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July, 2007

Journeys We Take Alone

by Larry

I have heard it said, no doubt by a woman, that men tend to take odysseys because they fail to ask the right question. This sounds like a Zen koan! Once already enjoying the mountains in five western states and then (as of 7/19/07) some of the scenic beaches in OR, I realized the correct query might be something like: "Why go on a long, expensive trip when one is happy at home?" Of course, with thinking like that, perhaps none of us would ever have taken the first journey alone, out the birth canal.

I have read about a westerner who wanted to overcome his fears of being for long by himself. This led to his successfully going on a trek across 1200 miles of the Sahara Desert with only a pair of camels for company.

The appeal of a journey alone (at least for men) may be that it is a vivid, concrete metaphor for the also metaphorical journey we take through life itself.

But a trip across some long distance is just one kind of journey, metaphorical or otherwise. There may be many types we might choose, or that choose us.

Severe illness is one such private journey. The prospect of great changes tends to focus the experience for us, and there is room in that passage for but one at a time.

There is never anything approaching a 100% correlation between the feelings, memories, sensations, perceptions, images, or thoughts of one person and those of another. Indeed, except for identical twins of the same experiential background or perhaps a rare pairing of highly intuitive people, most folks share very little of the journey with another. By means of common languages and a companionable interaction in a similar setting, we may give ourselves the illusion for awhile of a greater sharing of that journey than may really exist. This is not to say that love and friendship are false or of little value. They are instead priceless in a realm that otherwise might be incredibly lonely, and each moment of genuine intimacy is to be treasured along the way.

But there are times, even when going together down the common stream, when our craft seem to diverge, until for awhile the journeys we take appear in their course more than usual ones taken alone.

Another type journey we may profitably take alone is that involving inner growth. It may be a spiritual path involving deep prayerfulness, or it may be an intense sweat lodge experience, a Buddhist meditation discipline, etc. Often we get so caught up in our relationships and activities that there is little room for anything else. Yet, to paraphrase Pascal, most all of our ills come from an inability to sit quietly and alone. (Not that I am any expert in either!)

Besides illness, there may be journeys alone we would just as soon not have to take, but that may be fruitful once embarked upon. In this category might be journeys like the struggle to overcome an addiction, to endure incarceration, to go on rewardingly after the death of a spouse, to deal with a major disability, or to grieve over a significant loss.

Some journeys cannot truly be made together even in the conventional sense. However much one's mate is a "sensitive '90s kind of guy," he probably cannot really experience the journey of a woman through pregnancy, giving birth, and then physically nurturing her newborn.

An artist or other talented person may enjoy a positive journey which cannot be readily conveyed to another except through the end result, once an idea borne of the initial stirring of creativity has been transformed through all the steps required to take it to fruition. An odyssey of this kind can even seem in a sense to take on a life of its own.

So much of life is naturally lived in association with others. A vacation on one's own will often involve interactions with other people too, but, in comparison, a trip by oneself involves much more isolation.

My brother, Tim, likes the results of limited stimulation on a long driving trip, when there is no radio, CD, or audiotape turned on. Often as a result the mind brings up abundant material from the past, new ideas, humor, or even tunes, so that he may spontaneously begin singing, as others might in the shower or while mowing the yard, etc.

I find this process pleasant as well. In fact, a long drive can sometimes be as altering of my consciousness as a large cup of coffee, leaving me slightly manic for the first few hours afterward. There may be other, more deliberate ways to delve into one's inner self, either to deal with one's demons or scale the heights within. I think that some of the people regarded as creative geniuses have taken such journeys, as perhaps have folks called saints.

The ultimate journey alone is one we shall all take, though for a few it may be completed in an instant while for others it can take years, and as yet we do not know that much about its full implications. For this is the profound pilgrimage that faces and culminates in death. The immensity of this finality or transition, its challenge to and testing of one's most fundamental beliefs, values, hopes, and sense of self can be extremely meaningful. For some, this journey may be conducted with comparative calm and in relatively good awareness. Folks taking this type journey have often remarked to loved ones that it was proving to be, if not one they would have undertaken voluntarily, the most rewarding journey they have ever "walked."

For all their mundane ups and downs, the merely physical journeys we can take alone across a part of the country cannot be treated in the same way as this, of course. But while we are having fun along life's course, let us also take a little time in its byways to help prepare for that most intense and exciting trek alone.

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