in your place. Your friend can’t pay for your failures.
Humanity can give you schools, books, houses, large LED TVs, and good sushi. Sometimes wars, even if you don’t ask for.
But humanity can’t tell you who you are, nor what you want in life. Nor they can teach you to face any problem. Or decide your values.
At some point, you’ll need to stay with yourself, to learn to stay also alone.
If you give up this, who will make your life happen?