The Dawn Wall and the Spirituality of ‘Wasting Time’
You may have heard that last week Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell climbed a 3,000 foot route on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. It took them 19 days. If we’re honest, I think there’s something in all of us that wonders whether or not such an undertaking is really a praiseworthy use of one’s time. It’s risky, of course, but it also is completely unproductive. At the end of day 19, Jorgeson and Caldwell were still with us (thankfully), but so was the rock. The wars of the world continue, cancer still kills, and most of us (if we’re lucky!) are still going to work a nine to five job until we die.
Maybe that’s a part of why many people find such a feat to be so questionable. If we can picture the view from a few thousand feet above the valley floor at about the time the sun is going down, if we can imagine for a moment the feel of the cold stone, the smell of the wild air, perhaps we’re a bit resentful. Most of us are burning ourselves out trying to pay our bills, stay healthy, keep our marriages intact, all the while feeling helpless and slightly guilty by virtue of the fact that we are participating in a system that’s leading to global climate change, exploits foreign labor, and who knows what all else, and yet here are these guys just out screwing around on the rocks! Well, it’s enough to make one want to shout “GET A JOB!”
Brendan (author of Funny Shit in the Woods and Other Stories) posted a piece today that sought to challenge this mindset. He rightfully called attention to the fact that so much of the activity that we typically consider to be “productive,” when viewed from the perspective of the hilarious absurdity of our very existence, is, more often than not, at least sad and probably downright damaging to the world around us, to say nothing of ourselves. I attempted to make a similar point in the paper I presented in Oxford this last summer.
There seems to be a massive element of forgetfulness in the process of growing up. We are born into this world as children who play, yet we tend to get sucked into a system in which we work ourselves to death in the hopes that one day we might once again have time to sit in the grass and play. Tragically, along the way, it seems so many of us seem to forget that wonderful mix of curiosity, wonder, and the testing of potential and limits that is play. Instead we come to associate play with the things that adult life deems necessary for play, the “toys,” as it were. If you were lucky enough to go on family road trips as a child, you might remember how easily parents could turn even this form of “play” into something much more like work. For many a father, “making good time” was crucial to the “success” of the trip (even if everyone else in the car was utterly miserable). And so we must work even for our toys and, of all things, we must not waste time.
Yet, if we imagine Jorgeson and Caldwell hanging high on the cliff face, then shift our vision to the harried lives most of us lead, is it really so difficult to tell who is wasting time?