The potency of ideas

reclaimed_world_v_by_reganbarsdellWhen we talk with people, frequently the conversations are about people or things. But a friend pointed out to me that the most enjoyable and unforgettable conversations, the ones that keep us up until 3:00am with light in our eyes and a music in our voices, they tend to be about ideas. I love these freeform explorations of theories about life, about love, about the games people play and how sometimes we just want to stop playing. We chase down possibilities and implications for hours, and as the sounds of a new day penetrate the haze of weariness we slip off to bed with dry mouths and happy hearts. And occasionally the ideas echo in our dreams and become part of us.

Of course ideas are often humble, ephemeral, things. I might have an idea that tea smoked sweet-potato might work well with a pork and cider casserole. The world doesn’t shift. But at their most potent, ideas can change lives, families or even the direction of the world. The distribution of confidential files via WikiLeaks, the creation of Braille for the visually impaired, the recording of Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’, these things were not accidents, they were all the result of ideas. The idea that there should be ways for anonymous sources to distribute important information, the idea that the sense of touch might replace that of sight in reading, the idea that there was room for an aggressive shift in UK dance music. The fundamental power of ideas is in their ability to transform, to invoke or contribute to change. Sometimes that results in a new flavour of crisp, occasionally it spurs a significant shift in global politics.

As a writer, I’m far more likely to attract people to my novels if I can raise interesting ideas. A novel is four hundred blank pages in search of an engaging concept. I want a night spent with my books to leave the reader feeling invigorated, excited, occupied, just like I do after an engaging conversation with friends. So I spend time reading of wolf hunting in old Russia and imagining what might happen were this tradition brought back to the rejuvenation zone around Chernobyl. I’ve spent the last few days trying to track down a Rabbi with whom I can discuss Judaic ideas on how to start a modern cult. I’ve started outlining a story set inside the hope bubble that ballooned in the second half of 2008 as the world held its breath as votes were counted towards Barack Obama’s election to presidency. The more I work with ideas, the more I understand of their potential.

But it was quite recently that I realised the impact that my own adoption of ideas had on directing my path through life. From ‘I need to visit a new country every year’, to ‘outrageous behaviour is my best hope for engaging with others and combating shyness’, ideas have long been the sub-conscious authors of my destiny. And with this realisation I began to understand ways in which I could take a more active role in plotting my own story. I examined my ideas about myself and the world, and I dropped a couple of them, and took on a couple of others. So now I have a few guiding ideas, they’re a little like beacon fires lit on distant mountains, they’re reference points for when I’m feeling a little lost. If I’m not sure whether I should pack in my office job and move to the country, I look to those ideas for an answer. If I’m not sure about whether I should begin creating my own alcoholic bitters to sell at local weekend markets, again my ideas can offer enlightenment.

Of course this means the ideas I choose to adhere to become very important, as they’ll influence decisions on everything from relationships, to careers. I’ve become even more reluctant to take on someone else’s ideas. If I come up with a new idea myself then I have a chance of understanding of its genesis, but if I opt to take on someone else’s philosophy, then I owe it to myself to examine it carefully first. What are the costs and benefits, for myself and others? What evidence is there that it will lead to improvements for me, for my community, for the people I care about? I owe it to myself to analyse ideas before I choose to adhere to them. Thank goodness for those people who love long conversations over mulled wine or cider.

Nine years ago an Irish tour guide described to myself and a room full of backpackers his most recent journey. His description of the El Camino de Santiago, a 500 mile walk across the north of Spain with an ever-changing cast of characters, was enticing in itself. But it was the idea behind the walk that seeped into my sub-conscience, and eventually resurfaced a couple of years ago, after another set of long conversations. Last night as I wondered about the best way to deal with blisters, I listened to a Galician woman express one of her ideas about the Camino. She explained that many of the pilgrims started the journey with a pack heavy with the weight of their fears. They carried extra shirts against the fear of their own odour, medicine kits against the fear of illness and injury, and chemical repellents against the fear of insects. But quickly they come to understand the burden of this extra weight, and they begin to shed their baggage. And within a short time they travelled lightly, for distances which stretched beyond the end of the trek.

In three weeks time I won’t just be setting off on a long walk, I’ll also be embracing a new set of ideas.

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