I wanted to write something about a topic that’s been bugging me for while. A lot of people don’t seem to understand the reasons why I would put myself in danger unnecessarily, risking my life hanging off of crevices with nothing but an ice axe between me and a hundred foot drop, or wandering off into the desert with nothing but a pair of pyjamas and a water bottle (sometimes significantly less). Every time I say that I’m going to do something like this, people sit me down and talk to me like I’m stupid, or a child with an impossible fancy. They say “That’s dangerous…you shouldn’t go on your own…you’re crazy. etc. etc. etc.”
So let me explain.
First of all: I’m aware of the danger
I’m not stupid. I know that Ice climbing, or desert surfing is dangerous and to be honest I probably wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t. Why you ask? Is it because I’m an adrenaline junkie, a thrill seeker, irresponsible? No. Despite the obvious endorphin rush, I do it for a deeper reason. I believe in the importance particular emotions plays in our lives.
Most of us (not everyone) go through our lives in a kind of neutral emotional state. We feel strongly about certain things, but don’t usually engage in activities that bring about strong emotional responses. Yes sometimes we get angry, or sad, or happy, but there is a lot missing from our lives. How about fear? Real fear, not the kind we feel when we’re late for work, or accidentally step on someones toe on the train, I’m talking about that feral feeling when you are actually afraid for your life, the moment between heartbeats when your foot slips from a foothold on the side of a cliff. Ask yourself: when was the last time you were really, truly, afraid?
It’s a terribly powerful emotion, one that we may go through our entire lives without fully appreciating.
So why is this important? The feeling of fear unlocks the ‘fight or flight’ response in your brain. When this happens your body produces adrenaline and unlocks the true potential of the human body, a force far beyond that which you can normally control. This is why mothers can pull cars off of their trapped children, or why a climber will be able to hold onto a rock with one finger to save themselves from falling. You truly become in touch with your own body and just how powerful it really is.
After this happens your body produces dopamine, ceretonin and oxitocin, the pleasure, joy and closeness chemicals. All these things are the chemical translations of a feeling of profound fulfilment. Have you ever done something that you never thought you could and were so surprised that a feeling welled up inside you and you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry? That’s the feeling I’m talking about.
The moral of that scientific sermon is that once we have overcome the fear and survived, we are filled with a deep sense of joy, fulfilment and confidence in ourselves. People are always telling us to ‘be confident’ but this is like telling a a plant to grown, it’s useless. The only thing that builds confidence is success, so if you want to become more confident, challenge yourself, scare yourself, and when you survive, you’ll be one step closer.
Secondly: I want to go alone
There’s a particular kind of experience that can only be truly discovered in the absence of anyone else.
One particular view of happiness can be defined in term of a triangle, the three points of which are: health, wealth and relationships. Now before we jump on the “money doesn’t make you happy” argument, there are two parts to each of these points, an inner and an outer.
For example: outer wealth could be defined as possessions, money, assets, etc. but inner wealth is your wealth of experiences, your skills and knowledge, and your memories. A person could be considered in poverty, but have a wealth of knowledge and memories that make them far happier.
One thing can affect another, for example: if you are struggling with your relationships, this can affect your mental health; or if you’re struggling with your wealth, i.e. your broke, this can affect your relationships and self-confidence. Let’s face it, we all feel a little low when we’re broke.
In a similar way, the inner aspects of health and relationships are your inner health and your inner relationships. In other words, how you feel about yourself. Some people who struggle with depression don’t find it helpful when others try to comfort them or offer advice, because the real issue is their self-confidence and self-actualisation. For example: if you tell someone who thinks they are ugly, that they are beautiful, they simply won’t believe you because it does not agree with their own self-image. The only way for that person to really believe that they are beautiful is to try and change their own self-image, and that is far more difficult.
Let’s use the case of self-confidence then. Like I said before, you can’t tell someone to be confident, but if they go through hardship, experience struggle, then they will come out at the other end with a stronger self image, a fuller confidence, and that props the triangle up from within. At the end of the day, no one can rescue you from what’s inside, and if you can always rely on yourself for strength, then you will feel more confident and able to deal with hardship.
So what’s the point of all this then? Going through personal struggle makes you a stronger. Have you ever had a moment when you achieved something you thought you couldn’t, like walking a long distance, or completing a task that seemed impossible. Didn’t it make you feel proud?
The best way to work on your relationship with yourself, is to spend time with yourself. Do you really know you? Have you ever had a long conversation with yourself without distractions? Give it a try, go for a long walk. You might just enjoy your own company.
There’s also the factor of feeling at one with the world, but I’ll save that for another time.
Finally: I may seem crazy to you, but who’s the judge?
Everyone lives in their own world. What you may consider to be fun may not be the same as someone else. What you may consider to be crazy may seem mundane to someone else. You may think I’m crazy for climbing mountains, but personally, I consider spending my entire life sitting at a desk, staring at a computer screen to be the very definition of insanity. That’s why I left the big city and the corporate world and live in the mountains.
We were born on this earth naked, and the world is a hard place when you think about it. Have you ever taken your shoes and socks off and walked down the street? Painful isn’t it? But what about people who don’t have shoes? They grow thick skin.
In the wise words of the philosopher Ian Watts:
“Light is only bright because we have eyes, rocks are only hard because we have soft skin.”
We fear what we do not understand and we cannot understand what we have not yet experienced. A lot of people go through life not believing that they can do things and so they project this feeling onto other people. The truth is, you’d be surprised what the human body can do, and if you ever set about testing your own limits, you may find that you’re stronger than you think.
Sometimes I even think what I do is crazy, but when I see people wasting away behind desk it makes me feel sorry for them. I would rather die in a rock slide than be waiting forty years for retirement.
Some wise words
In a survey of thousands of American’s taken over the course of several decades, it was found that 70% of people, although they did not consider their lives to be bad, said that they had no sense of purpose at all. Most people when asked how they felt about life merely replied “Meh…” Purpose was not necessarily linked to happiness, but those who said that they identified with something greater than themselves, had a dramatically lower rate of depression.
In answer to this I can offer a quote from the Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, from his great work: Man’s search for meaning.
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’…But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”
The pursuit of pleasure does not necessarily bring about happiness, and the pursuit of happiness does not necessarily bring about purpose, or a meaningful life. A person might make great sacrifices in life for the good of others and experience no pleasure at all in life, but still feel a profound sense of fulfilment. If you live a life of relative happiness and ease, but have no connection to a greater purpose, then why not try doing something extraordinary to bring yourself closer to it.
For me, mountaineering is why I live. It gives me a sense of connection with something greater than myself, and gives me a sense of purpose in life. Through struggle I connect with my inner strength and through spending time with myself and with the natural world, I feel more connected with myself as a person, and with the world too.
Don’t be afraid of hardship, don’t be afraid of tears, you might enjoy them more than you thought.
What’s your opinion? Am I crazy? kick off a discussion in the comments box, I’d love to hear your thoughts, I live with mine all day. Don’t forget to like and follow the blog if you enjoy my ramblings. I’m fairly well stocked with topics and I’ll try and put them up here as often as I can. Thanks for reading.