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2077 miles. Two men. One boat.
Mark de Rond and Anton Wright will row the entire length of the Amazon River in September and October 2013.

Sense and nonsense on decision-making

  • 01 SEP 2013
  • By Mark de Rond

Let me let you in on a little secret. Aside from our various 'formal' reasons for doing something as stupid as rowing down the Amazon unprotected - things like raising money for Leonard Cheshire Disability, however superbly worthwhile, and the pursuit of a novel piece of auto/ethnography and of research questions that can only ever be unearthed by means of first-hand experience - there are others: Anton and I have each had a pretty volatile year (though all is relative, and what we find unsettling, others might find merely annoying). I'll leave Anton to relate his own experiences should he choose to do so at some point. As for my own, some of it rests in the aftermath of my fieldwork with war surgeons in Helmand, Afghanistan: not the cruelty and gratuitousness on daily display but a heavy-handed attempt by the Ministry of Defense to forbid me to write about it. A MASH-like manuscript, detailing the surreal 'lived experience' of these surgeons - written because they asked and because there is very little that actually does justice to their world - has been opposed in the strongest possible terms. Might I consider abandoning four years of research or face the consequences?

And of course there are deeply personal reasons. One of mine is a moratorium on anything God by pressing the 'pause' button on an all-consuming 30-year quest, if only for sheer moral exhaustion. If there is a God he can come and find me.

In fact, this particular decision may well have been a 'first' of sorts. It seems to me that we often think of others (and ourselves) as making choices - decisions for which we hold them responsible because they were freely made. Reflecting on my own life (as these long days of waiting give us cause to do), I'm no longer sure I ever made decisions in the way economists, or even popular opinion, would have us believe. In fact, I suspect that I rarely ever make decisions in quite the sort of calculated fashion that is the basis for policy making, nor do I know anyone who does. Rather, I muddle my way forward - only because standing still isn't an option - through one of several possible doors that happen to be open at the time only to enter a new room with a different set of doors while hearing others slam shut behind me, some permanently. Others occasionally reopen but not without a great amount of effort. I might linger a bit occasionally as doors playfully close and open, just enough to provide silhouettes of what might lie ahead, though these silhouettes are moving too, and only when lingering is no longer an option do I shuffle forward and through another door with aim of testing the waters prior to immersion but more often than not finding myself up to my knees in a sticky sandbank in the realisation that the incoming tide has now made any return impossible. In other words, it seems to me that our actions aren't voluntary, nor are they inevitable, nor random. A combination of each might seem intuitively appealing but philosophically problematic. Is there a fourth alternative and if so what is it? And what implications does this have for how we think about responsibility and reward and punishment?

Finally, it seems to me that life's course isn't so much shaped by doors opening up in front, but by those shutting behind us.

Not sure why these reflections came out of the woodwork just now, and whether they hold any value. Is it our inability to make decisions that cause people to act, to pull their thumbs out and get our boat on the road? It has now been delayed by 30 days and any further delay puts our expedition at serious risk. Stories of predecessors having been shot by the military and cut to pieces and fed to the fishes, as told us by the locals alongside premonitions of multiple robberies and AK-47s and stuff like that, however well-intended, do little to lift the spirits. We keep telling ourselves that this is our adventure and things will be what they will be and we'll deal with whatever hits the fan when it does and no sooner. But Anton is exhausted, his spirits sapped by ambiguity and powerlessness, and, frankly, I'm not miles off. Perhaps adventure is in the grind rather than the glory? If so, bring it on.

Off to wake up Anton.

  • Alan M on 03 SEP 2013

    I'm sorry to learn about the delay with the boat. The good news is this will give you more time to understand your environment and make plans.

    After your long and seemingly often frustrating journey to find God, I agree that a hiatus is in order. It's time to enjoy the river, Anton, and your life.

  • Nathalie on 01 SEP 2013

    Well, I'm finally back from my month away and it's incredible reading what you've been through already. We're all thinking of you here in Cambridge and are willing things to shift into your favour. Thanks for the awesome blogging so far.