EPISODE 2: HONESTY CREATES THE OPPORTUNITY FOR ADVENTURE
Still heading left… just passed Yellowstone National Park… via New York, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming and now Montana. It’s taken longer than expected to get halfway from the upper right to the upper left, since my path is - when possible - not a path. The consequences have been emergent images, moments and conversations.
There’s a little town in the middle of Iowa called Storm Lake (which is - of course - on Storm Lake). It’s surrounded by hundreds of miles of corn fields. The first settlers arrived in 1856. And its name - according to one account - is born out of the loss of deep love. A Sioux maiden was forbidden by her chief to marry her beloved from another tribe. The two young lovers attempted to elope, and headed out across the lake in a canoe to ‘freedom’ on the other side. They chose adventure! But a storm upset the boat and the two were drowned (which is a real possibility in any adventure - including my own). The saddened Chief cursed the waters as the cause of his sorrow and in his grief christened the waters “Storm Lake”.
I arrived late into Storm Lake, so I went for a run in the warm summer’s evening (as is my habit when traveling, as it clears the mind, adjusts the body to the local time and offers the opportunity to explore the local environs). Whenever I run when travelling, I often set off without a direction in mind … Brownian Motion in Spandex. On this particular run, Brownian Motion took me into a small woodland park. In doing so, I suddenly found myself moving through a symphony of fireflies on the lake’s shore … like wading through physical light. Completely unexpected … seemingly impossible.
In addition to such emergent wonderment and beauty, there have also been realisations, which for me are the true value of adventure.
Early the next morning, before driving to my next destination (which turned out to be the Badlands of South Dakota), I was speaking with a young local woman working at a cafe, which, because of COVID, was only serving coffee via drive through. Though early, it was already getting hot. We spoke for 10 minutes through the opened window. I asked her what it was like to live there. She said that she loved it and had arrived from California only a few years previously, when her husband landed a job in the local meatpacking factory (where I’m told nearly everyone else in the town also works). Since arriving, she’s felt a strong sense of community. Acceptance. Seen. Not a ghost. Her family - ultimately like all of ours - hails from somewhere else. So maybe it has something to do with the fact that there are 16 different languages spoken at the local school. Yes … 16 … in a small town in the middle of Iowa. Surprising … no? Only if you assume it to be so. When we experience surprise usually - if not always - it tells you something more about your assumptions of the world than it does about the world itself.
Her expression is consistent with my own experience. Over and over … I continue to see the brain’s deepest need surface … in this instance in my travels across the US. Whether in a red state or a blue state, a farmer, a banker, a waitress … or myself … it’s common to all of us …
The need to exist.
Whether that existence is to a lover, a parent, a community, a pet … or ultimately to oneself, our cells need more than ATP (energy) and oxygen to survive.
Our cells need a reason.
Without a reason, our cells stop functioning properly (just pause and reflect on that for a moment).
Even more remarkable is that ‘the reason’ is almost always found within the ‘meaning’ of another set of cells wrapped within the context of another ‘body’. Impossible, really, when you think about it. And yet so essential. This is what I mean by finding the impossible within the everyday that creates awe and wonder, which when experienced will have dramatic consequences for our perceptions of self and the world - which the Lab of Misfits has measured in the brain.
A further realisation occurred the following day looking over the sunset that turned the moonlike landscape of the Badlands red.
I was reflecting on my first adventure blog that started this trip. In particular, its feeling of up-beat-ness. Its implicit motivational tone. And yet the actual reality was (and is) so different. So much more humbling.
In times of uncertainty, one can be deluged by ‘motivational’ speech … the encouragement ‘to choose optimism’ … sentimental statements like ‘we’re all in this together’.
“... just keep smiling!...” Is the advice of many ‘Positive Psychology’ practitioners, ‘Gurus’ and ‘Wellness Coaches’. And indeed, it is well established that having an optimistic outlook is a good thing: Those who score high on typical measures of optimism have increased self-esteem and can even live longer. This is partly because optimism is often associated with the release of neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin) that lower the body’s stress-response to conflict. Endorphins, our natural painkillers, are also released when we smile and feel optimistic. Given these well-quantified effects, fostering optimism is clearly important for increasing personal and social wellness.
The challenge, however, is the manner in which optimism is often encouraged in our society which can actually decrease wellness, while increasing dishonesty and narcissism… and can even cause deep emotional trauma. This is because such ‘optimists’ - by definition - tend to see negative experiences as not being their responsibility (usually the fault of others). Conversely they assume full credit for positive experiences. This is a learned process that has been advocated by many in the Positive Psychology community founded by Martin Seligman. It’s also how those who engage in the world with entitlement unconsciously behave towards others. While this way of being can provide measurable benefits for the individual in the short-term, the consequential lack of accountability is often bad for the individual in the long-run, as well as for the group in general.
