My first blog, many years ago and on a long defunct website, was simply a journal of my motorcycle rides. Each weekend I’d plot a different route through the countryside near home, pack the SLR, and take the bike out to explore. It was a great experience, a way to combine several passions – motorcycling, photography and writing – into one place where I could develop and play with them. Nothing’s truly static, and as I sold my motorcycle this week I found opportunity to reflect back on the journey, and how that confluence of interests grew in new and unexpected directions. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of that reflection was recognising just how much it had shaped what I considered my identity.
Our experience of the world around us, and our place amongst humanity, is significantly – perhaps entirely – shaped by observation. As children, we see the behaviour of our parents and the people around us, along with what they say to us and each other. At times those are at odds with one another, as in the case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ (as a parent I’d argue that this teaches us almost the exact opposite: Do as I do, but in order to fit into society, learn to say as I say). When we recall an acquaintance many years later, it’s their actions we recall, it’s what they did – and usually only peripherally do we recall what they said.
We see the same thing in fiction of course; Orson Scott Card makes this point explicitly right at the start of his book Characters and Viewpoint, noting that ‘People become, in our minds, what we see them do.’ If that seems a simplistic perspective, rest assured that he goes on to show how there is more nuance to this, and there are indeed many additional layers that define the well rounded characters that we most admire as being more than one-dimensional stereotypes. If you’ve not read it, check it out, it’s a great book.
But I’d like to take just that one dimensional aspect of people being what they do and propose that deep down inside, it’s how we identify ourselves. After all, if we’re defining others by what we observe, then we’re at least subconsciously expecting them to define us by the same measure.
For many years, I’ve owned and ridden motorcycles. I’d commute on a motorcycle, regardless of the weather. I’d sightsee on a motorcycle. My wife and I would put our kids on the back of a pair of motorcycles and ride out to the country to go camping. Motorcycling became very much a part of our identity.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. Growing up, my perspective of motorcycling was mostly defined by negative media attention: motorcycle gangs, speeding motorcyclists, crashes and injury. I might have known academically that that didn’t represent all motorcyclists, but it was an abstract connection. With some artistic and engineering interest I might have admired the aesthetic design of a superbike, or the engineering required to collapse the wide variety of technology found in a luxury car onto a frame not much larger than a bicycle, but it was an abstract interest. It was only after a well respected friend started riding a motorcycle to work that I began to make a connection between this abstract motorcycling idea and the real experience of lived life.
It’s also became an opportunity to give a gift, of sorts. Giving my kids the opportunity to experience motorcycling in a positive fashion, far removed from some of those negative portrayals in sensationalist media. It allowed them to see motorcycling as an exhilarating real life experience, or perhaps even more importantly understand how exposed a motorcyclist is to the elements, to the heat of the engine beneath them, to the conditions of traffic and whims of the drivers around them. Riding the motorcycle to the office was likewise perhaps an opportunity to give that same gift to colleagues, showing (hopefully) that those motorcyclists out there aren’t invisible, but might be friends and coworkers.
But times change, and my work no longer requires a commute. The country rides have been replaced by the joy of a walk through undeveloped natural wilderness near my home. It’s time for motorcycling to shift from part of “what I do” and become part of “what I’ve done” instead.
When we’re talking about character and identity, I think “what I’ve done” is where we start to get very selective. After all, “what I’ve done” isn’t just the adventures or our favourite achievements, but also the embarrassing and foolish mistakes we’ve made along the way.
And I think that’s where the whole notion of connecting identity to “what we do” begins to break down. What we do is a reflection of a journey – an ever changing journey we’re all on, wherever we are in life today. We might take a mental shortcut and categorise ourselves and others as what we do, but it’s only ever a snapshot, a temporary reflection – sometimes wildly distorted and superficial – of a deeper story we’re living collectively together.
So yeah, I might not have a bike or be riding right now, but perhaps it’s time to move beyond the idea that something like this defines me. It’s a place I’ve been, a tool in the belt, a lane in the the road. Perhaps I’ll be back in it again, perhaps not.
Either way, it’s time to move on.