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Self-Knowledge • Fulfilment

We All Need Our North Pole

There was once an explorer, who spent years trying to fulfil his dream of reaching the North Pole. Finally, after considerable struggle, he succeeded, narrowly escaping with his life after a run in with a polar bear and an unstable ice sheet. He was hailed for his feat, given a medal by his government and recognised everywhere in his hometown. But he soon fell into a listless mood and when asked what was up, replied: ‘Because everyone needs their North Pole – and I had the misfortune of reaching mine.’

By North Pole, he meant, a goal that is almost out of reach but not quite, that can motivate us to grow into a better version of ourselves, that can be at the back of our minds throughout our dutiful days and that provides a more elevated answer to the question of why we are here than simply to endure.

Part of the problem is knowing what our North Pole might be. What is it we really want? We may have been so well schooled in resignation, our daydreaming muscle has entirely withered. 

The North Pole Keep, Photo by Christopher Michel, Wikimedia Commons

But even if we do have thoughts, they tend to have a habit of sounding absurd to – and therefore of being throttled by – the sceptical voices inside us. You? Retrain as an architect! You couldn’t even draw at school. You? Get into a better relationship? You think love should be about being happy? You? Try to open a small bakery? Don’t make me laugh! We have all the enemies we could ever fear in our very own minds. 

We need help from outside. We need to dream up, and gradually declare a North Pole in front of a group of kindly, imaginative, thoughtful, healthy-minded peers, who will then all do likewise – a Mutual North Pole Ceremony, if you like. Otherwise we’ll be far too prone to back-tracking and self-doubt – just as romantic couples are critically soldered together by speaking their wedding vows in front of an audience, the larger the better, so that their expectations of themselves are bolstered by the internalised presence of a host of well-wishers.

The responses of others can suddenly make our plans feel more plausible. ‘Yes, why not be a baker, a friend of mine retrained and is loving it. It isn’t such a long process, I can send you a link.’ Or: ‘Why not talk to a lawyer, it can just be an initial chat, to assess your options.’ Or: ‘Who cares whether people think you’re too old to be a parent now…’ And thereby, what had seemed like something close to an outrage takes on a three dimensional form. The confidence of others lends us confidence in ourselves. We have made a public declaration and they aren’t laughing. They’ll be checking up on where we might be with this in a few months. We can’t let them down now. We are – fortunately and at last – accountable.

How banal life gets if we only ever aim for what we are sure to attain; and how sad it is if we long only for what we know we can never have. We need, instead, the promise of a North Pole, somewhere far above us, a long way from where we stand now, bathed in mists and attainable only through struggle, barely discernible, but definitely and beautifully real, waiting for our courage to catch up with our aspirations. 

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