The Spirit of Questing

Scheherazade was the queen whose stories make up the Arabian Nights, and I believe we all share her fate.

Her fate is that she became, by choice, the wife of the Sultan of Persia, who had a decree that every woman he married would be killed on the morning after the wedding—a man with a serious intimacy problem. She wanted to put a stop to this, so on the day of their wedding, she began telling the Sultan a story, but stopped just short of the finish. The Sultan agreed to let her live one more day to see how the story turned out.

The next day she finished the story and immediately started another, stopping, once again, just short of the climax. Again the Sultan let her live one more day to see how that story unfolded. After 1001 nights and 1001 stories, the Sultan fell in love with Scheherazade and the killing stopped.

Scheherazade reminds us that the commitment to forward momentum is a lifesaving virtue, and that it’s critical not to fall too far out of sync with life, which moves. Furthermore, Socrates said that soul is closer to movement than fixity, so loss of soul is the condition of being stuck.

The world, too, owes its forward-leaning impulses, its progress and its passion, to the spirit of questing—even restlessness—within us. To the part of each one of us that eventually grows weary of the status quo and hungry for a challenge, and that feels born to run—to move, explore, experiment, travel, climb, create, investigate, invent, pioneer, and discover. To grow.

The philosopher Blaise Pascal once said that all our miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone, but surely some of our miseries derive from too much time sitting alone in a room, legs pulsating under the desk, running in place. Our orbits can so easily narrow down to the use of a few beaten paths, a handful of faculties, the company of the same people and the same ideas, a small wedge of experience that excludes whole universes of pleasure and whole continents of people, while the larger life that’s always out there accuses us of mere contentment.

When he was in his twenties, travel writer Bruce Chatwin (whose surname means “the winding path” in old Anglo-Saxon) was an art expert at Sotheby’s, a job he found increasingly distasteful. One morning he woke up blind. The doctor said there was nothing organically wrong with him. “You’ve been looking too closely at pictures,” he said. “Why don’t you swap them for some long horizons.” So he went to Africa. His eyes recovered by the time he got to the airport.

In her book New, Winifred Gallagher refers to “neophilia”—the enthusiasm for novelty that’s at the heart of the exploratory urge—as the quintessential human survival skill, whether we’re adapting to climate change on the primordial African savannah or coping with the computerization of modern life and our desk-tethered world; whether we’re exploring uncharted terrain, investigating new artistic techniques, poking around at the further reaches of a scientific theory, or probing the endless possibilities of intimacy and spirituality.

Some of us are neophiliacs and some neophobes—people who shy away from novelty, if not outright fear it—but neophilia’s grand design is to help us learn and create, as well as adapt to the moving target that is the world. Researchers looking for the traits that characterize people who tend to flourish over the years, have found that such people tend to score high in novelty-seeking, though you can seek it for the sake of encounter or escape, of moving toward something—freedom, adventure, discovery, transcendence—or away from something.

The most common accusation leveled against the restless is that there’s something they don’t want to face or don’t want to feel, but sometimes restlessness is avoidance, a kind of motion sickness in which they use activities like travel, job hopping, relocation, promiscuity and upward mobility as distractions from deeper explorations and commitments—the emotional equivalent of channel surfing.

The anthropologist Loren Eiseley once said that even the venture into space is meaningless unless it coincides with an interior expansion, a growing universe within, and one of the great clichés of restlessness and endless questing is that wherever you go, there you are. Even if you moved to another world, you’d take your inner world with you. You can go from port to port, job to job, and affair to affair, always trying to chase down paradise, a dream job, a soulmate, or a grand unified theory, but you’re still going to see the same inner sky no matter what new worlds you discover.

The restlessness that’s at the heart of questing can encompass anything from garden-variety hyperactivity to the kind of headlong busyness that characterizes such a large swath of human activity, from travel fever to the kind of passionate intensity typical of creative and exploratory types who are seldom satisfied with the status quo. But history tells us that we all come from nomadic stock. Mobility is the rule in human history. Sedentary life is the exception. In the brainstem of every human being is a revolt against what’s fixed, and a deep migratory urge.

We have genes selected for curiosity and novelty, limbs made for walking, long childhoods during which to practice exploration, and brains designed to think imaginatively. It’s no surprise that we’re often beleaguered with sudden shouts of wanting that order us to our feet.

The call of the road doesn’t go away. If it isn’t answered or even acknowledged, if it isn’t given some rein—physically or psychologically—it can shape-shift into disquietude, busy-mind and outburst.

In the movie The Great New Wonderful, a couple lives in a mind-numbingly stale routine in a highrise apartment outside New York City. Every evening, while he watches TV, she sits at the kitchen table and creates elaborate collages of all the places she yearns to travel to, and then puts the finished collage in a hall closet along with what appear to be dozens more of them all stacked up, 40 years’ worth.

One day, while he’s out smoking his after-dinner cigarette on the patio, she snaps. Bursting out the balcony door, she charges at him and tries to push him over the railing.

The habit of literally settling for less is also bad for our health. The sedentary life contributes to a host of maladies—cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, stroke, hypertension, depression, obesity—that together account for up to 75% of the deaths in industrialized countries.

The urge to journey works against the urge to stay put and sink roots, even settle down and raise a family. The fact is, we don’t just crave security and certainty. We also crave their opposite—passion, spontaneity, novelty, discovery, an adrenaline rush, a push to the limits, the bedlam of love and creativity, the full range of emotions, for some people a locker at the bus station. We like the world to occasionally be unpredictable and full of surprises, despite our sensible lifestyles. We like to feel alive. And we know that being alive without feeling alive is like eating food with no taste to it.

Thus it’s vital to cultivate a feel for what wants to emerge in your life, what’s trying to happen at any given turning point, in any given moment or situation or relationship or career. To identify what wants to move and where it wants to go.

Movement, however, is not only critical to personal or professional growth, it’s one of the essential vehicles of spiritual transport—used by shaking Shakers, quaking Quakers, whirling Dervishes, walking meditators, holy rollers, trance dancers, and labyrinth walkers. If restlessness were only about running away from something, only distraction and avoidance, then how to explain the psychology of pilgrimage, the search for godself precisely through walkabout?

Also, among the most common symptoms of spiritual awakening, as in ecstatic trance or dance, is physical activity including vibrating, shaking and contractions. In fact, spirituality itself, which Robert Solomon in Spirituality for the Skeptic describes as “the thoughtful love of life,” requires an active emotional life (e-mote meaning to move out), as well as impassioned engagements and quests.

These, of course, can sometimes tip over into instability and insatiability, a kind of possessiveness that has us flailing around in life, whacking at pinatas, but spirituality isn’t only about peace of mind. “It’s a passion, the passion for life and for the world. It’s a movement, not a state.”

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