Limits

Twisty Tube - Tom at the first digFor those of us with the drive to explore, limits are fascinating and inexorably attractive things. For us, limits are always questions. Which limits are hard limits? Which are soft limits? Can you, through intentional flirtation with the boundary, turn the one into the other? Can you see and do things no one else realizes are possible?

Our societal experience of limits is similar. Yet, I think the drive of the explorer is not the only experience we have. Continue reading

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The Wisdom of a Fiction

Windmill_viaJavierLineraWhen Don Quixote tilted madly at his windmills, imagining them to be giants, he did so in defiance of reason and evidence. He did so without any sane expectation that he could be correct, yet also with deep nobility and desire to see the world beyond the trappings of society. He rejected one frame of reference, and replaced it wholly with another that transformed his vision. He wasn’t correct in any sense of the word—but he was audacious, and, in Cervantes’ imagining, something more than mad.

There are people out there who believe monumentally foolish things. They believe them in defiance of reason, decorum, and evidence. They tie their identities to those beliefs and go out of their way to both evangelize and condemn all who believe otherwise. Yet, too, their freedom to believe foolishly is a fundamental part of our societal freedom. Without it, we would never be free to examine or embrace the absurd; to critique and recompose our perspectives; or to imagine new things that fly far and freely beyond our current knowledge. Continue reading

Slow Violence

P1070060.JPGBecause I spend a lot of time below ground, the raw marks of geology are a regular part of my life. When I think of bedrock and mountains, I don’t think of them as solid things. They shift uneasily in my mind, and their brittle skins are not enough to disguise restless history. People who live near fault lines or volcanoes remember this; the rest of us generally forget it.

I think the structures of a society are very similar. The slow violence of geology and the slow violence of society are both ever ongoing.

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The Pendulum of Discourse

pendulum_viaSylvarI find boundaries deeply entrancing. The twilight steps between darkness and light, the long ridges between peak and swale, the blurry lines between solid ideas: no matter the subject, I am drawn to the edges. The gradients from one thing to the next often tell me more than the things themselves.

I regularly indulge my affinity for boundaries through exploring caves or hiking mountains, but I am equally interested in exploring the boundaries of knowledge. We spend so much of our discourse on a pendulum between certainties, swinging on a distant focal point in search of equilibrium. The central node of an idea holds some sway, but for me, it is only an anchor. It is a beacon for measurement, a view from which to survey the world, but not a place to stay. The interesting things happen farther out, in the wilderness between here and there.

Some seem to think the purpose of discourse is to draw our collective knowledge into orbit around a core, ideally rejecting alternatives as small-minded, irrelevant, or wrong. I think we ignore the oscillation when we need it most, arguing for the extremes when we really need equilibrium. By arguing for the extremes and ignoring the long fuzzy boundary between, each position starts to define the middle as part of some other extreme. We become hyper-focused on the longest amplitude of the pendulum’s every swing, but in so doing we lose awareness of the swing itself.

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Heroes

MLK“Do you think heroes are born, or made?”

I was asked this question in 2005 while riding a bus through China. The bus trip was one leg of a journey to the oasis town of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert, and we had been passing through a desolate rocky landscape punctuated by both abandoned structures and new construction. The striking juxtaposition of society ancient and new left me feeling like a tightrope walker between eras.

Feeling the precariousness of modernity, a professor and I had fallen into a discussion of social change across societies. We were in the process of considering such well-known historical figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Susan B. Anthony, but the discussion had shifted into the question of how these heroes of our society became heroes in the first place. At that question, though, I had to pause. I could not help feeling that there was something wrong with our framing—that it ought not to be about how some individuals became heroes of social change so much as about the context for the change itself. Mythological heroes are people with power and vision beyond the average person, people who do for a society what society cannot do for itself.

I thought then, as I do now, that the reality of a hero is something quite different.

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We Are the Horsemen

horseman_viaWaltJacobscoI find it repeatedly baffling that human beings can being so short-sightedly human-centric. Yes, I know we have little ape brains evolved to think about little ape things, but we are also, arguably, the smartest animals on this planet. Despite that we seem intent on devaluing the distinction by behaving as though we are the only animals on this plant.

Now, a great deal has been written about conservation and how it makes a huge difference to our survival as a species. Likewise a great deal has been written about how the only effective way to conserve things is to appeal to our own self-interest. Finally it has been argued that it doesn’t matter what we do to the ecosystem, because we will just adapt and find new ways to go on as we always have. Leaving those debatable assertions unchallenged for the time being, I want to ask the question, “what does it look like from a different perspective?” This is a question I find repeatedly illuminating in myriad circumstances. Thus, if I were some other creature on this planet, what would I encounter?

As one of a select few, such as deer, pigeons, crows, or rats, I would find that while my evolved niche was now more or less absent, the detritus of humanity was rife with new niches for me to occupy. In my own unthinking way, I would go happily onward multiplying and expanding my territory and enjoying a very human way of life.

If I were just about anything else, though, I would have a very different experience.

If I were a migratory bird, I would find that the places I migrate are torn up and remade, from my perspective, overnight. It would be the equivalent of a human being going on vacation and returning to find their house, and all their neighbors’ houses, leveled and replaced with a 50-acre parking lot. And yet, the users of the parking lot would see no reason why I couldn’t go on living how I did before, just absent my house.

