Meaning

One of the greatest examples of empathy

“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 Screen Shot 2015-06-28 at 3.25.47 PMme 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 know I am intelligent because I know that I know nothing. – Socrates

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. socrates-1-sized

Ride the Future

RTFT Team Photo“ Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”- Mark Twain

This was the guiding wisdom I ‘packed’ with me as I set off on my scooter as part of the Ride the Future Tour. And what I was about to do did indeed involve ‘sailing away’ from my own safe harbour. After hearing about the opportunity (through a chance encounter at a cafe in Bangkok) and after some contemplation, I resigned from my UN job in Thailand and booked a one-way flight to America. Professionally, it was a questionable decision. But I knew instinctively that this was a journey I needed to take.

So on the 4th July 2013, there I was in Charleston, South Carolina, about to embark on a 7000km road trip. But this journey was a little different than most road trips across America; we had a team of nine as well as a documentary film crew. We powered our vehicles with lithium-ion batteries. No gas. And we were also aiming for four Guinness World Records for the longest distance ever travelled by electric car, electric motorbike, electric scooter and electric bicycle.

My vehicle of choice was the electric scooter, which at full throttle could reach about 50km/hour and yes, we were heading for the great big interstates of America. I’d never ridden a scooter before, at least not until my parking lot test run the night before departing. I also knew very little about electric vehicles. I didn’t know how were they charged, where we’d find spare batteries and what would happen if we ran out of power on a dark, lonely road…

And it wasn’t until the eve of our big journey that I even met those I was about to spend an intensive 44 days with all the way to California — one Brit, five Americans, all recruits to the cause and all from very different backgrounds. Who were these people? Would we get along? I had no idea what lay ahead and in all truth, no idea whether this journey was even possible.

But underlying our Guinness World Record attempt there was a much greater purpose; the Ride the Future Tour involved stopping in 44 cities along the way to really soak in the vast American country, to learn about life in America from locals at planned town events, to take on something completely new as part of a team and to share in celebrating the advent of a new and much more sustainable means of transportation.

The film, “Kick Gas”, documents our journey through the 44 cities with a focus on the incredible diversity of the American landscape, from underground caves in McMinnville, Tennessee, to the cascading hills around Santa Fe, New Mexico. We took Route 66 all the way from Oklahoma, rode past the big oil rigs of Texas and explored the overwhelmingly beautiful Grand Canyon. We paraded our vehicles along the dazzling Las Vegas strip and we watched the sunset along the great Californian coast of Big Sur. All the while, we moved forward on our electric vehicles, edging closer to our finish line.

While the vehicles fascinated those we met (and we’ve answered hundreds of questions about charging, electric vehicle infrastructure, cost and efficiency), what was most encouraging for me was the reaction to the challenging journey itself. We felt like celebrities in small towns like Oden (with a population of 232). We gained riders as we went and at one point, we received a police escort into McMinnville, Tennessee, by Mayor Jimmy Daley. We made prime time news in Nashville which led to a long train of toots and cheers as we pulled out of the city the next morning. And we were welcomed with champagne and much celebration at our final destination, Google Headquarters, Mountain View, California. There were likely many who saw us passing and were left scratching their heads at the sight of our string of electric vehicles. But as strange as we appeared, all those we met were nothing but encouraging of our journey.

As people, we do well at supporting others willing to push the bounds of perceived limitations, especially in the face of challenges. We are, ultimately, creatures with the innate will to survive and to thrive and hence so awed and so inspired by the audacious human spirit. By pushing ourselves physically to achieve what no other had before (even if we were ill-equipped, ill-prepared and unsure of our ability to make the full distance..), we’ve helped to educate in a fun and powerful way about a transition that needs to happen in the face of enormous challenges to our natural environment. I hope the journey also encourages others to push the bounds of their ‘limitations’ and in the eloquent words of Mark Twain, sail away from the safe harbour.

I’m sure the experience of this journey will inform decisions I choose to take in my own life. I know for certain the people I’ve met along the way have already enriched it.