by Arron Luo
Mark said he wrote about his overall experience. Susan recommended I write about what it has meant so far to me. Still others said I could write about something that had moved me, or – since I have not been on any build days yet (as though only build days could move me) – something I had learned. From these others, I’m led to think that I am to write about what has become important to me to say, at least regarding this trip.
It has been nearly 400 miles since I have joined this ride, having been picked up by Tom and Lois from a sleepy airport in Billings, MT. When asked by conversation-making, welcoming, and/or curious team members why I had joined, I would say something easy like, “I thought I liked to bike,” or, as I pat my sizable belly, “I wanted to lose my paunch.” And these are reasons true enough – I had thought I enjoyed biking (and I believe I still do, sore muscles and aching bones aside), and to lose weight would be a wonderful palliative for adolescent insecurity. But the true reason, uncontainable in a soundbite, I wasn’t able to say or fully explain, being unable to give voice to thoughts in my brain’s undercurrent neatly or comprehensively. But here I can, and after reflection, this is the something important for me to write about, not as self-celebration or praise of my own person, but rather as an honest, thought-out relaying so you may better understand, if you want to (I say “if you want to” because I already I foresee this post in its finished entirety being a tiresome one): The reason I had joined this trip, and my reasoning.
I have been with the trip for a week, and it will be two more until we reach the left coast. I just think of what a grand sight it will be when we do reach it at ride’s end: the crash of waves, the strong swelling of them on the shoreline, the visible spray of salt and sea. As day by day goes by, it approaches. I look forward to it. The vision and roar of the endless, rolling, churning expanse of a memoryless ocean. I sincerely hope it’ll be everything I imagine it to be.
It’ll be nice, I know. But I also know I will thereafter acclimatize to it and it will become familiar, part of the background, unable to move me as it once had. And I will take it for granted, no longer appreciating it as much as I once had. I know this because of the other grand sights we’ve seen: the silver highways in every which direction, the red oxidized faces of exposed rock, the green stately forests, the golden spread of wheat for fields and fields, the blues of waters and the sky reflected in them, the dulled yellows and faded browns of shrubbery and hills, and houses in the most remote of places serving as people’s proofs of existence.
I have grown accustomed to it.
Akin to the backwoodsman in New York City or Ishi, the last “free” Native American coming out of the woodwork into Western civilization, I was the (sub)urbanite in the country. At first, I had my moments of awe, but then I became used to it. And it makes sense I would. One finds the new things, new people, new places, and new views curious or something to be beheld precisely because they are unfamiliar or rare with regard’s to one’s own social space. You would thereafter habituate no matter what. Bodies do it, too; bone structure changes in response to stresses applied to the body, with calcium leeched from the sides of bones where stress is least and deposited on the sides of bones where stress is most. Calluses also form on hands after hours spent clutching handlebars, and wounds from road gashes clot (thankfully). One’s ears also mute background din after a while, floaters in one’s eyes disappear unless deliberately sought out, and one no longer notices the smell of one’s own sweat and grime after hours on a bicycle. You accustom to the conspicuous, and the forefront becomes a backdrop.
Bodies do it because it is healthy. The risk of breakage or breakdown due to continual stress to one’s body without adaptation or accommodation is too great to allow. That is why people train or practice, in all things; to lessen the difficulty and to greaten the ability, as I hope will happen the longer I spend on this bike.
Minds and emotions do it, too. You desensitize to atrocity, the suffering of others, in the news you read and the pictures you see. You become used to the bad sights, they become familiar, you desensitize. And so you are inured to the grand sights as you are the bad ones. You are inoculated against being perpetually saddened, and in the process are precluded from being constantly uplifted. You accept the tradeoff of not being constantly buoyed in return for not being constantly shocked, so you can endure, as people in tough times do. And that is why I inevitably have my awe lessened. The new becomes normal. You habituate so things affect you less just as addicts need more drugs, alcoholics need yet more alcohol, and the coffee drinker needs ever more caffeine. Or just as advertisements need be ever more flashy and glitzy or apparently grassroots to be as effective as they once had been.
Time itself is habituation. Anytime you spend. Like age itself; the older tell the younger not to worry or linger so much, but everything is a first for the young: a first heartache, a first failure, a first success. A first kiss, a first tragedy, a first triumph. You have yet to habituate as much. It must seem like melodrama to the older, I think, but I wouldn’t know – I’m still younger.
You habituate to changes in technology and in lifestyles, too. You adapt. You dull it. And that’s stability, in a way, for yourself and for society. Traditions are set and customs made, and then new ways are made and individuals accustom, or try to, or push back. One could decry the apparent abandoning of old values, but it is also perspective. A society’s values are, depending on perspective, either being clarified or perverted, either losing or gaining, and being evolved or being eroded, as is the same with its majority morals and popular sensibilities and cultural mores.
And that is why I joined.