If I were a whale, perhaps, I would find that the oceans are growing increasingly crowded and noisy. I would live a long time, so I would remember just a few decades ago when I could talk to friends and family across long distances. Lately I would be more and more frustrated by an ever-loudening drone. I would feel like someone had started a perpetual rock concert in my home, and yet they expected me to go on living and communicating with my friends just as before.

If I were a wolf, I would probably already be dead. I might be dead because a farmer shot me, or because a car hit me, or because the government put a bounty on my pelt. I might be dead because some people tried to bring me back, but didn’t warn me that I would be eagerly killed if I strayed across the invisible line between Yellowstone National Park and The Rest of the World.

If I were any small mammal, I would find that someone had set up Indiana-Jones-Style speeding blades of death between me and several of the usual places I wanted to go. I would run the gauntlets daily, breathlessly, and with limited hope of survival. My average lifespan would have dropped because I am not very good at outrunning cars.

Human beings tend toward a human-centric worldview, and within that view we have a great fear of extinction. In our myths and cultures and stories we have the idea of an Apocalypse, where Famine and War and Pestilence and Death ride down upon us in fury to destroy us. But thinking about the world from the perspective of everyone else, I think we have it wrong—the Apocalypse isn’t coming for us; it’s coming for everything else trying to share this planet with us.

We are the horsemen, but we’re not riding out of fury. We’re not even riding out fear, or out of self-righteousness. I’m afraid we’re riding out of the worst thing I can think of: total indifference.

Must we?

The Relativity of Comfort

ColdHikeI have come to consider comfort a state of mind more than of body. There are myriad discomforts, to be sure. Cold, hunger, an injury. And, too, the rejection of others, the misery of boredom, the unsettledness of being lost. These are sensible discomforts within the frame of our needs. They are, in a sense, an awareness of a need not met.

But in today’s civilized culture, these basic discomforts are compounded. For many who have become used to their culturally enforced isolation from nature, the presence of nature is discomfort in and of itself. For those of us who wish to believe ourselves separate from the animal kingdom, the functions of animals are distasteful or taboo. Our needs for warmth, food, water, shelter, pain relief, psychological relief, avoidance of effort, and so on, are quickly met by fast food and plumbing and ibuprofen and Xanex and couches and escalators and cars. The range of comfort in which we live in has become stunningly narrow. Needs have become rights. Desires have become needs. Preferences are becoming laws.

In part this is because with a narrow range of comfort, a small scale, we cannot measure the things that fall outside it. Near-death of cold feels the same for us as having to wait an extra five minutes at the drive-through—not because they are equivalent but because we have no framework for experiencing them differently. We have lost a consciousness of our desires and the ability to set them aside.

This is why I believe comfort is a state of mind. I have learned with great difficulty that it is not so much the cold or the tiredness or the physical pain that makes me uncomfortable so much as it is my desire for it to be different. Discomfort is magnified immensely by our unwillingness to accept it and our inability to manage it. Accepting these things for what they are, and making choices to deal with them, makes them easier. I can distinguish now between the many slight discomforts—most of which are just my preferences—and the few significant discomforts that are my body’s way of warning me of true needs. What’s more, I can experience the comforts I do have as a richer tapestry of experience. As my scale of comfort expands, I can distinguish subtleties that would otherwise pass unnoticed. Lastly and, I think, most importantly, I can be content with less.

This has not come easily for me. My first expeditions in the White Mountains were marked by cold, frustration, and a constant fight to keep up with the environment. Only with time and deliberate effort was I able to reach beyond that. Caves were emphatically uncomfortable for me on my first encounter with them. Dark, damp, cold, and above all, claustrophobically small. Now, having spent long hours climbing, crawling, and laying on cold rock, in small spaces, those points are no longer the focus. The discomfort is familiar and ignorable. Lying in viscous mud the consistency and color of chocolate pudding no longer fills me with revulsion—in fact, I almost look on it with fondness. It is, after all, the trade-off for seeing things few human beings ever shall, the cost for traveling inside the alien bones of our planet. Chambers, pits, and brilliant and untouched places of stone and earth are open to me in ways they could never otherwise be.

Once I pushed past those discomforts, I discovered a deep and compelling passion, a connection with the Earth and the natural world that holds, for me, more power than any other. This is the value of expanding my sphere of comfort—that I can move past what might seem to be unconquerable discomfort to see and understand things that, until that moment, were eclipsed by my own distress. Every step outside my comfort zone is a step into understanding of the broader world, and a step into unselfish citizenship in a community of nature.

Despite my lofty ideal, and partly because of it, being comfortable now requires work. I have a habit of being comfortable in places where I once did not. It is still a choice, and I sometimes forget. When I am tired, hungry, thirsty, and sore, being comfortable is a chore. My, and our, instinct in such times is to blame others, to complain, or to be sullen. When I am at my best, I notice my hunger and eat; notice my thirst and drink; stretch tired muscles and rest as needed; and all smoothly, without interfering with my tasks at the time. When I am at my worst, I do none of these things and only wish that I had after the fact.

My only choice, then, is to make the expansion of my comfort zone a practice. I can habituate myself to discomforts, thus lessening them. I can negate the things that slow me, or interfere with my clarity of purpose. But the strongest and most effective thing I can do is to choose, mindfully, to be comfortable when I am not, and to be still when my mind is agitated. This choice, repeatedly made, is the habit that truly carries through. This is the choice that makes discomfort something to pursue rather than something to flee.