Without passion man is a mere latent force and possibility, like the flint which awaits the shock of the iron before it can give forth its spark – Henri-Frédéric Amiel.
I like sleeping in, and I like staying up, and these facts are not always related to each other.
Because yes, if I’ve had a late night, whether I’ve been out with my friends (Dean¹ and Ashalina² and Paul³ and Eve⁴, maybe James⁵ and Claire⁶, possibly Tem⁷ from time to time, and, rarely these days, Jay⁸ and Lucy⁹, because Jay and Lucy have a baby and their freedoms and responsibilities have been irrevocably changed now that they have invited a tiny but nonetheless perfectly-in-ratio new human person to come and live with them in their house and this tiny new human person needs protecting from the heat and the cold and the wind and the gravity – especially The Gravity, as flights of stairs, even carpeted flights of stairs, are a dangerous and deadly place for fatly cheerful and unwary infants), or I’ve been sitting up commenting on The Nervous Breakdown and prolonging the shifting-scale internal discussion of the number and depth of comments I feel like I should be leaving as balanced against whether or not I have to start work early, or I’ve been out on a date with a girl who I’ve met in one of the places I meet girls to date (at the airport, or ten years in the past, or behind the box office desk of a cinema [Dear Andrea. I still can’t believe you actually lifted my number from that promotional membership offer form. If you were less pretty or I’d been less susceptible to my own needs for external validation from women, I might have reported you to your manager, and probably, you would have been fired, but you weren’t, and I am, and consciously or not, you gauged the situation and my insecurities and the outcome of pushing at the meeting point of the two accurately]), but not yet on the street after gently and deliberately scraping her car with mine and exchanging contact details, which is something I’ve considered but more than likely would never actually do, because I’m entirely too scared of the potential consequences of just such an action – then I am tired in the morning, and my body, in order to repair and refuel and start the day refreshed, aches for more sleep.
But from time to time I’ve been known to stay in bed simply because I like the way it feels to be there.
I don’t, technically, need the sleep during these intervals, going by a strict biological definition of ‘need’ according to what I understand is how the mechanics of sleep work. After the hands of the invisible clock in my suprachiasmatic nucleus have ticked their way around to meet at a pre-set biological alarm point and after my pineal gland is done flooding my brain with melatonin and after my own personal circadian rhythm has played out the nightly sleep cycle of between seven and eight hours my blood is cleansed, my subconscious has imparted whatever messages it needs to impart in a language of symbols and surrealities, and the tiny tears in my muscle fibres that have been torn by a day’s worth of movement and action have been resewn then I am ready, if not raring, to go.
The pillows might be soft, and the bed soaking in the captured warmth it holds onto so jealously, and so I can lie on my front and slip one of my arms underneath the pillow I’m sleeping on, and tug my duvet up and over my upper back until the corner nestles perfectly between my ear and my shoulder (but not so high it slips over my toes, down at the mysterious and far away other end of the bed), and be totally, and completely comfortable. Then I get worried that sleeping on my face could potentially prematurely age my skin, because I think I read that on the internet somewhere, so I might turn onto my left side, a motion which pulls an instinctual puppet string that draws my knees up, but then I become concerned that the fact I feel so at home in the foetal position is a sign of some unsuspected and socially dangerous inner childishness that I haven’t yet developed out of but really should have, that is apparent to all others but not to me, even people in the grocery store or women whose cars I may want to scrape with my car someday, so I try to reverse engineer psychological well-being and ego stability by lying on my back, the way I’ve seen handsome male leads who always get the girl in films do, and I wonder if maybe, finally, the story of my life, where I am a handsome male lead who gets the girl, will begin today, because I made the wise and adultly masculine choice of sleeping on my back this morning.
And then I realise that there is no point trying to convince myself; I’m much more comfortable sleeping on my face, and I rearrange myself, and I wake up on my side, where I have, as if stealthily dragged by unseen magnets, rearranged myself again.
The undeniable truth is that sometimes, I just like to be lazy. I like to do nothing and relax and be pleased and happy that I’m doing nothing except feeling very relaxed, and desperately scrambling through the morning and a nothing-but-functional shower and a breakfast I’d like to savour and enjoy but can’t because I slept in, again, is a small price to pay for that happiness, which, in truth, is a happiness I have totally and completely forgotten five minutes after I do, eventually, get out of bed.
