Exploring the world with Tennyson to overcome anxiety: “for my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset”

It can be very easy to stay in your own corner of the world, especially after building a life there that can’t just be picked up and moved. But when courage calls you, it’s often a signal for you to act on it.

During more transient times of our lives, this could mean packing a backpack and moving abroad. But a smaller scale adventure can be just as revitalising.

In June 2015, I had just finished my exams and was forced to think about what to do next. I hadn’t yet applied for any graduate jobs (whether due to surprisingly good self-knowledge or just plain laziness). I had, however, booked a flight to Norway.

I’m still not entirely sure how I got to that decision. I just felt it was the right time. It was my moment to get a bit uncomfortable and start seeing the world.

So I flew to Oslo, took the train across Norway to Bergen, and then went on to Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg, and Berlin. I was on the road for just over two weeks (I’ve since got much better at slow travel).

Sometimes it’s just the right moment to go

I’d never travelled properly on my own before. I had lived in Barcelona for eight months of my degree, but during that time I never travelled outside the city with others, let alone on my own.

I had very little experience of proper solo exploration and being entirely out of my comfort zone. Changing that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Not only did my trip boost my confidence (and give me interesting things to talk about), it helped me get over the last echoes of the anxiety I’d been caught up in over the last few years.

Yes, I had improved my wellbeing an enormous amount through EMDR therapy and, of course, bibliotherapy, but I felt like I was still only 95% there. I needed a final push. And travel gave me that.

The Zion Church in Ilulissat, Greenland at 2 am. “For my purpose holds/To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths/Of all the western stars, until I die…” – Ulysses”, Lord Alfred Tennyson

I was drawn to the top of the world map, up close to Iceland where I’d visited in 2006 and always longed to return to. I even spent some time trying to get to know the fascinating language and sagas over the last few years.

I decided this time to try something new; to see if I loved the rest of the north as much as Iceland.

I also needed to just get out and explore the world then. I’m so glad I listened to that urge when I did.

After my trip, I didn’t end up finding a job and moving above the Arctic Circle (although I did wander around Greenland this summer to stay in touch with it).

I did, however, move to another beautiful place, Switzerland, in August 2015. And I’m still here, albeit in a different town from where I started (I wanted to downsize to an even smaller town, where it suits me better).

Hiking not far from where I live down to Lauterbrunnen, the beautiful Swiss valley that inspired Tolkien to create Rivendell.

If I didn’t act on my courage, I know I’d be living at home, commuting with the other unhappy commuters to London every morning at six, and ascending the corporate ladder one unhappy rung at a time. Just like my friends are doing.

I know this makes many people happy – anything can make someone happy – but I know my friends aren’t happy. And I know I wouldn’t be.

In many ways I have it easy: I made the jump when it was easiest, just after I finished university and when I could go in any direction I chose. I just needed that little bit of courage. Which, thank you universe, came to me. And now I couldn’t be happier.

I believe we each keep on getting such moments of courage, though. And it’s up to us whether we want to act on them or not.

There are excellent moments to set off and explore the world, and there are bad ones. But I’m convinced that it’s not always a bad time.

Kayaking between icebergs under the midnight sun in Ilulissat, Greenland on a solo trip in June 2016.

I still think of Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses”, the poem which I described in 2012 as giving me the courage to separate myself from my past and keep moving forwards.

I still know it word for word (and I often recite it in my head to help me drift off to sleep), and I’d like to celebrate this section of the final stanza:

Come, my friends,

‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die…

I hope it helps you to also realise what your “purpose holds” and shed light on what you’re best served by seeking next.

Read the full poem –

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees; all times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy,
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the scepter and the isle—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

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It's good to meet you! I started Tolstoy Therapy back in 2012 to share my healing journey through anxiety and PTSD with books. I also climb mountains, go on solo adventures, and write over at livewildly.co.

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