I could either expose my own personal values to those of others on this ride and in the places I arrive at each day and depart each morning, or never open them up at all to the larger world. I came to reinforce and challenge my values through the new things I experience, as opposed to reinforcing them through the experience of living with which I am most intimate and familiar. I owe it to myself and to society, because either I am growing and dying, or contributing or detracting. And so I choose this new experience so I may be exposed.
There are three possible responses to exposure to the world.
One. You can stay inert, but that is no way to live.
Two. You can have your sense of livelihood feel threatened by those who hold different values, as the practitioners of oral tradition were with the advent of writing systems, or as provincials and locals are with the arrival of cosmopolitans or foreigners. And then you cease exposing yourself off from the world, you close yourself off from it, and you run the risk of stagnating your personal growth.
Three. You can have your sense of livelihood enlarged precisely because of those who hold different values, because then you come to a greater appreciation of your own through introspection. And perhaps then you would change your own, too, or at least some of them, in accordance.
I am not a Buddhist, but the 14th Dalai Lama said this, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” It is a quote applicable to more than just Buddhism, but also to established ways of doing things, of keeping faith and thinking, and of living. So it was with oralists who could not erase the progression of the written word’s steady growth in popularity and recapture their own viability; with the Church’s original opposition to and eventual migration towards the heliocentric model; with Annette Kellerman’s one-piece bathing suit once being considered indecent instead of conservative; and so it must be with us as we contend with the issues of our days in all their forms, as our nation’s past already has with slavery and suffrage and the right to have rights. We must be like them, who opened themselves up.
Yet at the same time, if you open yourself to the world, you incur the risk of becoming a cynic, or worser yet, as mentioned before, becoming desensitized. Desensitization is easy and dangerous, because it leads to apathy. With apathy, you become comfortable, and the plights of others elsewhere in the world become as irrelevant to you as the weather elsewhere, just as the weather forecasts of the towns and cities I and my fellow riders are to arrive in are no longer relevant after we depart them (for us, though, the plight of those we help [those in poverty housing] is always at least at the back, if not the front, of our minds).
But we must not become apathetic to the tragedies, terrors, and disasters that others face. It is easy to forget about people outside of our immediate communities, to not care. It is easy to forget because “out of sight” is “out of mind and because we simply each have our own things to think about. I have my saddle cream, my cadence, the conquest of hills, and the daily chore of loading the trailer; others have other chores, other difficulties, unpacking, packing, riding, personal hygiene, personal comfort; altogether, we on this trip also have lives back home to think of and people from where we’re from to remember fondly. We must still endeavor to be open to the world so to nullify the fear of the new.
One can live with every new thing or every unfamiliar, extant thing a threat, but I cannot bear it myself. I have a time ago resolved to expose myself and be open to new things, to stave off the eventual habituation to new experiences and new ideas by embracing – with apprehension assuredly many times – yet more new experiences and giving due consideration to new ideas. But then, perhaps I incur the risk of acclimatizing to change itself, with the pace of change allowing me to have wings but preventing me from having roots, from being grounded.
… Or perhaps, that would ground me more than anything: knowing, or at least believing in, the transiency of things. And that would certainly fit in the narrative that we are in this world, not of it.
For clarification’s sake, I will tell you it is a narrative I do espouse, despite at times considering myself a lapsed Christian and at others considering myself an agnostic in the right. (I cannot rule out the existence of something greater, and I do yearn for it – I am not wholly secular, not that such a narrative couldn’t be secular. And how could I reject a Bible I myself haven’t fully and rigorously examined? [But then, how can I accept one faith without having entertained all the rest first?])
It is cathartic to affect and experience change. One owes it to one’s self as an individual, so as better to keep the awe and wonder ever in things. To live in flux is to better appreciate living. Change and allows us to ward off fear and xenophobia through experience; bigotry and racism through exposure; anger and frustration through learning to deal with new sorts of people and new obstacles; annoyance through learning the necessity for forbearance and patience in interactions; and boredom through tumultuous shunnings of acclimatization (though I would very much like my butt to acclimatize and develop calluses, if possible, to ward off soreness).
Here, we are affecting change in communities through build days (which, again, I have yet to have one of) and experiencing change through the peaks and valleys of every ride. I am exposing myself to others, both those in the cities and towns who host us that we meet, and those I ride with everyday. I am learning of the seemingly boundless love and generosity strangers can have for one another through the kindness and consideration strangers have shown us, and further learning of the sheer multitude and diversity of people themselves. I also learn the value of optimism and belief in one’s own potential to triumph; self-efficacy is a self-fulfilling prophecy, at least with regards to the new mileages and environs covered every day. And I am going away and then coming back from where I am from, so that I may better appreciate my own values, my home, and my roots, because self-knowledge is usually always only laboriously won. So, these are my wings before my roots, against America the backdrop.