"Adventure" has come to mean activities involving some small measure of highly managed thrills with little or no real risk.
This is mostly a good thing. Does anyone clipped to a commercial zip line want the operator to say, “We’re about real rather than perceived risk. So this may not work. Off you go!” Of course not. So let’s ask the question. Are we only interested in spiked adrenaline, or are we chasing something greater— something perhaps even life-altering?
This special interest activities that offer “something more” is likely an outgrowth of our peculiar and highly driven way of life. North Americans are the most bored, stressed out, frantic and highly habituated people on the planet. In his book “To Have or To Be,” the famous German sociologist Erich Fromm put it like this: “We are a society of notoriously unhappy people: lonely, anxious, depressed, destructive, dependent—people who are glad when we have killed the time we are trying so hard to save.” Fromm wrote this in 1976, and we’ve gone even further down the pathway of anxious living since then.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that standard vacation options, which revolve around simply being in an alternative setting have been less and less adequate tools to mop up our anxiety and hit our spiritual reset. Interest has naturally shifted in the direction of activities that are more intense. Which makes sense. If the routines you wish to recover from have affected you more deeply, then the means of your recovery will need to be more absorbing. Pump up the apparent risk and you have the formula: More apparent risk = more intensity = a greater offset to our obsessional work-life issues.
But adventure as therapy or recovery technique means we are looking for a coping mechanism instead of an experience that has value in its own right. Is this what we want? Intense activities that simply help us manage the side effects of a work- dominated or safe, conventional life? Or are our imaginations kindled by the idea of a large, transforming experiences because we wanted to shake the very nature of our status quo, period? What is the tail, and what does the wagging? And the problem may be worse than we think, because “adventure-ish activities” may be giving us just enough buzz that we feel temporarily satisfied and can go back to lives that stay largely the same. But what about the deeper longing for bigness or newness or spontaneity or transformation—or whatever gets us wondering about something more to in the first place ... This is why the distinction may be so important.
For thousands of years, human beings have been unable to keep from retelling stories about epic journeys, transforming struggles and intense encounters with the wild. There are “Ulysses,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and every Marvel film you have (or ever will) see. This isn’t commercial zip line stuff. This isn’t about adventure-ish experiences. And it also isn’t about experiences cooked to be dangerous just for the sake of being dangerous. No. We read Hemingway and Kerouac because we long for an immersive, transforming journey. These stories touch a part of us that wonders what it would actually be like to at least once in our lives break past the boundaries of conventional or highly managed experiences. We want to do something that makes us feel alive in a way that is unique to us. Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s “The Long Way Around” became a sensation because it spoke to a common longing to, at a certain point in life, pause all the standard commitments and routines, and strike out into the world to do something large, spontaneous and uniquely relevant for you, and in the process, perhaps learn something about both yourself and your world. This is hardly the kind of longing likely to be addressed with a few highly managed weekend thrills.
So let’s try to name what “authentic adventure” could be by first looking at what it isn’t. The most obvious isn’t is: activities that offer increased intensity for the sake of apparent risk. Call this “apparent adventure.” Or call it adventure-ish activities. We just talked about it: the quick thrills.
The next thing on the list of isn’t is danger for the sake of danger. Call this contrived adventure or risk for the sake of risk, or even just a stunt, because what’s missing is a sense of purpose. And if we take epic quest literature as a guide, this is a really important component. Our greatest stories feature purposeful journeys into transforming intensity. Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” is one of the best sources for understanding this notion of adventure as transforming quest. Campbell looked at volumes and volumes of epic literature to distill what he calls “the hero’s journey.” It’s 12 stages of a journey that unfold in three phases: departure, initiation and return. For the sake of our discussion I want to focus on the call to adventure, transforming largeness and the triumphal return.
The Call to Adventure
The hero’s journey begins with a call that can be as simple as the longing to. Joseph Dispenza in “The Way of the Traveller” describes it as “... the insistent, irresistible pull of our Higher Selves, inviting us to go to the next step, [and] rise to the next level of ourselves ... We use the term ‘wake-up call’ to describe the sudden summons to stop living with illusions, to take better care of ourselves, or to alter our behavior in some basic way ... ”
Maybe this does the best job of capturing what we mean by the essence of true adventure. It’s an answer to a longing for something more, the sense that we all have an appointment with liminality and the largeness of the cosmos that only we can keep, because it is unique to us. And it arises because on some level we realize we’ve outgrown our life as it now stands, and while we don’t know exactly what’s next, we know we need to find it.
Simon Sinek, in his 2009 Ted Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” described how decisions can be formed in a part of the brain that is removed from our language abilities. That means that just because we can’t put something into words doesn’t mean there isn’t real brain work going on. I’ll take Sinek at his word, and suggest that the primal urge we sometimes feel to strike out and risk transforming intensity could be our mind sensing something very real even if it doesn’t fit into words. Follow it and see.
