Picture yourself at the foot of a mountain. Before and above you stands a monolith of nature's jagged, unstoppable existence. Snow-covered rock blasted by the harsh wind; vegetation buried by winter's pallid sheets; air so thin you might believe nature pulls it away, a tug-of-war predicating your very survival.
Beside you stands another. They are clad as you are: replete with harnesses, straps and buckles, the necessary paraphernalia of the mountain climber, the conqueror, the successful.
Your goals are one: to reach the summit.
My father – Tony – and I were just this week pondering the value of living vicariously. Why do most of us do it? Perhaps you're wondering what I even mean?
Have you ever browsed the internet, ever read a newspaper, ever watched the news channels, and discovered useful information regarding a sportsman, writer, actor, musician, perhaps even a friend, who you consider to have inspired you at some time? Were they scoring a winning point, unveiling a new piece of art, opening a new charity? How did you feel? Proud?
One of my favourite bands, Dream Theater, recently divulged details of their new, eponymously titled album. As a fan, the concomitant excitement of new art being unleashed to be heard, heard and heard a whole lot more, suddenly having a concrete release date, felt wonderful, felt thrilling, felt relieving. It felt as if, once again, they had travailed across the dangers of a quagmire. What sort of quagmire? One of writer's block, creative stagnation, synergetic languishing. Once more they had navigated through with all of their skills that fans (such as I) love them for. And this new album was once more their way of illustrating the band's success, of cementing their brilliance, of further forging their legacy. And how did I feel? You guessed it. Proud.
Yet, why did I feel proud? Music, art, creation. The feeling of pride when something we as individuals are devoted to becomes a public topic of conversation. That notion of secret expertise we indulge in, believing that our opinion will be the most desired, the most veracious, and through such veracity, our opinion will be the voice of authority.
However, their success, after all, is theirs alone, really. I'll buy the C.D., attend the gigs, talk about the band and the music to other fans. But, am I a part of this success, and do I even deserve to be? Support breeds success through the concept of belief, in the recipient, of the band, writer, sports team. If we believe in their talent, we might buy tickets, merchandise, and associate ourselves with them; however, don't they alone reap the real, palpable rewards? None of Dream Theater's money, acclaim, success, will go to me. So why do I bother? Because I believe in what they do to be wonderful.
Kowtowing and giving support drive these talented, inexorable money-making machines to achieve what they sought to achieve, and their gratitude can be perceived through their continuation rather than simply resting on their creative, sporting, technical laurels.
Let me pose a question: if I had a photograph of Dream Theater, with one, perhaps all, of their signatures, but nothing saying "To Shaun, best wishes, the band!" or something similar, would I bear any real foothold into their success in such a fashion that I could attribute it to my own constancy as a fan? Are they not printed and signed in bulk? The same goes for sporting icons such as Lionel Messi, Rodger Federer, Sebastien Vettel. Does having their signature in my possession augment my connection with them, therefore bringing me...fame?
The higher you climb, the thinner the air, the harder your lungs struggle to breathe. Snow thickens, bulging upon sharp rocks, obscuring any good handholds within reach. Obfuscated are any advantageous animal trails from a glorious past, a past now abandoned by fleeing summer. Boons have been expunged.
The person you had been stood contiguous with is above you, climbing ever onward. They are a vessel of physical performance and mental fortitude. Their ambition, their determination, their will, drives them ever onward – a reliquary of eluctable triumph.
You are exhausted, cold and doubtful. Yet your companion never relents, and will succeed. What will you do – become inspired, carving your own path? Or find a connection to their own success?
What will you do?
Is it the fairest outcome for recognition, acclaim and fame to be rewarded to the labourers, the creators, and the proponents? Exponents, of which in some fashion or other, almost all of us are, can be guilty of suckling on a siphon of success we do not bear right to. (I myself have done so in the past when it comes to music and books and football – I used to hate it when Manchester United lost!)
What innate trigger buried within us humans is so very susceptible to struggle and a need to be triumphant? Let us turn to sports. When a team I, you, anybody, supports, loses a match, why do we feel so thoroughly bereft of joy? Surely the sportsmen and sportswomen have tried their hardest, have understood the pressure of national, continental, global support, and have sought to achieve as much as possible? One of my close friends, Gus, owns a poster of Rafael Nadal, the caption reading: "Train as if you are the worst, perform as if you are the best." With this attitude in mind, how can we find it in ourselves to verbally attack people who lose, considering that, when they win and succeed, we sing their praises? Over the thousands of years of human existence, survival appears to have been the quintessential goal. To forage, hunt and find shelter from all manner of threats – bears, lions, sharks and of course, the dangers posed by nature. It seems to have been a fundamental motive of ours, ever since the first homo-sapiens, to not just survive, but...thrive. Conquer. Overcome the threats of the world we faced, still face and will always face for as long as we inhabit Earth. We are a species driven by ambition, and our most inchoate and yet, in many ways, most gilded desire, is that of power.
As supporters, we blame officiating, we vituperate surface conditions and we curse the fates of injured players. Perhaps if we allowed ourselves to first think (of our own team): "That was not good enough," and then, because we are each individuals, "but no matter, I have my story to write, my chair to build, my song to record, my own football/tennis/cricket to play, my charity work to continue, I have blood to give, service to attend," might we see that this vicarious thrill is, when fully realised, nothing but a form of self-abnegation? Are we not denying ourselves indulgences? Thwarting the chance to fulfil our role as humans by becoming so indolent? (Believe me, I've had my bad days watching sport, too, but now, my writing is one of my favourite times of the day.)
Rather than being proud that a rockstar we once shook the hand of is coming back to town, and how we somehow have more right to see him again than somebody who didn't shake his hand, why don't we each strive to become the next rockstar? To bring our own little ingredient to society. Success should breed success. Before human settlements, before monopolies on trade goods, before suzerains and despots, there was a raw urgency to prevail day by day. Let us take such an ideal. Write so many words of your book a day, play your guitar for so many hours, go jogging whenever you can, but understand that life throws challenges, daily, at each of us. Listening to music, reading a book, watching sports, is only escapism, not a resolution. And by living our own lives more, and other lives less, and by embracing our own talents, will our own self-actualization be realised.
The flag is planted, and beneath you lies thousands of feet of conquered rock and snow.
Your companion, a winner for so long, stands slack-jawed at your equal victory.
In your own way, in your obstinate defiance, you have beaten them.
Now can we all do the same?