“No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength. Learning for instance, to eat when he’s hungry and sleep when he’s sleepy.”-Jack Kerouac
This is why I do everything I do. Yoga, climbing, traveling, writing, adventuring. I do it all to feel strong. Not to be strong, or show my strength, but to feel strong. To unveil those little reservoirs of hidden power that are so subterranean not even our creator knows about them. And it’s not about jumping off the side of a cliff with only a parachute in hand, it’s not about being brave or gutsy. It is as simple as Mr. Kerouac stated above, eating when you are hungry and sleeping when you are tired. But being in full control of those things. Depending on only yourself to sustain your existence.
That makes me feel strong. I like being able to say no, I can’t do this climb, when everyone says that I can, or yes, I can do this, when everyone says that I can’t. Because I know my limits and my power. Everything I do is about finding those limits, testing them, hugging right up to the edge and dancing with The Line in the Sand. I like that about myself because it has made being alive incredibly fun.
Joshua Tree National Park. My friend Chris, on the last move of a climb, takes a big fall and his ankle quite literally pops out of the socket. After a few minutes of intense pain for Chris and pure shock for me and Matt, we realize that getting him and his now softball-sized ankle out of the middle of this desert is the best idea. We abandon our gear at the rock with the idea to make another trip back out to get it later, and carry Chris on our shoulders. Along the way we see a fellow climber, he looks at Chris, his ankle, and keeps on walking. He doesn’t say anything. Further along the trail we come upon a group of middle-aged tourists at the parking lot, maybe seven of them, and they don’t say anything either–just keep clicking their digital cameras at the Joshua Trees. Matt has to ask one them to help carry Chris while I run back to get our gear. On the way to the rock I notice that there is a group of about four other climbers sitting on a rock drinking Blue Moon who had watched the entire thing happen: the fall, me, as I wrapped his ankle, us, as we carried Chris away, and me again, as I am now trying to carry three crash pads, a backpack, all of our climbing shoes and personal belongings. I stare at them. Help me, I say with my eyes. I see one of them cut an orange slice and shove it into the neck of his bottle.
My adrenaline and focus on Chris blinded me from the fact that about a dozen people had seen us carrying an injured person through the Mojave desert and not one of them was willingly helping us. It’s not like we were in some big, well-populated city where you can pull the I Thought Someone Else Would Help kind of psychological deal.
We were relatively alone. In the desert.
I got angry and disappointed and wished, hard, that all of those selfish dudes back there were feeling like shit about themselves for not helping. Oh man, I should have done something to help those people, I wished they were thinking. It didn’t feel good to be so mad, to wish those things, but I find myself this morning feeling the same way and wishing the same things. Because I like to think that humans are a certain way, that we would act a certain way in certain situations, that we want to take care of each other, that we are good and brave and strong.
But we aren’t. Otherwise the stories on the news about someone doing something heroic wouldn’t make headlines, it would just be another person acting like a person. The fairy tales and epic writings and movies about heros wouldn’t be something we get starry-eyed over.
We admire heroism because it is rare.
I remember back to the first day of social psychology class in college, when all of the sudden a student started coughing violently, got up to leave the class, and fell down on the floor still coughing but gasping for air. The teacher did nothing, just kept lecturing and passing out syllabi. I look at the teacher, look around at other students, and realize no one is going to do anything. So I get up, in a room of fifty, and run over to the boy on the floor. I ask if he is okay. He starts to laugh. So does the teacher. It was all a set-up, a social psychology experiment. The teacher had asked the boy to fake it to see who, if anyone, would get up and help. Honestly, I felt tricked and a little angry that it was all a joke after worrying about this boy’s safety, but more than anything I felt proud. I am still proud of my reaction, and proud that I wasn’t one of the other students who sat there and did nothing.
Ironically, I think that people who are willing to selflessly help others are those who practice self-reliance. Because they know how fragile human existence can be, they know their personal power and their limits. Sometimes we truly need others. Being self-reliant taught me that. There are some situations that we will not survive if we don’t have another person’s help.
I feel blessed, in a world full of people not willing to help, that I am surrounded by heroes. I was born from a long line of heroes, all in their own way. My sisters are heroic and so are my best friends. I am attracted to people like this. The brave ones. The ones that would save my ass no matter what. They are the best to be around because they are self-reliant and know how delicate the human condition truly is.
I feel lucky. I feel alive. And I feel strong.
Happy Birthday Jack Kerouac, one of the people who taught me about being self-reliant and heroic, you would have been 90 today.