living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Adventure Become Prayer: Hiking Iceland’s Fimmvörðuháls Trail

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When life is made superficial by an awareness dominated by the routine goals and desires of everyday life, adventure can be an opening to the depth of life, and therefore to the experience of salvation. That, in short, was the basic argument of the paper I presented at the Paul Tillich: Theology and Legacy conference last week in Oxford (You can view my photography from this conference here, if you’d like). Upon wrapping up the conference, I then proceeded to take a late flight to Iceland where I drove southeast, finally coming to rest under the arctic twilight at 3:00 a.m. beneath Seljalandsfoss, a breathtaking cascade of glacial melt water. After 3 hours of sleep, I hitchhiked with a former F-16 pilot from Oman to Skogafoss where the Fimmvörðuháls Trail begins. Over the next 19 miles I would climb and descend 3,280 feet; pass endless stunning waterfalls; cross a glacier; walk directly over Móði, one of the two eruption craters from the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull volcano; and be endlessly stunned by the otherworldly beauty of the weathered volcanic remains of Þórsmörk. (For those curious, you can view the complete photo set of this hike here. If you’d like prints of any of these images, check out my print shop)

Water through Lava

 

The Fallacy of Self-Exemption

All the while I kept thinking about the words I had said at the conference. I had claimed both that adventure has the potential to deepen life, but also that anything in life—even adventure—can lose its depth and become superficial, ordinary, routine, “been there, done that.” When the latter frame of mind dominates our awareness our adventures become consumerism. We show up to our adventures looking to grab as many thrills for the least amount of effort so we can put them on like a suit and go home proving to our friends and family (and probably to ourselves) that we are authentic, daring, really alive. In this way, adventure is drug up from the depths and made to be merely superficial, a rather obvious form of pretension.

As I hiked along with my GoPro snapped to my pack and my giant DSLR bouncing conspicuously against my chest, I couldn’t help but feel the extent to which I was by no means innocent of my own critique. I noticed myself momentarily awestruck by some new feature the land presented me with: a waterfall, a flower, clouds forming all around me as the moist ocean wind cooled on its ascent… but then, just as quickly, I would anxiously reach for my camera. In that moment I had become a consumer. My anxiety about capturing the moment and my despondency upon missing it was evidence that I was trying to turn that unique gift into my own property. To the extent I lived in this frame of mind, my adventure had become superficial… an extension of merely everyday life.

In the Icelandic Highlands

Some Help from Walter Mitty

On the plane home I watched, for the second time, the slightly corny movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which, in spite of its campy style, remains one of my favorite movies of recent years. There is a moment where Sean Penn’s character, “Sean O’Connell” who plays an old-school photo journalist, is in the midst of almost capturing a photo of a rare snow leopard high in the Afghan Himalayas. As the ghost cat emerges from the rocks, Sean sighs with pleasure. He motions to Walter to have a look, but then he just sits there, gazing at the animal far across the mountain range. Walter is beside himself. “When are you going to take it?”, he asks. Sean replies, “Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it.” In that brief statement O’Connell captures the experience I was wrestling with on the Fimmvörðuháls. There’s no anxiety when you’re able to “stay in it.” You don’t need to worry about consuming the moment, or deciding how to pin it to your chest as a badge of your authenticity. That’s what makes Sean’s character so appealing: the absence of an anxious ego born of a deeper security. In the terms of my paper, such is the experience of salvation.

Adventure Become Prayer

A major point of my paper was that salvation, as it appears through adventure, has the potential to enlarge our capacity to endure the unknown and the unknowable. And this was the other realization I had as I trekked over the Icelandic highlands: If one is able to let the consumerist mindset fall away, adventure becomes prayer. Each step, each breath, takes on the form of attentive expectation. One’s eyes begin scanning the horizon, even the ground beneath one’s feet, for the unfolding gift of life’s ongoing newness. As one settles into this sort of prayerful movement, absolutely nothing is “been there, done that.” All things are new, unexpected. One walks in gratitude. Photos become opportunities to share this joy with loved ones back home, rather than opportunities to prop up one’s ego.

Waterfall on the Skoga

Keeping Adventure Alive in the Everyday

In the end, my Icelandic adventure largely confirmed the intuitions I had when writing my paper, but what impressed me was how easy it was for my adventuring to fall off into the superficial. Much like the wandering mind during prayer, my everyday awareness was constantly reasserting itself even after being repeatedly knocked back by the wonders of my hike. Considering how difficult it was for me to shake this habit (It is most certainly still with me, even as I write this), I don’t suppose it would be too surprising for one to adventure for weeks on end without hardly denting their superficial frame of mind. I suppose for this reason, I may need to think more on how to further qualify this argument that I am still rather keen to make. All the same, with the help of my wife, and other close family members, I’ve been away 10 days. I’m just now working to get back into the rhythms of my everyday life. It’s been delightful to notice how, like any adventure turned to prayer, the everyday life one returns to will never be the same. I am filled with a new enthusiasm for keeping my mind tuned to notice when merely everyday life threatens to deaden me to the adventure that lies always right beneath my nose, in the throbbing center of every moment we live… each shared glance… every waking child… a breath, a touch, a sigh.

Þórsmörk

More amazing iceland waterfall art for sale here.

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Written by Alex

July 21, 2014 at 11:19 am

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