Confession: I kind of hate the word ‘adventure’.
It conjures all the wrong things for me.
Snow shoes. Crampons. Special hats. Technical fabrics. Terrible fashion. Shite weather. Long distance air travel. Mosquitoes. Bragging rights. Selfies at altitude.
Ok. ‘Hate’ might be too strong a word for it. But it’s up there with once-useful words like ‘narrative’ and ‘curate’ and ‘bespoke’ that have been worn to the knuckle from over-use by slack-thinking newspaper columnists and advertisers to describe every kind of human experience, from buying a loaf to falling in love, from getting dressed to dying of cancer.
‘Adventure’ is like ‘fun’. Or the BBC. It’s one of those things we’re conditioned to believe is inherently Good, something we’re obliged to enjoy and we feel like losers if we don’t.
Like watching a Sunday night drama, going on an adventure often ends up being a little bit disappointing, a little bit dull, and leaves a feeling at the end of the whole thing being less than one had hoped.
Anyway, the best adventures seem to happen to other people. To heroes. To characters. The larger than life sociopaths in fancy dress with brandable first names who populate our popular culture. Sherlock. Tintin. Tarzan. Alice.
But people like you and me? Unless you’re secretly Superman, or this guy . . .
. . . ‘adventures’ are probably something you have in a lifestyley instagrammy facebooky kind of way: “Yeah, we had a wee adventure at the farmers’ market on Sunday. We totally curated our own breakfast out of artisan meat and hand-started sourdough.”
An adventure these days is basically anything that involves shopping.
Or a lot of booze and a long taxi ride home.
Or any kind of trip to East Kilbride.
But maybe, I thought, the action heroes and hipster tourism mob have skewed my understanding of the word. So, with my best schoolboy Latin and my rudimentary grasp of Romance languages I went off in search of fresh insight.
We have the prefix ‘ad’ – meaning ‘towards’. And the Latin ‘venire’, meaning to come or arrive, suggesting that the essence of adventure is something like “Towards arrival”,
It invokes excitement, requires us to imagine what’s ahead. In the anticipation of arrival, adventures are grammatically in the future perfect tense: they’re about what will have been.
Like that scene in Gregory’s Girl where Madeline orders a ginger beer with ice cream and schools her brother in the meaning of adventure:
“The nicest bit is just before you taste it. Your tongue goes all tingly. But that can’t go on forever.”
‘Adventure’ invokes risk – of success as well as of failure. We go on a bear hunt and it’s all jolly japes – but what happens when we actually find the bear?
Well, at the very least, that part of the adventure’s over and you’re suddenly into something else entirely.
You may even have jumped to another genre.
The ‘ad’ prefix also implies movement, impetus, outward momentum. (Adventures are always out there.)
But what about us introverts? Can you have an ‘inventure’? And really, what happens when you find the object of your desire? What happens when you successfully woo the princess? What happens after you slay the beast? What then?
I say never arrive.
I say, don’t buy the special hat. You’ll use it once and never again and it’ll sit there in your cupboard as a mocking reproach to the boring bastard you’ve become since your bespoke Himalayan adventure in, what . . . was it really fifteen years ago?
What if your adventure didn’t have a destination? What if you made a point of there being nothing to achieve? No summit to reach. No princess. No beast. No crampons. What if it never required going shopping? What if you just went – not knowing what was out there, but going anyway?
Or what if you didn’t go anywhere at all? Could you still retain the spirit of adventure? The anticipation? The momentum? The risk?
I’ll tell you what happens when you travel without a destination. What happens is my career. All six of them, so far, that I’ve walked out on without so much as even packing mosquito repellent.
And when I eventually get round to quitting my current job, I’ll use the same phrase I used all those other times: I’ll tell myself, It’ll be an adventure.
I’m reminded of Lao Tzu, who said: “A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving. A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants.”
Even when it’s seemingly into the void. In fact, especially so.
Which is a hard thing to square with how we’re encouraged to live our lives, as well as our jobs, according to goals and targets: highly defined, endlessly reviewed, SMART – the unquestionable articles of faith of a corporatised world.
Also difficult to square is this hand-drawn circle – one of the symbols of Zen Buddhism. It stands for lots of things: the beginning and the end of all things, simultaneously the looking-for and the finding. It’s a reminder of the imperfections in all things, that all things are perfect as they are. It gently invites us to stop striving for perfection, to just let things be.
It also stands for the Void. It’s what Sherlock sees through his glass. It’s what Tarzan contemplates reaching for his next vine (maybe). It’s what I see when I’m halfway through a project that I’ve lost faith in. I start to forsee that its completion will fall very far short of the very high standards I’ve set myself.
When that happens, it’s like I’m about to fall off the edge of the world. None of my knowledge and learning has any meaning any more. My intuition is lost to me. I feel blank, confused, worthless. The sense of adventure I started out with has given way to a sense of futility.
I begin again to walk down the familiar path towards the diabolical town at the end of the line called Failure, to drink deep from the bottle of self-doubt and pick a fight with myself at the saloon of self-loathing.
Sometimes it takes a leap of faith into the void to find our Holy Grail, that the Void itself can sometime support us.
If we can be true believers in the things that support us, that give impetus and momentum to our abilities in the world – such things as curiosity, integrity, diligence, creativity, community and love – then we can embrace uncertainty, we can welcome doubt, and enjoy the process of figuring it all out as we go.
Here’s Sherlock’s Zen looking-glass again. Turns out there are two versions. The completed version is for me the more energising. It implies a continuous loop. The idea of adventure that most inspires me is not one that resembles a journey or a narrative – no beginning, middle and end – but one which is ongoing.
For me, the trick to living an adventurous life is finding the thing that keeps you looking, that keeps you moving.
It’s about locating the impetus towards an arrival that may or may not come, that if it does is fleeting and transitory and which only gives fresh impetus to one’s momentum. The continuous loop.
Which, conveniently, as a lover of bicycles and bicycling, is how bikes work.