I’m deep in the Scottish countryside, sitting in a caravan surrounded by thick stone walls, listening to rain tapping the thin metal roof. I’ve got a stockpile of local cheeses, some freshly brewed coffee, and an intermittent internet connection. It should be a perfect day for working on my book, but it’s always on these relaxed writing days that I end up provoking myself with disturbing thoughts. Today I realised just how much time I’ve spent over the past couple of years trying to figure out if I’m actually achieving anything.
Measuring our progress through life is an interesting if occasionally frustrating pastime. As we pass through our first two to three decades of life we set ourselves targets and goals. Often these are also influenced by our society, our family and our peers. My own personal milestones have been a mixed bag. Some have been somewhat reckless and accidental, like the Hemmingway-esque ‘first loss of a piece of tooth lost in a fight’. Some were dead romantic, I flew from Wellington to Paris to try to rekindle what had been a beautiful relationship with an amazing woman. Sigh. And some were genuinely pitiful, some of you may have read my article about my unicorn tattoo (April 2013, ‘On being the boy with the unicorn tattoo) But they were all significant to me, even I often only realised this after the event.
I’m sure you have all ticked your share of entertaining ‘milestone’ boxes as you’ve thundered through your twenties and thirties. Eventually a range of conditioning tools, from biological to societal, direct us towards a new way to continue measuring our progress through life. Children. These offspring become a sort of living advent calendar, minus the chocolate treat behind each door. The ticking of our clocks becomes synchronised with the beating of their hearts. Their public triumphs become our secret successes. Their transitions through the stages of life become our default method of gauging our worth, our way of determining our position on the path between womb and grave. But what about those of us who don’t have kids? How are we meant to know if we’re getting anywhere?
I never made a definitive choice not to have children, I have just never made a choice to have them. And I guess I’ve never been put in a position where I had no choice, but that’s an article for another day. There’s a willingness in some parts of societies to brand those of us who don’t have children as ‘selfish’, as if there is no other way to contribute to the world. Is this fair though? But as I gallop past my thirties I have to ask myself how I might measure my value to the world, if it’s not through the successes of my offspring. Without the child side of the equation, I could spend the rest of my life trying to figure out ‘why am I here?’, but that would indeed be selfish. Instead I want to kick some positivity back into the universe. If I’m not going to dedicate twenty years (or no doubt more if you ask my Mum and Dad…) to making my children my life’s focus, then I think I should be working towards contributing something else. Otherwise it’s like turning up to a barbeque with just a bottle opener and an eye on the beer fridge.
I hope I have an answer. I think what I need to do as a member of the ‘child free’ is to continually set myself worthy goals. And by worthy, I mean I want each goal to contribute not only to my own growth, but to create something positive for others. When I left New Zealand six months ago, I had two primary goals. Walk five hundred miles across the top of Spain, and write a book. I ended up replacing walking the El Camino de Santiago with a series of other adventures. But the other goal, the writing, that’s the way I can see myself creating something unique. I’m hoping my stories will inspire, entertain and educate. I need to focus on that goal for the moment, the less selfish one. I’ve learnt a lot about myself over the past eighteen months, and just occasionally I’ve been able to use my experiences to offer help others to understand their own problems. I’m hoping to reach a larger audience with my blog, and then eventually more people still with my books.
So if I never end up having children to pass my goals onto, I believe that if I continue to use my talents to contribute to other people’s lives then I am still valuable. And I’ll get to play the eccentric Uncle who’s always returning from strange foreign lands with barely believable stories, and creepy souvenirs.
Oh, and I will walk that damn pilgrims’ road one day. Maybe next year, before I start the next book.