In pale-blue fog, a far, white sailboat
Through mist and sea, sails all alone:
What lures him to some distant country,
What drives him out, so far from home?
The whistling wind, the dancing waters
Make music with the creaking mast.
No eager hope lights up his future,
No happiness fulfills his past.
So bright the sun, so blue the water,
Below him azure, above him gold.
But restlessly, the rebel wanders
In search of storms to calm his soul.
– M. Lermontov (The Sail)
This is my favorite poem. It’s my favorite translation of the poem anyhow. I find a lot of meaning in it. When people ask me to explain why I decided to quit my job, put everything I own into boxes, and buy a one-way ticket to a continent I’ve never visited, I often wish I could just recite this poem and then change the subject.
When I try to explain what it is that I’m doing without including all of the personal details, I’m afraid that I come across as just another privileged Yankee on an extended vacation. People often ask just how I can manage afford to travel like this, unaware that I’m neither paying rent or bills of any kind along the way, nor back in the States. For the time being, my home is a giant oversized backpack and wherever I happen to lay my head at night.
When people ask what it is that compels me to pull the plug on my normal life, that’s a question I find somewhat difficult to answer truthfully. I never feel like it’s enough to just say that everyday life is a drag. It’s so childishly inadequate, though I suppose that it is part of the answer.
It at least taps into something we all feel from time to time.
You work long hours (if you’re lucky) for just enough money to stay a little behind on everything and then you see these vultures with unspeakable wealth that they didn’t earn, just living it up and doing whatever they please. Every day there’s another story about a group of cops who slaughtered some young black man while just around the corner there’s a line of people waiting for the new Krispy Kreme to open up. Even if you don’t read the news about people getting their heads chopped off by one group of bad guys or else blown to smithereens by the other (the ones we “support” with our bumper stickers made by 10 year old factory workers) you can’t help just feel like everything is wrong.
Everything is wrong and yet there’s this prevailing peace that seems so difficult to effectively disturb.
Of course, this is me speaking from a position of privilege. Of white privilege, male privilege, and the privilege of citizenship within the empire that rules much of the world with an iron fist, or is at least trying to. This privilege affords me a kind of tranquil existence that I find unbearable. That’s the hardest part to explain. I ache for some sort of tumult, some instability, some rupture with everything we have come to think of as normal.
When I was a teenager, it was “angst.” I could be an anarchist, punk, troublemaker, and it was easy enough to shrug off. In my 20’s it was “youthful idealism” and I could be a radical, a socialist, an activist, and so on. The choice to continue those sorts of activities for years after college certainly raised an eyebrow or two. Such a relentless tempest. Such a resiliant teapot. I have found ways to calm it for a time with a constructive project or a passionate love affair; all the while, the intentionally meaningless existence offered up by our society stubbornly persists.
On one hand is drudgery, the dull and alienating experience of a workaday North-American life. On the other is an unspeakable level of violence perpetrated against all kinds of people for all sorts of reasons. The beast that these two hands belong to is the profit system, or whatever you’d prefer to call it. It’s the source of all the evils in the world. It even says so in the Bible. I haven’t read it in years but I remember the parts about camels, needles, and “the love of money” quite well from my childhood.
Of course you don’t have to read anything (whether Jesus or Marx) to feel it in your gut if you’re the type of person who pays attention to gut feelings.
It’s the reason why some of us drink ourselves into a stupor. It’s the reason why we go to church, and it’s the reason we obsessively collect the latest fad product, if we can afford it. The unfiltered reality of everything around us is just too much to take in. The problem is that just like with the killer cigarettes we smoke when life stresses us out too much, the filter can’t keep all the toxins out and we still take in large amounts of this burdensome reality, even in the entertainment with which we try to distract ourselves.
As long as you feel a sense of purpose, you can soldier through a lot. As long as you feel a righteous indignation you can organize with other people and you can blindly flail in the dark and you can at least feel like you’re “doing something.” Sometimes though, the setbacks are intense and when you examine the impact you’ve made relative to the gargantuan tasks ahead, it’s easy to get down on yourself, on other people, on trying.
So you lean on other people; friends, family and lovers. If you’re fortunate they don’t mind so much and they lean back on you enough to keep you from feeling guilty about how heavy your weight can be. Sometimes you count on them more than you should though and when you’re leaning in, they step aside. Don’t you know that their own world is hard enough without having to prop you up all the time? Sometimes you give too much of yourself to people who are just too clumsy to be trusted with something so important.
The inevitable fall that results from leaning in too far at the wrong time is one that can shatter your heart into a million pieces. Even if you have loved ones around to help pick them up, you can’t collect all the old fragments anyways. At best you’ll just wind up building a weak replica of what you once had.
Sometimes you have to go searching far and wide for something new.
You’ll know when you have to do it too. The sky will be blue, the sun will be shining, and there will friendly smiles all around you but you’ll still feel a bit uncomfortable, a bit out of place. You’ll be well fed, someone will be looking at you with loving eyes, and you’ll know you’re supposed to be content. Still you can’t shake this feeling that even though nothing is really wrong, nothing is quite right either.
If you’re like me, it’s comfort and familiarity that are the problem. It’s not so much a wanderlust, though that certainly plays a role. Rather, it’s an existential discomfort with everything because you know that a bit more tumult could do some good for a world so content to waffle between mediocrity and malice. When you find that you all you do is daydream of upset apple carts and rocked boats, that’s when you really know.
Ok, but why make the journey if it’s not in search of a more loving and peaceful life than this one?
It’s because whether we shout from the tallest peaks around the globe or from the rooftops of our own dilapidated apartments, we’re obligated by what makes us human to demand that the world be worth living in, that the people be worth communing with. If you’re like me and you’ve lost heart for one reason or another, you’ve got to find some new motivation.
If you can’t find it nearby; if you’ve looked in every nook and cranny of your house, your street, your city, or your whole damned country, maybe it’s time to pull out a bigger map. Assuming you haven’t got children who are counting on you to have a future prepared for them — and boy are they going to be disappointed — you can put your stuff in boxes, tell the bill collectors to shove it, pack a bag, and keep for yourself what little money you were about to waste on the skyrocketing interest of your student loans. With a bit of luck, you can come back later or maybe you’ll find some new place to stay before you run out of money entirely.
Along the way you’ll almost certainly meet people who are both so different and yet so much like you and the people you know back home. You can swap stories of misery and regrets but also of stubbornness and willpower. Maybe you’ll learn from each other that life can still be beautiful and it’s worth living and dying for.
Some of my friends have asked me a question which is somewhat daunting to try and answer: “What happens if you don’t ever find whatever it is you hope to find?” I’m not sure even sure what it is that I am looking for. I suppose I hope to pick up some things along the way that will help plug a rather large hole in my heart. Perhaps the determined struggles of the people I meet will inspire me to take all of my negative energy and focus it back to breaking down everything that doesn’t deserve to exist.
If nothing else, I’ll at least have a few decent stories to tell and that I hope will be worth the trouble.