Why does society need people who go on crazy, stupid, arduous adventures?

My friend Simon Moore is doing something crazy, stupid and arduous. With Maria Gallastegui, he is sailing in a sixteen-foot dinghy over three thousand miles, from London to Lebanon. It’s hard to capture quite how crazy, stupid and arduous this is unless you’ve done something similar, which I haven’t. And that’s kind of the point of this article.

Within about five minutes of us waving Simon and Maria off back last July, they discovered that their boat had holes in. Then they discovered that, actually, waves could get pretty big in the North Sea and, if they capsized now, they’d be dead. It took them four days, beaten back each time by gales and high seas, to get around just one point in Kent. Then they faced the Channel crossing.

Limping into Calais port, more coastal storms “encouraged” them to change their plans, from sailing around the Atlantic coast, to navigating through France along the canals. That change of plan meant, rather than filling their sails, they faced instead months of back-breaking rowing. Some days, Simon told me, he didn’t want to eat or drink anything because he didn’t have the strength to build a fire. When he left, Simon thought the whole journey might be over in six months. Six months later, like Odysseus returning from Troy, Maria and Simon face an Odyssey that might take years.

Simon has now returned to the UK for the winter, to recover and take stock, waiting for the better Mediterranean sailing conditions of spring. He is also thinking of giving up.

When he told me this, I was shocked. Shocked, a little panicky and then confused. I could understand why he would give up; as if the journey wasn’t dangerous enough, the spread of the Syrian civil war into Lebanon makes even the destination deadly. Any sensible, rational algorithm would calculate risk, profit and loss and conclude abandonment of the project.

I could understand his doubts and his concerns and could not blame him for such a decision. But why did I feel shock, panic and confusion? Why should I take his retirement personally? Because, I realise, I was relying on Simon’s journey. Facing down my personal daily struggles – publishing a book, fixing my bike, taking clothes to Calais – relied in some small way on knowing that he was out there doing something far more crazy, stupid and arduous. And I realised that, as a society, we need people like Simon and Maria, sacrificing themselves to do crazy, stupid and arduous things.

Why? The Philosophy of Inspiration

The process of doing anything starts in your imagination, with the conception that it is possible. Without the imagination, there can be no action. That’s why the most reliable indicator of whether you’ll end up as a doctor is if someone in your family is… a doctor. This is also one reason why rich or privileged folks are more likely to embark on ambitious projects: thanks to their elite education and lineage, they have witnessed that anything is possible. They have an arrogance of potentialities; they do not doubt what they are capable of.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of the charity Kids Company, remembers as a child hearing her grandfather and uncles talking about setting up the biggest ski resort in the world. Within a month, they’d started. Camila grew up with that as a model: You dream something up and then make it happen. She’d written the business plan for Kids Company by the time she was fourteen. The charity now helps 36,000 of the most vulnerable children in the UK with practical, emotional and educational support. It wouldn’t have been possible – it wouldn’t have been even imaginable – if she hadn’t had her family’s lineage of imagination and action behind her.

You can’t do anything of which you can’t conceive; nor can you do anything you believe is impossible. Camila Batmanghelidjh believed she could set up Kids Company because she’d experienced as a child that such things were possible. I never considered a career in medicine because I had no conception that such a career was possible for me. I had no role models so it just wasn’t on my radar. It might be illustrative to demonstrate how imagination turns into action with an example from my own life.

The Genealogy of an Adventure

Until 2009, I had no lineage of grand cycling adventures in my life. Bicycles were annoying machines that rusted in the garage and occasionally used to cycle two miles into town. I had no conception that anyone could use them for adventures. My imagination for cycling extended as far as Wallingford and that was about it. My parents did travel widely before I was born, hitch-hiking to Australia in the 1970s. On Sunday evenings at home, to a soundtrack of Peruvian panpipes, they’d often show slides of their adventures in South America, my sister and I gazing in awe from the sofa.

But I didn’t connect cycling with such adventures until I stumbled across Alastair Humphreys at the Royal Geographical Society’s Explore Conference in 2008. He’d recently finished cycling around the world, which is about as extreme a demonstration of the adventuring possibilities of the bicycle that you could hope for. That conference marked the beginning of my imaginative lineage for cycling adventures. The next year, I cycled to Bordeaux, followed by trips around Britain and then around Tunisia. Each time, I stretched my imaginative conception of what was possible on a bicycle. As my imagination grew, I burst with new ideas and, gradually, I became able to turn those ideas into realities.

But none of my journeys would have been possible without the imaginative lineage I inherited from my parents and from Alastair Humphreys.

Sahara Cycling

The Ripples of Transformative Stories

As a society, we need people like Alastair, Simon and Maria to do these crazy, stupid, arduous things because they are the ones who stretch our imagination and our conception of what is possible. Everyone who comes into contact with Simon’s story now understands that such an audacious adventure is within their grasp.

Hearing Simon’s story forces us to confront an alternative reality, an alternative way of doing things. We can’t ignore Simon’s journey precisely because it is crazy, stupid and arduous. It is a challenge to ourselves to overcome whatever struggles we are facing. You cannot listen to Simon and go back to your life unchanged. He has given me the gift of an expanded imagination, an expanded reality, in the same way that my parents and Alastair Humphreys did. Their stories are transformative; they force you to reconsider your conception of what you are capable of in life, in an instant.

That’s why journeys such as Simon’s are important to our society and that’s why I believe he should persevere. Not for himself (although he will learn much from the journey), not for his charity Syrian Eyes (although they will benefit much from messages of solidarity and fundraising), but for the immeasurable millions of ripples his story will riffle through society. Unbeknownst to him, Simon is transforming lives, opening minds, broadening imaginations. His arduous journey, his risking death, is not in vain; he offers us the gift of expanded imagination and a new perspective from which to examine our lives.

In this way, these kinds of journeys are a precious social service and it is a shame that they seem to be undervalued in our society. Because their impact cannot be easily measured or monetised, these journeys are dismissed in value and left to people like Simon. And people like Simon, if left without appropriate recognition of their positive impression on society, can get disheartened about their worth and think about giving up.

We must treasure these people; not worship, but treasure them. They do productive and inspirational work that is no less great for the fact that its impression is immeasurable. Support them, share their experiences, spread their ripples. We need them.

I’m not saying that I’m going to rush off and sail to Lebanon, by the way, and I’m not saying that you should either. But I can never go back to believing that such a thing is impossible. And, if sailing 3,500 miles in a dinghy is not impossible, then what else in my life is not impossible? What other potentials must I reassess? What else is my imagination capable of conceiving and making manifest?

We must not ignore or run from the audacity of our imagination. We must embrace it and surprise, delight and inspire the world.

Sailing

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