Which brings me to Slawomir Rawicz.
This fucking guy.
¹ Dean has a laugh that turns downwards at the edges when he finds something really funny. He laughed for five minutes upon hearing the plot of Human Centipede.
² Ashalina is brunette and slimly pretty. She dances to no music when very excited.
³ Paul looks like Jonny Lee Miller, but Australian. He’s fond of good Scotch.
⁴ Eve has excellent fashion sense and wears large sunglasses. The only time I have seen her perform karaoke, she sang the Scissor Sisters’sTake Your Momma Out.
⁵ James enjoys DIY and Spider-Man t-shirts.
⁶ Claire’s accent slips into her original Irish when she is tired. She used to smoke, but has since quit.
⁷ Tem has the best power:weight ratio of all the people I know. He’s the sharpest-witted, too, and I’m not sure if the two facts have anything to do with each other.
⁸ Jay owns a very cool bomber jacket, and walks with a certain friendly swagger. He knows a lot about basketball.
⁹ Lucy also performed Scissor Sisters the one time I’ve seen her at karaoke (it was a duet). She’s handy in Spanish, but is not personally Spanish.
Slawomir Rawicz was a lieutenant in the Polish Army. He was captured by the Russians in the September Campaign, 1939. He was born on September 1 1915 and so he was 24 when the NKVD arrested him for espionage. He was 24 when they took him to The Lubyanka to extract a confession from him through torture.
The NKVD were the precursor to the KGB.
They were assholes. And these two facts are related. Even the heavy Russian pronounciations of the acronyms are harsh and unlovely on the tongue. Enn Keh Veh Deh. Keh Geh Beh.
The NKVD sent Ramón Mercador to sink an ice axe into Leon Trotsky’s skull.
The NKVD tortured and executed American factory workers who Stalin suspected of the crime of ‘Western influences’.
The NKVD left mass graves in the earth of the USSR in the wake of purge after purge.
The NKVD set up the Gulag and the Gulag is where the NKVD sent Slawomir Rawicz when he refused to confess.
Slawomir Rawicz, 24, was sentenced to 25 years of hard labour in Siberia. He was transported to Gulag Camp 303, 400 miles below the Arctic Circle. And then he escaped.
On April 9 1941 Rawicz broke out of Camp 303 alongside six other prisoners and ran. He led them over the frozen Siberian tundra with survival their only goal and in two months they covered over a thousand miles. En route the group found a Polish girl named Kristina who had escaped from another camp and brought her with them. At some point the eight of them realised they would only be safe once they had crossed the border to India, and so they kept running.
Their route went through the killing heat and cold of the Gobi Desert. Temperatures there range from -40F to 122F. And temperatures can change by as much as 61 degrees in 24 hours. Kristina and one of the men died there; presumably their bones are still baking beneath the sand. The remaining six made it to Tibet and then they walked over the Himalayas. When another of the party died from exposure as he slept the five left alive went without sleeping day or night to keep the same fate from finding them.
In their stories they said that they believe the creatures they saw in the mountains – tall, hairy apes – were the Yeti. To avoid these monsters they took a dangerous detour and one man slipped into a crevasse and died from the fall.
Eight days later – eight days without food – the four were discovered by an Indian army patrol. In a year they had made it four thousand miles out of the USSR on foot.
As an extra fuck you to Hitler Rawicz returned to his regiment in Poland and fought with the Allies.
It is hard for me to imagine a situation where I will ever need to show as much fortitude as Slawomir Rawicz.
I saw this ad during an episode of The Simple Life… which is a show that glorifies these two rich, giggling cunts, who have no respect for anyone, and get away with anything. I, right then, vowed that I would retain this image every time I hear George Bush say ‘the terrorists hate our freedom.’ You know what? I hate our freedom. Little ol’ me, an American! I hate it! That’s all we’ve done with it? We’re fucking assholes, man. We. Are. Awful – David Cross
I’m grateful I don’t have to endure that kind of extreme punishment in order to be free. By sheer virtue of the time and place of my birth, I am a hugely fortunate man.
