Zaahir (not his real name) is in his early 20s. He has had a succession of short-term jobs interspersed with bouts of depression that have made it impossible for him to work. More recently his doctors have said he is suffering from a form of identity-related delusion. Zaahir is not really sure what this means. But one thing he is sure of is that he feels powerless.
In conversation, I ask him to consider what it means to be powerful. He finds it difficult to imagine. We discuss how expressing a choice, making a decision can reasonably be seen as a form of power. I recounted the tale of the imprisoned Mandela, who remarked that despite feeling like a chicken in a cage he could decide which corner of the cage he’d sleep in. Or the tale of him, shackled hand and foot, being escorted by prisoner officers to a meeting with the head of Robben Island. Four guards preceded him, four followed, as they made their way along a corridor. Mandela periodically altered the speed of his shuffle, causing the first group to disappear off down the corridor and the others to fall over themselves. Mandela smiled; he was determined to exert what little power he had.
And so I took Zaahir orienteering, a sport he had no conception of. I sold it thus: “this is a sport for people who want to, and enjoy, making decisions; it’s for people who want to feel – and be – powerful”. I’m not sure he understood; like so much in life you have to get on and do things for them to make sense.
We stood at the corner of a football pitch, marked on the mapped area that was his local park. Like others who I had introduced to orienteering in this place, all of whom lived on the adjacent estate, I asked him how well he knew the park: zero for no idea, 10 for knowing it as well as one could imagine. His peers had all said “ten”, an orchestrated invitation for me to suggest I would show them otherwise – this being the type of challenge these lads seemed to respond to.
But Zaahir had said: “Five”, doubtless indicative of a weakened confidence. “Look here at the key and tell me what that is”, I demanded, pointing at the map. “A hedge, a hedge corner” he replied after a pause. “Where is it in relation to the football pitch?” “Just near the opposite corner”. “Off you go then; what way are you going to choose to go; what decisions are you going to make?”
Words in the context of knowledge gained from the experience of being with people can be powerful things.
I’d have gone straight for it, as it was diagonally opposite. But Zaahir decided to follow the perimeter of the pitch, to the opposite corner, and then, with a left turn, to the next. With another left turn, and perhaps a quarter of the way back again, he stood directly opposite the hedge corner, which was little more than a few metres away. Then his eyes lit up, for there he spied the small plastic kite I had put there earlier. He beamed, words unnecessary. “Well done”, I said; “now, how about a harder one?”
And so we went on, one leg at a time, each progressively more difficult – in the sense and reality of more and more complex decisions to make. After half a dozen, he asked for a break, some water. We discussed Ramadan and the concessions considered reasonable for those taking medication, for he was taking a lot. Again in the context of decision-making. We chatted about the things that neither of us had control over but focussed more on the small things that were tangible and possible to do (and, for me, might develop and repair a sense of autonomy).
Then I asked him if he fancied doing a short course, a start, three controls, and back again, using his new found skills. “Sure”, he said. He found the first fine, and the second too. But on the last control headed off in the direction of one tree in preference to another. “What now?” I asked. “Bad decision”, he said. “So make another one”, I urged. Setting his map as he’d learnt to do beautifully, he spotted his mistake, and sped off in pursuit of the final kite. There, pinned to the tree, it was.
“Back now, to the finish; which way do you want to go now?” “Let’s cut across this open area”, he said. So, leaving the paths that had given confidence so far, he embarked on a new adventure. Spotting a thicket, he knew he was close. A bit further and there was the monument we had started from. He beamed again. We retired to a bench nearby, and drank more water; it was hot now.
“Do you know what ‘confidence’ is?”, I asked with my philosopher’s concept analysis hat on. We went round the houses a bit but settled on ‘the belief that you could be successful when faced with a challenge you had never before encountered’. I described how I saw this as saying something about how we approach the future.
Disallowed (at least for now) from working because of his condition, we discussed his passions. Food was one, and cooking for his mum in particular. Volunteering, I argued, was work without pay, but no less valuable for that. Indeed, I was in this space, at this time, with this person, for this reason. Zaahir resolved to look for a community project where he could cook for others and volunteer at that. I said I’d help him.
I said goodbye to Zaahir and jogged off to collect my controls. I decided to walk instead; it was a nice park, and the light at this time was nice too. And it gave me the rhythm and pace and stimulus to reflect on this short time spent with another, and this thing folk call orienteering.
It’s a sport I love but when I explain why so often I see eyes roll. For me, it’s what it means for our autonomy that matters. The fact that you have to make your own decisions, take responsibility for your own mobilities. These are wonderful things. When considering the youth I have worked with throughout my life, and my years’ spent studying the philosophy of education, can there be any aims finer than these? Maybe orienteering is a philosophy of education in its own right; a way of linking theory with practice – a rare form of praxis. If not, it might at least be a way of seeing and being with the world that brings light and a feeling of empowerment into the lives of not just Zaahir but many more besides.