Sometimes the hardest part of the journey is finishing what you started. When a sculptor begins his or her work, they need not worry about the details at first. As long as they can cut out the big chunks and block in an idea, there exists no possibility of failure. If you mess it up, you can pretend you intended to do it that way and make something out of it anyway. The sculptor knows that the form is what draws you in; it's the detail that keeps you there.
So, when you are just blocking something in, you don’t have enough behind you to say you know what you are doing yet, so there is nothing to fear, all you need is a possibility to succeed. The mission is vague, and even if it is specific, there’s very little at stake. If you are carving marble, then you don’t yet have to worry about accidently breaking off something you spent months whittling down into a detailed hand.
But as you get closer to the finish line, it suddenly becomes more real. It’s no longer just a dream or a rationalization. Now you’ve gone and done it, and now you are going to have to live with what you have done.
Perhaps that is why it is so easy to fail a few feet from finishing.
The Odyssey and The Agony
After the great Trojan War, according to Homer, the Greek Hero, Odysseus, is on his way home across the seas with his soldiers. At every step and every turn, the gods test him. He faces the cave and the Cyclops, Circe and the Underworld, he is held captive for seven years by Calypso, he’s tempted by the distraction of the sirens, and anything the gods can throw at him to test his commitment.
Finally, after passing the tests, acquiring allies, and defeating enemies, Odysseus is in the home stretch. He has earned his place among the Greek heroes; he has conquered all external foes. Ithaca, their destination, is in sight on the horizon. The veteran is coming home.
Just before arriving, Odysseus falls asleep.
While he is sleeping, his men find a bag given to him, which they think is a treasure. Upon opening it, all the winds of Aiolla, the god of the winds, is unleashed, sending Odysseus back to the start.
Odysseus must start all over again.
The tests of the journey are all real. It’s not easy to begin, even if all we need to do is lay in the foundation, but it's the possibilities, the half commitments, that are enough to keep us going. Along the way, we may find ourselves held captive for seven years by our own private Calypso, or tempted by the siren’s song to abandon our ship, but hey, that's part of the adventure, that's what you sign up for. And like Odysseus, we must have the discipline to strap ourselves to our ship, refuse to eat the lotus of complacency, and confront the unfulfilled ghosts of our peers.
But our real test is when we see the finish line. Because it means we must cross it.
The desire to lie down does not come from fatigue. If we are that close to the finish line, we know we can sleep soon enough. Fatigue at that point is not the problem.
So why fall asleep a few feet from finishing? Why allow ourselves to be swept back to the beginning?
Because it is the fear of completion that haunts us- we don’t want to be there when it happens. We want to be asleep. Completing the journey means it’s done, and what are you going to do with yourself when you are done? Better to not know it is happening. Because a twenty-year journey is no longer a journey, it is now a habit. And habits are hard to break, even for Odysseus.
Bernard Moitessier was a French sailor and vagabond of the South Seas. In 1968, he participated in an English competition to sail solo, circumnavigating the entire world, along with a small handful of other daring individuals, nonstop – an unprecedented journey. The winner, who arrived in fastest time, would be awarded a cash prize, a name in the record book, and a grand and public ceremony.
The world was watching, and the winner would take all.
Like Odysseus, Moitessier was faced with many trials. But his was a journey of solitude. The tests of sailing solo around the world were immense. Months went by without human contact and he found ways to be at peace with himself. But his inner conflict was finally reflected in the high seas, as a southeastern gale pushed him off course as he was rounding the Cape Horn of Africa – a mere sixth of his way home.
But Moitessier was in the lead. The race was now between him and the English sailor, Robin Knox-Johnston, and he knew he could win it. The prize was his to take, all he needed to do was complete the race.
Until The London Times got a message. Moitessier had shot at a passing ship.
With a slingshot.
Attached to the projectile that hit their boat was a message from Moitessier. Moitessier had abandoned the race. His message simply stated his reason: “because I am happy at sea and perhaps to save my soul.”
A sixth of the way home, a mere effort in the wake of all that he accomplished, with victory at his fingertips, Moitessier decided to remain at sea.
Having already rounded the corner for the home stretch, Moitessier diverted in the other direction, and continued to circumnavigate the Earth a second time. All he needed to do was finish what he had started, be faster than Knox-Johnson, and he could have won.
Reportedly, the reason he did not complete the journey was not because he thought he would lose. It was because he thought he would win.
Moitessier could not face the public ceremony of completing the race. He had been at sea too long, he had been inside himself too long, and home was unfamiliar, disconnected, and alien. It no longer made any sense to be anywhere but the sea.
Only Robin Knox Johnson finished the race, and because of he finished the race, he won.
But for Moitessier, like Odysseus, the journey had become a habit.
Or were they the same?
The Drifter and The Hero
It’s easy to romanticize Moitessier, a man who was less interested in the prize, and more interested in matters of the soul.
The race, the challenge, the competition in front of him must have inspired him to take the call- But did his reasons for taking the call change? Perhaps deep down, he never wanted to win the race, never wanted to be in the record book, and never wanted the prestige, but, instead, he wanted to take the journey, to discover himself, and in the process, become one with the journey.
After all, our daily lives become meditations on what we do. We become what we do.
Perhaps, unlike Odysseus, whose journey had become a habit, it was the habits of Moitessier, which became the journey.
After all, the message he fired onto a passing boat with a slingshot told everyone his reason: “because I am happy at sea.”
The difference between The Drifter and The Hero is in the sacrifice it takes to accomplish what you set out to do.
Odysseus and his men had just fought in the epic Trojan War, and their entire objective was to get home, to be with their wives, to set foot on their beloved Greek land again. They were not “happy at sea.” They were miserable. They needed to get home, and if that meant a bloody journey, then so be it.
They were willing to cross through Hades, because home was on the other side.
When the Winds of Aiolla blew him off course, Odysseus had to start all over again, and if he was going to cross the finish line, he was going need to do it awake. Just like Moitessier’s upset on the Cape Horn of Africa, he was faced with the choice of continuing towards his goal or abandoning it all together.
We can let our habits become our journey, or we can let the journey become a habit. But either way, you don’t reach your destination.
Eventually, we must make the decision of Odysseus, and that is to stay awake, to accept the end, to make it home, to complete the mission, to see a land that may no longer even be familiar to us, but to finally put our swords, our shields, and our ships to rest.
The Journey Continues
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