All our lives have been dramatically affected by this way of being - and often not for the better, as it’s deeply rooted in much of Western culture (especially in the USA), from the reluctance to wear masks in the service of others (grounded in ‘arguments’ about personal rights and freedom), to our businesses environments where decisions are made to maximize ‘me’, not the collective ‘us’; It’s also a fundamental attribute of our current US leadership (where no responsibility is taken for anything negative but full credit for anything positive, and where each decision is made through the lens of personal aggrandisement). It also pervades our loving, romantic relationships where too often the focus is on winning an argument rather than personal enlightenment through the argument.
In contrast, during evolution, a healthy optimistic brain would not have ignored negative data and ‘just smiled!’, as this would have resulted in the dangerous under estimation of risk. Nor would it have simply transferred the consequences onto others, since doing so would have removed the only thing to which one’s brain has a semblance of control: In other words, one’s own thoughts and actions. It would have been aware of its ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstances, and thus engage in the world with - what we could intuitively call - integrity, curiosity, courage and compassion. The advantage is that this way of being would have created new, unforeseen possibilities for the individual and others in their group. The cost, however, is the awareness of uncertainty and its resulting perceptual consequences.
At the moment, because of uncertainty, many of us are experiencing the consequences of uncertainty in the form of disrupted sleep, awkward dreams, possibly negative realisations about one’s beloved, parent, child, friend, work, experiences of illness or the devastation of finances … or all of the above. Grinning in the face of it will not make these realities go away.
So my aim of this blog is to demystify adventure. ‘De-grandize’ it. Democratize and humanize it… in order to lower its bar of entry for all of us. 'Moving through life with a tilt’ is first and foremost ... movement. More deeply, it’s being tilted in that movement: To use the fears, sadnesses and losses to propel you forward… and in doing so proactively create the possibility of new perceptions. As Jung once said, “...problems are never solved. We only change our perspective (perception) of them”. It’s, therefore, an incorrect assumption that you must first be rid of your fear in order to step forward… to be rid of your sadness in order to get out of bed ... or have the necessary funds to ‘go on an adventure’ (some of the wealthiest people I know have been perceptually stagnant for years).
I packed up my home and turned left (after first turning right to get a lobster roll from Reds Eats in Maine), not with fanfare or any form of confetti. There was no celebration. In fact the opposite was true. There were (and are) difficult realities that I’m facing. For deeply personal reasons, uncertainty was already there… and strongly so! Some of it is within my control… most isn’t. Some because of others and some for others… most because of me. None of which will go away by simply turning left. These deeply painful, challenging aspects of life - that we all feel, or will feel - will remain until they don’t.
The aim of ‘turning left’ is not to step into uncertainty. It’s to acknowledge the uncertainty that is already there, as well as the personal decisions that created it.
And therein began the adventure.
The next step was to move - literally or figuratively towards it … and in doing so proactively define it.
(‘To the left’ for me is a metaphor for this process.)
Which makes adventure more like a sailboat than a motor boat. It uses the wind and currents to propel itself forward through sometimes very rough waters. It doesn’t fight against these elements as does a motorboat (which requires much more fuel, exhaust and with much less style!).
The result can be moments of empathic wonderment that have the potential to expand your realisations that create understandings in your brain that transcend you.
As such, the human truth that propels adventure is not only courage. It’s self-honesty. Which is why in true adventure (as opposed to a holiday) you come face-to-face with your fears (and mistakes) that are already present, but which you might have hidden behind pride, defence and anger. Though so easily felt (usually out of insecurity), pride, defence and anger are imposters to insight. They create in the brain the illusion of knowing … without actually knowing, and definitely without understanding.
So … uncertainty is already there in your life. Your adventure began well before you started reading this blog series. The question is: What will your uncertainty mean to your future past? Will it mean self-empowerment in choosing to stand still and stop - if only for a while - when those around you are panicking? Will it mean dignity and humility in choosing to seek the forgiveness of a beloved for the pain you caused, rather than hide behind the imposters of knowing: pride and anger? Or will it mean courage in choosing to finally move forward alone in one definitive, painful but compassionate step? Or maybe it’ll mean grace in choosing to help another set of cells wrapped in another body find their reason to exist. Whatever it is for you, you do not need fanfare ... confetti … or a celebration. It does not need to be grand, or have a path.
Adventure is humbling; Its source is courageous honesty; It creates the opportunity for moments of understanding to emerge … if you look for them.
I had a friend travel with me for 2 days. What is really quite remarkable about this friend is that he stayed in the car the whole time … even when the top was down, which was almost always! Never got out … or when he did, quickly returned. When I would get in the car in the morning, he was there, waiting. And then, at the end of the day, after many hours of driving, he preferred to remain in the car. When en route, he/she stayed low purposefully out of the wind.
You see … my friend - George - was a fly. George literally travelled with me in a car that had the top down at 80 MPH and never flew or was blown away … for 2 days!
What will be the impossible within the everyday that you find on your adventure?
Written by: Beau Lotto.
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