“For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes” (from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera).
One story has stayed with me since I read it in January this year. I was so deeply touched by the resilience of this 66 year-old man who, despite his sons being killed by the Taliban, has remained neutral to the war in his country and continues to ferry bodies of the dead from both sides of the conflict.
I don’t believe war is ever won through force because its deep scars become entrenched in the psyche and induce ongoing suffering so that “victory” through war can be only an illusion.
But acts of deep compassion overwhelm and have the power to transform. I cannot feel my own suffering when I hear this story – it is replaced by the imagination of his own.
It will at times require an almost unimaginable capacity for empathy, but whether in the day to day or in the face of deep ideological divides, compassion should not ever be underestimated as a tool – or weapon – to resolving conflict.
I’ve heard Socrates described as a fairly unattractive fellow who had little time for personal hygiene. I imagine he was so fully engrossed in understanding others and the world around him that his physical self was of little relevance. Despite the big belly, white beard and the well of wisdom he possessed, I imagine him with an deep childlike fascination for the world; he knew there was always more to be explored, to see, to learn. There was always a deeper level. In fact it seems as though the older and wiser Socrates became, the more his characteristic curiosity grew. How did he cultivate this habit so well into old age? Imagine if we all maintained a similar childlike fascination for the world, and in particular, an ability to interact with others indiscriminately and without preconceived ideas. Imagine if we were all equally disinterested in ourselves and perpetually drawn to understand the lives of those around us.
In 2013, I travelled the length of the United States, from Charleston, South Carolina right through to San Francisco, California. Our journey has been made into a film, Kick Gas. Our ambition was to set four Guinness World Records for the longest distance ever travelled by four different types of electric vehicle (car, scooter, motorbike, bicycle). I’ve written about the journey here.
Six months later, I’m better able to reflect on what stepping outside our comfort zones can teach us. Here’s three lessons this journey has taught me about happiness.
- Happiness is being present in the moment. We might think we know this, but we don’t usually live this way. In fact, I’ve spent a lot of my time obsessing over becoming something better. It was always about earning more, getting thinner, looking better or jumping the professional ladder, all of which I thought would make me happier. But I was constantly anxious because this drew my attention away from the moment. When you are alone on a scooter for hours on end, you have a lot of time to be in ‘the moment’ — something we don’t usually allow ourselves to do. It was during these times that I felt most calm. I saw that the life within me was quiet and still and I felt completely fulfilled.
- Happiness is in living for others. I believe people are innately good and want to do good. Doing going, however, depends on how well we understand the needs of others so that we can meet those needs. But when do we ever sit down with another person, particularly somebody we don’t know well, just to listen? I think often about all the very different people I met along this journey and how different they were from each other. They each have a unique story worth sharing. For most people in this world, their stories go largely untold. I realised through this journey that I’d been rushing to make something of myself and tell a good story. But there were beautiful, enriching stories all around me. I just needed to stop and listen.
- Happiness is in living our individual truths. Before this journey, I had what on paper might appear like a fairly successful life. But I wasn’t happy. Success isn’t some easily determinable thing — it is and it should be different for everyone. I realised that in all I had achieved, I had been aspiring toward somebody else’s definition of success. It was easier to hide behind this, however, than brave a big scary world on my own. Heading off on the electric scooter represented what I felt I wasn’t actually brave enough to do in ‘real life’. But by standing up to this challenge, I gained the courage to start following my own individual truth.
There were lots of bumps and grazes as a result of this journey, but I’ve gained immensely in what I’ve learnt from this experience. My life is richer for the calm I feel and for the diversity of characters I now consider friends. And building meaningful connection with others is my truth.
There you are.
Your black overalls on top of your blue collared shirt. Your plain, straight hair above your precious blue eyes. You’re tapping the touch screen in response to the sounds you hear. Flat white. Soy latte. Espresso macchiato. Double shot. Half strength.
There is the constant hum of brewing coffee beans, the shriek of frothing milk, the thump of the chocolate shaker. There is the powder it leaves behind across your workspace. It makes you look like a messy artist. The coffee bar is your creative workspace.
You clear the plates of the people you serve. You ask me so gently if I want another coffee. You clean the bench in your creative workspace. Then, more customers arrive.
You look at them and from behind your touch screen, you’re ready to tap again. You look at them and I look at you. I see you serving others. I don’t know how to describe what I feel for you, young boy in a coffee shop. But I love to watch you.