In fact, really, I don’t have to endure any kind of punishment at all to be free, because the dice have been loaded in my favour since the day I was born. I’m a 28 year old, tertiary-educated, middle-class, heterosexual, white male, raised in Australia. In this day and age, the world I live in is primarily geared towards my happiness and ease of agency. I have more opportunity than most of the rest of the population of the earth to be so arrogant as to assume I can have, be, and do whatever it is that I want to have, be, and do.
But there’s more than just this.
I don’t have to worry about my homeland being invaded, for one. I don’t have to worry about being tortured if I’m arrested, or being shipped thousands of miles from my home to break rocks for Comrade Stalin – and it’s very easy to forget these blessings, but, really, blessings they are, because the world can be a hard and cruel place.
At the same time, I’m impressed – I am so impressed – if someone I know gets up at four am to go jogging.
I don’t say this to diminish the achievement of anyone who gets up at four am to go jogging, because man, that’s a real bitch on winter mornings.
But it isn’t exactly a life-or-death escape march through the Gobi.
But look at the people who use [their potential] — who do actually give it everything… The Beckhams or Roy Keanes of this world. People charging! Running up and down the field, swearing and shouting at each other. Are they happy? No! They’re destroying themselves! Who’s happy? You! The fat fucks watching them, with a beer can balanced on your ninth belly, roaring advice at the best athletes in the world – Dylan Moran
I saw an ad for 3D TV a few weeks ago. And the very first thought in my head was: Are you fucking kidding me?
And then I thought, Wait, are you fucking kidding me, I just thought, are you fucking kidding me? Where do I get off? Demographically, economically, and personally, I am more likely than any single other person I know to buy a 3D television set. I can live on television like I’m sucking nourishment right out of the airwaves. I can reel off details about shows I’ve never even watched, because I like to read about them on Wikipedia. I have absolutely no ground to stand on and call foul at the prospect of 3D TV.
All that being said.
3D TV? Nope. Fuck it. That’s the point where we’ve gone too far. That’s the point where I draw the line, because I have the rest of my life to be three-dimensional in. I have experiences to actually experience in length, width, and depth, and not produced for me and delivered into my home with the promise that experiencing this is the very best possible use of my time, at that point in time – because that, in effect, is the decision that I would be making every single time I turned my 3D TV set on.
I’m not anti-entertainment. I’m not anti-leisure. I’m not anti-pop-culture. I enjoy all of these things. Wherever possible, I think life should be about happiness, and I think access to leisure activities is one of the primary fruits of our labours, and when we work, then not only do we earn money, but we also earn the right to spend our leisure time as we see fit. What better way could there be to spend our time than in the pursuit of happiness? So what if that happiness comes from watching two grown men sit and stand and run between a multitude of video cameras and a green screen and point and fire imaginary guns at imaginary ghosts and imaginary monsters once a week, so special effects staff can sit in editing suites and fill in the blanks and add sound effects and make it look as if the Winchester Brothers are sending the Monster of the Week back to Hell with a steely-eyed look and a grim joke every week on Supernatural? Who’s to say that’s a more or less valuable use of time than a critical reading of Tom Wolfe?
I’m also not an apologist for the 21st century. The Age of Information? Man, it could more than likely shank any one of the other Ages in an all-in prison brawl (especially the Age of Innocence, which wouldn’t know the first thing about defending itself, and would probably quickly be traded for cigarettes) as far as I’m concerned. I love that I can see the faces and hear the voices of people on the other side of the world with Skype. I love that a lingering death from infection and blood poisoning isn’t waiting for me if I break a bone. I love that I live in a society where every adult citizen has the legal and democratic right to choose their own government of duly elected representatives. As a species, in so many ways, we are doing so well.
For all our achievements, though, we still remain 98% chimpanzee on a basic genetic level. Or, rather, we share 98% of our genetic makeup with chimpanzees. And you can see it – rub someone the wrong way and watch their face ripple to show the monkey lurking right beneath the surface, ready for fight or flight and reacting straight from the unthinking animal quarters of their brain.
Our greatest strengths? Empathy. Compassion. Imagination. Consciousness. Most of all, self-awareness. These are the rungs on the evolutionary ladder that separate us from the apes. These are what allow us to grasp hold of inspiration and raise ourselves up, to rise above our circumstances.
