241. No Motivation Is An Island

A good day, work-wise, when I earned my first dollars since late June. But my head was not that much in it.

I wasn’t distracted by the pouring summer rain and thunder as much as all the things I wanted to do and had to do, aside from work. Jay’s baptism is one thing, but the ‘Real Robinson Crusoe’-talk is another.

It is still months away but if I don’t prepare, then I’ll sign up for trouble, so I hope this synergistic choice of blogging about it will help me get there, with little stress – while doing all the rest.

And that leads us to the theme of the talk … or what I think is the theme so far.

Woodes Rogers, the captain who saved Alexander Selkirk in 1709, wrote of Selkirk’s 4 years of solitude on the remote Pacific Island:

… this of Mr. Selkirk I know to be true; and his Behaviour afterwards gives me reason to believe the Account he gave me how he spent his time, and bore up under such an Affliction, in which nothing but the Divine Providence could have supported any Man. By this one may see that Solitude and Retirement from the World is not such an unsufferable State of Life as most Men imagine, especially when People are fairly call’d or thrown into it unavoidably, as this Man was; who in all probability must otherwise have perish’d in the Seas, the Ship which left him being cast away not long after, and few of the Company escap’d. We may perceive by this Story the Truth of the Maxim, That Necessity is the Mother of Invention, since he found means to supply his Wants in a very natural manner, so as to maintain his Life, tho not so conveniently, yet as effectually as we are able to do with the help of all our Arts and Society. It may likewise instruct us, how much a plain and temperate way of living conduces to the Health of the Body and the Vigour of the Mind, both which we are apt to destroy by Excess and Plenty, especially of strong Liquor, and the Variety as well as the Nature of our Meat and Drink: for this Man, when he came to our ordinary method of Diet and Life, tho he was sober enough, lost much of his Strength and Agility. But I must quit these Reflections, which are more proper for a Philosopher and Divine than a Mariner, and return to my own Subject.

(Woodes Rogers, A Cruising Voyage round the World)

Optimistic, yes, but it was not the last attempt to interpret Alexander Selkirk’s forced exile.

In fact it was only the beginning, one might say, of our fascination with men (usually men!) who are stranded on remote islands and what this situation does to shape their spirits (or break them).

In 1713 Richard Steele, a journalist, interviewed Selkirk and concluded:

When I first saw him, I thought, if I had not been let into his Character and Story, I could have discerned that he had been much separated from Company, from his Aspect and Gesture; there was a strong but chearful Seriousness in his Look, and a certain Disregard to the ordinary things about him, as if he had been sunk in Thought. When the Ship which brought him off the Island came in, he received them with the greatest Indifference, with relation to the Prospect of going off with them, but with great Satisfaction in an Opportunity to refresh and help them. The Man frequently bewailed his Return to the World, which could not, he said, with all its Enjoyments, restore him to the Tranquility of his Solitude. Though I had frequently conversed with him, after a few Months Absence he met me in the Street, and though he spoke to me, I could not recollect that I had seen him; familiar Converse in this Town had taken off the Loneliness of his Aspect, and quite altered the Air of his Face.

This plain Man’s Story is a memorable Example, that he is happiest who confines his Wants to natural Necessities; and he that goes further in his Desires, increases his Wants in Proportion to his Acquisitions; or to use his own Expression, I am now worth 800 Pounds, but shall never be so happy, as when I was not worth a Farthing.

Sometimes I wish to be alone very much (except for Char and my friends and family, of course), or at least change my income flow so I don’t have to work for annoying people, spending my precious time to do so.

So there is a tiny thematic resonance here, for what will this solitude from certain groups of people do to me?

Will it have a few bits of the same tranquilizing effect as Selkirk’s all-out solitude had on him (according to Steele, at least)?

Selkirk’s situation is extreme. He is isolated for 4 years and 4 months and comes off as a better man, more vital, more tranquil.

When he returns to ‘civilization’ he succumbs to its vices and “lost much”.

His story would prove that, in a way, because after coming home he would marry and run away from that wife and lose his money. He would get into fights again and get imprisoned, if I recall correctly. And then he’d die, rather ignominiously, of fever while sailing somewhere off the African coast, participating in, somewhat ironically, an anti-piracy patrol of the Royal Navy somewhere off the African coast.

My situation is normal – I just long to be rid of certain kind of people in my life, or at least control better how much of my life they influence. Well, I guess that is normal! But how much will it improve me as a man, if at all?

And would it improve me to take to a deserted island and … well, see what happened?

The point isn’t that there is any kind of hidden resemblance between Selkirk’s dire situation (and the conclusions people made about the effects of his forced exile) and then my musings about wanting to be isolated from certain people and feel more peace in my life.

The point is that there seems to be a pervasive theme here, or so I believe, for us all about what isolation, up to a point, does for us. What good it does us!

And what ‘degeneration’ other people may cause to us: Tempt our vices, get us into trouble and so on …

Much like virginity, solitude has at least been quite intriguing to Christianity and other religions as a way to become ‘purer’, ‘better’ or ‘closer to God’. Although the dose probably matters.

Again, I’m not trying to equate my own petty considerations about how to keep certain other people at arm’s length in my life to the voluntary or involuntary complete and utter exile.

But there is an interesting door, in both situations, to one major theme – the quality of being alone, of not being interfered with, of being sheltered from whatever ills we ascribe to other people and society at large.

Obviously many decry ‘loneliness’ or ‘isolationist tendencies’ or ‘aloofness’ etc. etc. And they should. Alone-ness or isolation – wholly or partially – voluntary or involuntary is not an end in itself. Or ‘good’ Just Because.

Obviously it isn’t. Whether Selkirk chose his island or not. Whether we chose how much or how little our own ‘islands’  – places of solitude – should fill our lives.

It is always a scale and it is always set in a context – whether or not solitude is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. How much ‘good’? How much ‘bad’? Do we even call it “solitude”? What if we called it … “loneliness?” in Alexander’s case.

Or in my case: “poor social skills” or “being introvert”?

It’s all a bit messy, as usual.

But something shines through. Something like a very important theme, not just for this talk, but for life in general. And that is how I want it.