If one is searching for predecessors cut from the same exotic cloth, if one hopes to understand this personal tragedy by placing it in some larger context, one might do well to look at another northern land. Off the southeastern coast of Iceland there is a small island called Papos. Forbidding, rocky, treeless and inhospitable, unceasingly pounded by howling North Atlantic gales, it could hardly be described as a first-choice destination. According to early Icelandic sources, the island may have taken its name from its first settlers, the Celtic monks known as papar. They could have arrived as early as the fifth and sixth centuries C.E., probably having travelled from the west coast of Ireland or the Scottish isles. Setting out in tiny curraghs, made from cowhide stretched over light wicker frames, using sails and oars, they crossed one of the most treacherous stretches of ocean in the world without knowing where they were going or what they might find. The papar risked their lives—and probably many were lost, not in the pursuit of wealth or personal glory or to claim new lands. As the Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen pointed out, they undertook their remarkable voyages "chiefly from the wish to find lonely places, where these anchorites might dwell in peace, undisturbed by the turmoil and temptations of the world." When the first handful of Norwegians showed up on the shores of Iceland in the ninth century, the papar decided the country had become too overpopulated, even though it was still all but uninhabited. They climbed back into their curraghs and rowed away toward Greenland, leaving almost no records of their existence behind. They were drawn west across the storm-wracked ocean, past the edge of the known world, by nothing more than hunger of spirit, a queer, abstract, pure yearning that burned in their souls.
I checked on a friend yesterday. Two years of studying philosophy at university had left him angst-ridden and troubled. His Facebook account had been closed which seemed unusual. His brother told me that he was entering a working multifaith retreat house or monastery in Wales. His mother is an Anglican priest, and childhood had loaded him with the kind of baggage which is neither disposable nor easily shed. His answer, it would seem, is a radical walking away from all the well-trodden social paths, the comfort zones, into his own wasteland, in the hope that a long-forgotten sun would shine brightly enough to set his soul in order and therein he might find peace. I hope he does.