Slawomir Rawicz knew that, and used it, and somehow, the fact I can quote Heroes doesn’t rank as the same kind of human triumph.
You are a fictional character, and by this stage, you have been a presence across just about every form of media known to man. You’re pretty badass, as fictional characters go, and, the more I think about it, the more I am childishly delighted by the whole concept. ‘Batman’. A guy who dresses like a bat. That’s it! There’s the equation. Man + Bat = Batman. If only everything in life was as self-explanatory.
You were my favourite superhero growing up, Batman. One, because I kinda wished that I lived in a giant house and didn’t have parents, but two, because you were human. That’s your whole selling point. You trained, you kept your focus, you live at the peak edge of human potential, because you are driven by a righteous fury and –
Why am I writing a letter to Batman? OK, the original plan was to make a point about how our inspirations for grand passion, for reaching peak human potential, are mainly in fictions that take time to indulge, which thereby negates our ability to use our time to reach that potential, but… Jesus. That’s self-indulgent, isn’t it? And isn’t self-indulgence one of the things I’m rallying against here? Because the whole point I was going to make is that I’ve wanted to learn Spanish for over a year now, and I haven’t… but… that’s a choice. That’s my choice. I have no right to complain about this, or complain about a culturally-induced lack of inspiration. This is my responsibility. Who I am, the choices I make – these things are mine. They are perhaps one of the few things that can ever be truly mine.
Where was I going?
The simplicity of passion.
Because passion is simplicity. And we are human in that we have choice, but we are also human in that we need sleep. We cannot burn through days and weeks in the pursuit of everything we can be, because we would burn out. And if I’ve worked a minimum forty hour week and washed clothes and made meals and answered emails and tried to find time to post letters and the other million and one tiny jobs that have to be done to keep the tiller level, then it’s going to be that much harder to wake up at four in the morning to go running.
This is why dictators have housekeepers.
I think self-awareness is probably the most important thing towards being a champion – Billie Jean King.
The big problem here is awareness, or the unconscious lack of it.
My friend Dean, in particular, is familiar with and can expound on the concept of slippage. Slippage in the cracks that erode the best of intentions, in those delays of just five minutes one day that turns into ten minutes the next, that turns into mid-January gym membership lapse statistics. Slippage in the fading of passion, slippage in the centre that cannot hold.
Slawomir Rawicz held the centre together.
Thoreau held the centre together. He held the centre together so well he built a house in the woods around it.
Marshal Brown held the centre together. Sentenced to life in jail as a 19 year old, he spent the next 17 years educating himself on wilderness survival, passing himself off as a model prisoner and winning enough trust to earn a transfer to a minimum security prison. And then one day, on a job site… Marshal Brown was gone, like a whisper in the wind.
These guys held their goals close to their chests. They carried them through time and hardship, and in the end, they got there.
Obviously, Marshal Brown’s story is something less of a cause for celebration (it’s OK. He’s no longer a fugitive from justice).
What Slawomir Rawicz and Marshal Brown have in common is that they didn’t forget. Probably that kind of single-mindedness is a given element in prison. It must be easier to focus without the scattering of attention, the demands for our input, and the information overload we’re exposed to 24/7. I assume I’d be better at planning and staging a prison break if I didn’t feel the urge to check my Twitter, my Facebook feed, my email, my SMSes, TNB, my metropolitan newspaper site, my national news site… and CNN, USAtoday, Wikipedia, and, occasionally, the San Francisco Chronicle, every hour.
Who am I kidding? Every ten minutes.
And really, what has this obsession with bowing down to the yens and yearnings of my attention span given me in return?
At least people who are obsessed with bodybuilding can lift heavy shit.
Maybe you need The Fear.
Slawomir had The Fear. Marshal Brown had The Fear.
Losing your freedom, forever? That’s got to make you suddenly value your days a lot more. Make you work harder, make you bend your mind to the task at hand. Give you the kind of impetus you need to run all the way across the Himalayas and into India, from Siberia.
But there has to be a better way to tap into the upper limits of potential than the threat of dying in starvation in the Russian snow.
