But what do you do after you’ve done that?


Last night we had a nephew and a niece, together with her boyfriend, to dinner. We are immensely fond of them. The nephew is just back from Brazil and about to head off to Algeria. He, half-Belgian, half-French, explained his motives in opting for a challenging location rather than a cushier and more financially rewarding posting in the United Arab Emirates (where he’d had a firm offer). It was precisely the challenge, together with a desire to feel that he was doing good (he will be managing a project to build a desalination plant), that had guided him. We old fogies have been led to believe that today’s more individualistic younger generations are inherently selfish but here was an excellent counter-example.


The niece and her boyfriend have just got back from a truly extraordinary nine month, 9,000 kilometres cycling trip from Buenos Aires down to Patagonia, and then back up through Chile in a big loop leading ultimately back down to Buenos Aires again. They showed us some of their pictures and talked about their experiences: the warm hospitality, the extraordinary wild life, leaping tarantulas, soaring condors, puma paw prints outside their tent in the morning, a surreal encounter with the Belgian rugby team in the back of beyond, the challenge of pedalling through snow in 4,000 metre-high mountain passes and across endless salt flats. They also took time out to scale some mountains, including a live volcano. These were places and sites that we have never heard of but that in Europe would surely be major tourist destinations and the subjects of millions of postcards. But what came across most was the almost spiritual experience they had both had in cycling through the vast emptiness of the southern tip of Latin America; indeed, the niece had to hold back her tears when she talked about it. It made me think of the mystic experiences of hermits and saints in the mythical wilderness. The question arises, though, what next? The niece is a brilliant lawyer specialised in human rights law. She has also passed an open competition to work for the European Commission. In other words, she could walk into any job she wanted and I have no doubt that, like her cousin, she will do great and good things. But both she and her boyfriend are having problems in acclimatising themselves to the idea of mere work in the modern western world. What do you do next when you have had such a profound experience?


The question reminded me of a colleague working in one of the EESC’s Groups. Like Murakami (see 31 October post) he is a marathon runner. Recently he ran a 100 kilometres race, running through the night, stopping only for water and snacks. It may not have been quite such a spiritual experience (or, at least, not in the same way), but it was nevertheless an extraordinary feat of intensive effort, endurance and a great personal achievement. Again, as he put it, ‘What do you do after you’ve done that?’

1 Comment

  1. Watson

    You’re humble, you learn from it, and you move on to the next experience. Considering that any such moment of intense communion with your ideals is unique and there could be nothing better again means that you just set limits, and there can be nothing more beautiful or spiritually challenging to live again. Should one then spend life in sadness regretting what has been, thinking that that marathos night or intense spiritual feeling in Patagonia will never repeat again? This is not good for moving forward.

    One of the most successful positive psychology authors from Harvard, Tal Ben-Shahar (http://www.talbenshahar.com/) published this year an excellent book called “Happier”, it refers amongst other things to the theory of happiness between those who live between peaks, the “fonceurs” – always looking for a new challenge, a new career change and unable to live the beautiful moments in between – and the ones who know how to appreciate every moment of life, in a way, taking the simple truth that it is not the peaks but the path that makes people happier.

    I am myself from the Wild East, and coming to study Political Science at the ULB I was amazed to notice that out of the 50 Belgian students in International relations 90% wanted to go to work under development cooperation projects: they all spoke of leaving for Peru, sub-Saharan Africa, etc. sometimes with an idealism about their actions which made me a bit sceptical: why? Because for me, even if my own country is in Europe, every time I go home the reality is so poignant that it shivers any temptation to fall asleep under Western comfort. There are still huge differences in income, sometimes equal to those in Latin America, you have villages still without proper infrastructure, peasants leaving out of a 80 euros per month income. And surprisingly also, there’s still a lot of spirituality and an 80 euros/month old peasant in the middle of his mountains is sometimes much more happier than the Western European and Americans who come now to rent his shelter and enjoy “real simple life”. But there is still at large a lack of environmental protection and proper infrastructure, a lack of sustainable development which might make those mountains totally deforested one day, and, why not admit it , still a lot of corruption.

    Why was I sceptical about those idealistic students? Because often people scatter their good energies in a whole series of projects for development cooperation but those are never enough big to change governments and mentalities over there. A double action is needed: going there and developping projects but also putting political pressure from Brussels. The solution for my generation was to come up to Brussels and work from here as to change things at home, to spread best practices, to fight for an image change and a better understanding of those issues, beyond clichés and empty words. And there are very promising results so far, but there’s still so much to do. The “stick and carrot” approach of EU integration worked at macro-level, but there is still so much to do in a variety of fields, and not only in the Wild East, also here, next to us. There’s still a tremendous amount of things to improve, even in Europe: look at climate change, energy, social challenges.

    What is important in the end is that, in order to be really happy, your niece and her boyfriend find the best place where to use their skills and feel fulfilled (in a state of “flow” as Csikszentmihalyi called it): be it in Mali or in Ecuador, in Brussels or the Gobi desert , what matters, above all, is the positive things they want to achieve, there’s is a constant need of positive action on both ends of the rope…

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