There often comes a moment in a difficult or intense endeavour where suffering reaches a climax and a breakthrough is needed. This tends to occur at the three quarter mark in our movies and novels where the crisis comes to a head. All hope is lost. Conventional strategies have failed. The quest is near collapse, and it looks like no one will survive. This is the “belly of the whale.” It’s the “dark night of the soul.” And the only way out is for the main characters to look within themselves and find something new. This is the stuff that turns an otherwise ordinary experience into a story that defines us.
I once spent four hours adrift in Sir Francis Drake Channel, in the dark, on a moonless night, alone, blown by a strong wind toward open seas, in a dingy with a motor that didn’t work. My only hope was to pick an island and hope I could hit it instead of the huge black void of open ocean on either side. There was much paddling, much cursing, and much invoking of divine favour. I was in over my head. And while it did work out, it was by the barest of margins. The net effect of all this was a transforming humility. I dragged myself out of the surf, battered and bruised, somewhat traumatized, somewhat vibratingly alive. I’d touched the void (or at least seen it). And I’d made it back, paradoxically transformed. Why paradoxically? Because I felt both larger and smaller at the same time. Large in the sense of having made it, humbled in the sense of how fortunate I’d been.
Some of our most important triumphs as individuals and as human beings have happened when we set out to touch big things, but those big things have escaped our grasp and laid ahold of us instead. It’s the flat tire on an epic road trip, and there is no spare. It’s the weather that engulfs the summit the moment you arrive. And the result is that we must improvise and become something we did not know we were.
Another familiar idiom we have for this part of the journey is second birth, also called a new birth, or rebirth. Our first birth lands us inside the newness of the world while we are completely inept. All we can do is react to external stimuli. The first 20 years of life are largely scripted for us from a pool of standard choices: Learn to look after yourself, learn to get along with others, find a marketable skill, get married, have kids, and so forth. This can land you in what feels like a generic life of ticked boxes—a real life version of “The Truman Show.” All of this is fine, but it invariably leads to a moment where you look at your life and think, “Is this it? Now I just hit repeat until my vital signs run out?”
Rebirth can be the dramatic change that happens when you enter the largeness of the world a second time to let it take you by surprise. You chose to beg some of your own questions; to risk yourself. You travel to someplace new, and the visceral reality of the experience triggers an expansion. New sights. New sounds. New smells. A radical break from the backdrop of normal routines. You might think, “I didn’t know things could be this different. I want to take differentness back with me.” Other transformations occur when it all goes awry. And the crisis—the weather, the lost equipment, the broken equipment, whatever—the crisis forces you to get in touch with a resourcefulness you didn’t know you had. And you come back permanently larger as a result.
Adventure, then, must at least create the possibility that we can be awed out of our smallness, and have new possibilities take us by surprise. It needs to be absorbing enough that it can pull us out of our claustrophobic “Is this it?” and push us into a new scale of what it means to be ourselves. Then we can come back home to the same circumstances, but live differently within them— or change them all together. It will be like we were reborn.
The Triumphal Return
We don’t just want our heroes to come back home triumphant, we want them to do so after they come within a hair’s breadth of failure. Why? Because it shows us an accessible humanity. Our favorite heroes—like us—get back home as much by luck as wit, as much by grace as skill, as much by improvisation as good planning. They don’t succeed because they had the whole thing in hand, they succeed despite the fact that they were overwhelmed. And who can’t identify with being overwhelmed?
Fully managed or apparent risk isn’t enough to tease all of this out. Nor is danger for the sake of danger. Only a purposeful journey into transforming intensities allows for the possibility that we come back both larger and smaller at the same time.
True adventure is not just seeking thrills or creating intentional danger. It’s signing up for experiences that are large enough and new enough that it’s at least possible that we will be changed.
An Appointment with Largeness
We can encounter transforming big things by freak accident (like my ocean encounter), or by calculated risk, or because it makes it’s own appointment with us in the form of suffering or loss. Epic adventurers put themselves in the kind of extreme circumstances where these encounters are far more likely to happen. When they come back from the brink, we flood them with opportunities for book writing and keynote speaking because we want to know. We even need to know. “What’s it like out there beyond the bounds of managed risk and predictable outcomes? Tell us! Tell us! Tell us!”
The stories of extreme athletes and explorers, though, can’t become the placebo that keeps us from an authentic journey of our own. Nor can we let our epic literature become the substitute. At some point in our lives, we’re going to sense the call to find out what lies beyond the safe and predictable pathways we’ve been following for long enough. It can be an immersive solo journey, or a journey with a lifelong or a long lost friend. It can be an experience driven by learning or conversation or meditation, or by the wild and by adversity.
It is at its root a decision to follow ourselves into an encounter with big things because we want to find our own frontier, and risk change.
“Occasionally someone rises from evening meal, Goes outside, and goes, and goes, and goes ... Because somewhere in the East a sanctuary stands. And his children lament as though he had died.
And another, who dies within his house, Remains there, remains amid dishes and glasses, So that his children must enter the world In search of that sanctuary, which he forgot. “
—Rainer Maria Rilke