Some of the most driven men and women I know come from bad backgrounds and poverty-stricken situations. They push themselves – and those around them – to work hard and constantly earn enough to not only keep the wolf from the door, but to beat the wolf into semiconsciousness with a sack of gold and then choke it death with wads of hundred-dollar bills if it’s foolish enough to ever come sniffing around again.
This is who we are. This is the monkey part acting out again. Insecure kids turn into bullies, abused kids turn into abusers, poor kids turn into Midases… all because the monkey in us reacts in fear and seeks to control by overcompensating.
Why can’t we – or rather, why don’t we more often – channel that strength by running towards, rather than running away?
You should stay away from your potential. I mean, that is something you should leave absolutely alone! You’ll mess it up! It’s potential, leave it! And anyway, it’s like your bank balance, you know – you always have much less than you think. Because then, in your mind, it will always be palatial. Mullioned windows, covered in mullions, whatever they are. Flamingos serving drinks. Pianos shooting out vol-au-vents into the mouths of elegantly dressed people drinking champagne and exchanging witticisms: Oh yes, this reminds me of the time I was in BudaPESHT with Binky. We were trying to steal a goose from the casino, muahahaha… But it won’t be like that […] You don’t want to find out that the most you could possibly achieve, if you gave it your all, if you harvested every screed of energy within you, and devoted yourself to improving yourself, that all you would get to, would be maybe eating less cheesy snacks – Dylan Moran.
It probably comes back to awareness and intention. It’s easier to be aware of what you have to do – and I mean, have to do – if you’re watching people around you die from exposure. If you’re seeing their ribs rattle inside their skin when they cough. Slippage is more difficult to excuse at a time like that, I guess. You’re less likely to be numb to the consequences of not acting.
Maybe this is why people tune into sports with such passion – it’s the sight of people achieving, pared down to nothing more than a few hours, at most, on a field. Our day to day, regular achievements… all that shit takes time, man. To get things done in an office environment, you have to sit down, turn on a computer, check your email, bounce ideas off your boss and then file reports, check figures… the minutiae of it doesn’t really lend itself well to myth.
On a sports field, you don’t have to worry about any of that. As the observer you don’t see – and you don’t really think of – the process of getting there that the players, the coaches have been through. You just get to live vicariously for the moments of sweating and running and humans trying to accomplish something under the watching eyes of hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of fans.
I guess sportspeople – especially when you get to the high, high eschelons of elite, Olympic-level athletes – do it for love. Love of the experience, love of the challenge, love of themselves their accomplishments and maybe love of the will it takes to get there.
I went to primary school with a guy named Steve Hooker. He’s an Olympic gold medallist now. I see him around, occasionally. He’s a nice guy, plain and simple.
He’s a man who’s fulfilling his potential. He’s holding the centre together.
A champion is afraid of losing. Everyone else is afraid of winning – Billie Jean King
I’m sorry you had to endure what you endured. I’m sorry your friends died on the way from Siberia to India. I’m sorrier still that you had to see it.
I’ve seen the photos from the Gulag; the wasted corpses piled high on top of each other, like cords of firewood. I think the worst to see are the soles of men’s feet; you see them sticking out from under tangles of legs and arms and shoulders that are little more than sheaths of skin over bone, and you know that means that on the other end of those feet, some corpse is stuffed into the centre of this pile of human remains, someone’s son now rendered so meaningless as to be as unimportant as a heap of trash.
Sentenced to work for 25 years and knowing your likely end was to be dumped on top of a carpet of bodies, with more carcasses waiting to be shovelled on top of you, of course you ran.
I bet you ran like hell.
Across the Himalayas by foot? Jesus Christ, man. How did you survive? With no food, no sleep, nothing to keep you going except your own will to be free?
Did you know anything about nutrition? Did you know that when you don’t eat, when no fresh stores of fat or carbohydrates are coming in to your body, once the flabby energy reserves around your gut and thighs have been broken down for nourishment, your digestive processes turn to your muscles and sinews? Did you know that when your system is that starved for the energy it needs to keep your vital processes moving, your body literally starts eating itself?
So with your heart pumping fatigue poisons through your veins, with the muscles you needed to move wasting away second by second, with heat and cold ripping at your skin, probably constipated from lack of fluids, your teeth loose in your head from exposure and malnutrition, nauseous from lack of food… you still ran.
