“How do you become a man in a world that doesn’t require courage?” – Sebastian Junger
“Puuushh!” Keegan’s voice has become guttural. It’s effective. The five of us simultaneously dig our heels into the dirt and thrust forward. Sweat is pouring down our faces blinding us in the midday heat. A kilometre and a half into what’s colloquially known as “the push”—a team Land Rover push—there aren’t any fumes left to run on. Pushing from the back, Grant and I have our hands raised above us grasping the top rear bar of the Landie with our heads bobbing between our shoulders. Keegan and Alistair are grinding away at the flanks and Craig is alternating between the back and steering. Everyone has an indispensable role. “Find another gear, boys, c’mon, you got this!” A group of rangers is trailing behind supplying us with much needed emotional fuel. We push.
We’re engaged in a rite of passage needed to discern our character, and we’ve been out in the bush for almost a week. At this point there’s no hiding. Running on very limited food and sleep, we’re physically and emotionally drained. At least that’s what we think. However, a surprising transition occurs. When the body is desperate for physical energy, its hierarchy of survival tactics makes a dramatic shift from self-preservation to alleviating the pain of others. Put another way, the source of motivation turns to the collective. And that’s a much deeper well.
As we reach the top of a hill, the Land Rover begins to roll down the other side and picks up pace. Unexpectedly, keeping up with the downhill pace proves to be equally as hard as the climb. After a big push, my legs feel like iron and all familiar resources are exhausted. My arms were spent so even gripping the bar hurts. My forearms had made a surprising showing and my shoulders put up a valiant fight, but their efforts were all too brief, and finally power diverted entirely into my trunk and legs. While my body fights to continue, I listen to my mind oscillate violently between “I’ve got nothing else” and “What else you got” (non-explicit version). The former speaks for my conscious mind; the latter talks to me from a foreign place. The two voices collide on “give me a reason.” I keep pushing.
In traditional Native American tribes, young boys are sent into the woods alone without food or water and return initiated men. In isolation, the extrinsic distractions—all of the external influences up to that point in life—fall away. Bringing down those walls of who we are told to be, in theory, shows the individual that they have the agency to see how they fit into the world. In other words, solitude, paradoxically, reveals the way in which we connect to the natural world and, in effect, each other.
Under duress, my body retreated as far as it could inward until, at the end of the line, it found incentive in the collective. “Social solidarity”, writes wartime journalist and novelist Sebastian Junger, “is at the core of what it means to be human.” His eye-opening book, Tribe, explains how damaging our society is for young men and women returning from war. After sacrificing their lives, they come home to the people they were protecting only to feel excluded. Since, as civilians, we can’t comprehend their trauma, we can’t feel empathy for what they have suffered. The fact that many soldiers miss war is very telling. They miss feeling connected. While I’m both lucky and endlessly grateful to have been raised in a relatively safe place, this disconnect shows us that we have set up a system that masks the fundamental benefits of our tribal nature. No one can deny that we live in an interdependent ecosystem. But can we take the time to see how much we depend on each other? If it were paramount to the survival of the human race, could we do it? I’m not asking for more war; rather I think we need a comprehensive return to operating as if our survival were contingent upon the survival of our neighbours.
Behind the Land Rover, my legs are pumping up and down like the cylinders of an engine. From the corner of my eye I see Craig swing around the right side, and as he slides in between me and Grant, Alistair screams a frantic “PUUUUSH!” My teammates dig in for another big drive and, in that moment, I realize that the pain I feel is the same pain that the four of them feel. And I’ve found my reason. I’ll give as much as I can if it means they feel it just a bit less. Each of our individual efforts, therefore, is maximized by our common struggle.
Coming up on another hill, we all pick up into what would be a full sprint without 2 tons impeding us. Despite feeling like an eternity, it couldn’t have lasted more than ten seconds and we burn out about ten meters shy of the hilltop. The vehicle slows almost to complete halt. Our communal tank is close to depleted, but then we get one final surge. It doesn’t come from our arms, legs or our guardian angels. The final push comes when we are joined by the rangers who have been shouting motivation at our backs. Their participation isn’t an admission of our failure; it’s a recognition that we were giving it everything we had. And we don’t stop; we all finish the push together. It was that moment that gave me a flashback to our first day in the bush where at the end of a 30-kilometre walk, a teammate expressed gratitude for help carrying a small bag. Of all the things Grant could have said in reply, such as the customary “you’re welcome”, he announced that “teamwork is just as much about receiving help.” That notion is what kept us all moving that day. By the end of “the push” we were all equally willing to give as we were to receive. It’s the complete tribal narrative—the human narrative.
These sentiments were resoundingly confirmed on our return to Londolozi. Chefs, trackers, maids, rangers and management all gathered to welcome us home. It was a beautiful display of Ubuntu—a recognition that each of us, in the words of Desmond Tutu, is “inextricably bound up” together. Without ever saying it explicitly, the community was asking us to show them that we have the courage to be a part of their family. While it may seem strange to induce hardship, in reality every individual needs the chance to find their place in a community that experiences both joy and challenge. We all just felt grateful.