“When you’re nothing, people will ignore you but when you’re on top

That’s when everybody swears they know you.” 

 Lincey Alphonse

Why do some people compete with themselves and not others? Some call them loners, arrogant, self-obsessed or narcissist. Are they inherently disposed to avoid competition?  The fact is they are a misunderstood commodity.

They inhabit a language and culture that sets them apart and distinct. They seldom choose the competition and arena others set for them. They thrive to compete with themselves dismissing other people’s measures for success. They set their own sails and bars. We fail to notice that such indomitable characters live and excel around us. They thrive at a higher level most of us fail to fathom. Sometimes they live within us to be provoked with sudden pain and angst that spurts out the hidden treasures. 

To me this comprehension was early, while studying psychology of soldiering, anatomy of courage and military incompetence. It is a fallacy that soldiers are stereotype; too much into the regimen routine and not free thinking. Cynics bracket them into columns and lines with bland stares and heavy boots.  They are routine men often dismissed as too exclusive, divorced from the world by an impenetrable shell. Yet it is here that soldiers learn to conquer fear, excel beyond the call of duty, endangering and sacrificing themselves. They are ultra-romantics not with what is around but with the high ideals and challenges they set for themselves. 

Post retirement they have excelled as statesmen, businessmen and corporate leaders.  In the milieu that I grew up from a teenager to a veteran, I saw many around who may not have shone a bronze but flirted with impossibilities; a challenge to their inner selves. They toyed with dangers, walked on the edge and sometimes even sacrificed themselves. For them, the climb to summits, one after another was relentless. Their perpetual battle fields were within their minds.

The compliment is not restricted to soldiers. There are scientist, doctors, sportsmen, philanthropists, reformers and extraordinaire who have set and conquered new frontiers. Do not ignore the beggar or a street singer. He could be one of them. 

In 1982, I shared the base camp on Abruzzi glacier with Reinhold Messner. With two Pakistani mountaineers Colonel Sher Khan and Nazir Sabir, he was on a new challenge of conquering two peaks Gashebrum 2 and Broad Peak twenty kilometres apart within a week. They did it in five days without oxygen despite waiting a day for the anticipated rescue of a straggler. Yet they set a world record.

Meeting him in the base camp was thrilling and a lesson in the frailness and sensitivity of a pioneers mind. During his conversations explaining the degrees of impossible he accomplished, he would often become saddened, teary and passionate about his younger brother Günther Messner whom he lost during descent in a blizzard and avalanche on Nanga Parbat in 1970. Fellow mountaineers severely criticised his self-glorification climb with his less experienced brother Gunther. Decades later, the recovery of Günther’s body in a glacier below the Rupal face proved that Reinhold was not selfish and right all along. 

The most amazing part of his conduct in base camp was that after the first summit, he waited a full day for an inexperienced climber like me to return from the summit of Hidden Peak (Gashebrum 1 8070 meters). It was a lesson in super human humility and selflessness. I witnessed a very kind and humane side of this legendary mountaineer.  In my journey of life, he became my cognitive father figure to fight the most trying circumstances and challenges of self-set summits. He forever became my guardian angel whenever the going got tough and stack of odds higher. 

I have often wondered why men such as him set impossible goals for themselves and then accept success with humility. What sets them apart?  What I realised was that such indomitable men are all around us in life’s busy streets ‘with shoulders stooped and heads bowed low and eyes that stare in defeat’. It is us who fail to notice.  

I have a friend, a decorated soldier who lost his only son in Kargil. Post retirement he set out to convert a gorge into a dam in his ancestral parched land, driving tractors and bulldozers. Pundits thought it was impossible. The land all around is now green and the dam is named Talha. 

Another friend a flyer, a bit unrewarded in military is now the top contender for the Mars Mission. 

My cadet in Pakistan Military Academy in 1986 got paralysed waist down for life. Amidst the demons that depressed him, he took onto extreme sports like parachuting, gliding and basketball to become a world champion in diverse disciplines. He is right up there in international tech developers.  

Then a little girl eager to become an astronaut selected in Caltech but deprived by overbearing parents ultimately makes it to Fortune 100, TED and international celebrity, or an eldest brother who sacrificed his education on death of his father; to become Pakistan’s trendsetter poet in later years of his life. 

Amongst Pakistani leaders it is men like Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Abul Kasem Fazlul Huq (Sher e Bengal) and Imran Khan who stand distinct from the rest. None was a politician by choice but reformist and adventurist by vocation. Their meanders atop summits of life are amazing! They are all ‘l’homme extraordinaire’. 

These are restless souls. They are forever in quest and their journey never ends. There was a tragic undertone in Dr. Andrew Wiles who took a lifetime to resolve ‘Ferments last Theorem’, “It’s more rewarding than anything imaginable. Having solved this problem there’s certainly a sense of loss, but at the same time there is this tremendous sense of freedom…At its core, in one way or another, what keeps life interesting is growth”.

This growth is an unending process. It is set off by an uncomfortable incident that sensitises that urge, self-activation and persistence. Keep pushing boundaries is way beyond selective dedication and persistent denials of what appear as essentials. It is like Jesus Christ fasting and meditating in the wilderness, a Buddha frozen in time, a mummified Sadhu or a Sufi in Tryst with Allah. It is all about conquering fears, envisioning new horizons and moving on. They are dreamers and doers. 

So next time when you come across these individuals with zest for self-completion, do stop on the way and pause to fathom. These are men who think out of the box, are unconventional, abhor glory and set new paradigms whichever capacity they live in. They are survivors and thrivers. They are agents of change. 

And for those loners who take this path, the pursuit of self-competition is never an embarrassment. When others look upon you as crazy time waster, remember that you are not subject to what others think of you. You are only answerable to yourself. 

As Allama Iqbal said, “an eagle and vulture live in different worlds”, or what Bhullay Shah said, “beauty of a flower can only be admired by a Bulbul and not a vulture”. So keep moving.

 

The writer is a political economist and a television anchorperson

 samson.sharaf@gmail.com