When I was about 12 or 13, our class at secondary school was joined by a young man, who, for the purposes of this blog, we’ll call Martin.
He had a cheerful face, which offended everything our bitter, heartless class had come to expect of the world. So we put him a corner of the class and piled chairs around him. Burying him behind a wall of interlocking chairs, their legs everywhere.
It was an initiation of sorts. He emerged, after half an hour, unscathed and ready to take his place as a member of Tutor Group 9H.
Martin proved resilient to this early test, and over the past 20 years has grown into a relatively decent man. Or as close to it as any of us that emerged from that school could.
A few years ago however, he decided that he was due a healthy dose of ‘me time’.
He’d been having a rough few months and as anyone who has been in a similar situation will understand, he decided that the best thing to do was get the hell out of it for a bit.
In the event, ‘a bit’ was six months, and the place he decided to get away too was Vietnam.
His friends followed his progress as he travelled the country. He bought a motorbike, found work as an actor (seriously, not even kidding) and enjoyed himself.
I followed his travels with interest and found myself wondering more and more about doing something similar.
‘not all those who wander are lost’
JRR Tolkien wrote that ‘not all those who wander are lost’, and it was Martin’s fearless example of living this ideal that affected me.
It made me decide to pursue my own adventure and go to work in Africa.
Sometimes, we need a little perspective on our situations. Some time to observe our lives from a distance and consider what is and isn’t working. For Martin, Vietnam and for me, South Africa provided that opportunity. To go, work, travel and see some more of the world and enable us to look at our own lives.
While away, I realised how small mine had become and how attached to ‘things’ I was.
In South Africa I saw so much beautiful scenery and such hardship. I was working on a rural HIV medical programme. Using my brain to come up with ways to deliver physiotherapy using stress balls and rubber bands. But it worked! It turned out I was damn good at it, and took to the situation like a natural. By the time I was finished the people I was working with were asking if I was a Doctor.
‘I was capable of far more than I had thought’
I realised that I was capable of far more than I had thought, or even allowed myself to believe.
It was at that moment I realised that I longed for more opportunities for adventure and travel. To make memories, meet interesting people, experience new things, eat good food, enjoy great sex… Yes, for most of us, we need to hold gainful employment to be able to do these things and a home life is important of course. But I suddenly became aware that I had stopped pursuing these adventures for myself. I stopped doing the things that felt good and natural to me. Instead doing what I thought I should be doing.
Sometimes, more than anything, we need time away, maybe outside of our comfort zones, to realise what we have and, even more, what we have lost. We all need a bit of ‘me time’, however we choose to spend it. Time to reflect on what it is we want, consider where we are and think about how to bridge the gap between the two.
I didn’t know if I would ever have the guts, but I figured I would just have to try, inspired by the example set by this extraordinary man.
After Vietnam, Martin came back briefly, before going to live in Germany for a while.
‘ working out what it was …that would, ultimately, make him happy.’
Eventually he returned to the UK, and having explored some of the world, came closer to working out what it was he wanted to do with his life that would, ultimately, make him happy.
Martin is now training to be a paramedic and, next year, will be taking part in the Mongol Rally, I’m told this involves driving over 10,000 miles across 22 countries for charity. Once again pursuing that sense of adventure that helps us all to discover our best selves.
I suppose, what this helps me to understand is that it may take years and many setbacks on the road to get to a point where we know what we want. But, once we know, we should never be afraid to pursue that dream, hunting it down with enthusiasm, passion and determination.
We all know that, sometimes, what we want changes as we get older, but as long as every now and then we can get away for a moment, look back and realise how far we have come, think about the memories we have made, we’ll never find ourselves trapped beneath a metaphorical pile of chairs.