Was the air thin through the Himalayas? Did you struggle to breathe? Did altitude sickness kick in? Did you start to bleed from your nose and your gums? Did you have headaches that wouldn’t go away?
And when did you stop being scared the guards would track you down? What was it like when you first made your break for it, running across the country, knowing they’d be looking for you, that they wouldn’t just let you and your fellow escapees vanish into the night?
What was it like to leave the bodies of other people behind? When they died in the desert, did they just breathe their last and fall over… or did you have to leave them behind to wait for death?
How did you make that choice?
Regardless of the choices you made, Slawomir, you made it through. You lead the others across the backbone of the world, and back to freedom.
No matter how much there was stacked against you, no matter how grim and bleak the obstacles were… there was something in you that overcame them all.
I’m glad you made it out alive.
The secret to life? It starts with a P. Passion. You’ll look back someday and think ‘That old bloke really knew what he was talking about – Ken, the Old Man who, Apropos of Nothing, Started Talking to Me at a Cafe this Morning and Gave Me this Piece of Unwarranted, Unasked-For Advice.
How many dead lie restless because they never got to see just how much they were capable of?
How many of the skulls that once housed the minds of men and women of phenomenal ability, ability never harnessed, have been ground to dust by the weight of turning centuries?
Maybe this sounds like untoward praise of Spartan ethics, or like a rambling praise of some unreal, romanticised, cinematic achievements. It isn’t meant to be. I don’t believe that sacrifice and passion are mutually inclusive, or at least, not any more so than sacrifice plays a part in any life.
And I don’t mean to gnaw at the achievement that is a life happily lived. Working the nine to five, driving to the grocery store to buy food for kids, waking late on Saturday mornings to throw a football on the beach in the sun with friends… these are good things. These are happy things. There is value in them, without grandeur.
And God knows that just living day to day can take enough effort as it is.
So long as those malicious tailless apes that are so proud of their technical achievements—the animals that we call men—will build armies and wage wars, the command will always be obliged to place the soldiers between the possible death in the front and the inevitable one in the rear. And yet armies are not built on fear – Leon Trotsky.
The monkeys caught up with you, though, didn’t they? They got to you and one of them carved you up and left you haemorrhaging and spitting blood on a hospital bed in Mexico.
And even as your bodyguards ran in, you screamed at them to leave your murderer alive.
When you said your piece about the malicious apes, did you think that the country you fought for, the Soviet Union you helped create, would one day imprison a man named Slawomir who would see the inevitable death in a camp he was wrongfully imprisoned in, the possible death that lay ahead of him, and have the courage to run forward anyway?
Would you have sympathised, Leon? You knew what it was like to run.
What killed you was when you stopped.
And so what now?
Better to remember, when people aren’t playing the roles I want them to, when they don’t say the things I want them to say or do the things I want them to do, that the way of things was never promised. Better to remember, when my ego recoils and bruises and dreams of bruising back, that if things were different, the people I love could be thrown into a careless heap of the dead, that their eyes could be open and blind and pressed against the cold flesh of some other nameless victim’s back in a huddled stack of lifeless meat.
Maybe I’ll be kinder, then.
And better to remember that a man can run a year, if he really wants to, that there’s a spirit that can be called up that will sustain the body, the mind, and the soul, through utter brutality and loss.
Maybe I’ll strive harder, then.
And better to remember that this life is finite, and nothing should be taken for granted. Better to remember that the way we live is, in so many ways, so little of what we are capable of. Better to remember that we can make choices, and we can fan the flames of passion, whether that’s through love, or fear, and change things beyond what we thought possible. Better to remember that so much of this life is a choice.
Maybe I’ll be more, then.
Discover your divine assignment and you have no reason to retreat. Discover your passion and you laugh in the face of defeat – Kirk Nugent
There is some doubt as to the accuracy of Slawomir Rawicz’s testimony. Various claims have debunked it. Witold Gliński, a Polish ex-serviceman, claims that the facts are true, but he was the leader, not Rawicz. An English intelligence officer nevertheless reported debriefing three emaciated Siberian work camp escapees in Calcutta.
The upcoming movie will star Colin Farrell.