Posts Tagged ‘Adventure’
The conditions were perfect. This was the largest coronal mass ejection that had been aimed directly at earth in a decade. But I was tired, and the action was probably not going to start until after midnight. Lucky my social media chatter about the event attracted two friends of mine who were itching to see the auroras.
We set out for the darkest sky we could find down a minimum maintenance road past a sign that read: “Most people meet the Lord through prayer, but trespassing is quicker.” We parked the vehicle and set out to do some recon. As we made our way through the chilly March darkness someone said, “What left these tracks? They’re huge!” About then there was a thundering sound off to our right and the sound of a large body crashing through the brush. Our headlamps reflected in giant eyes as the beast lunged past us… a horse, unencumbered by a fence.
We set up near a field and the glow on the horizon briefly intensified into shimmering pillars of light before returning to a slowly fading glow for the next few hours. The rest of the night passed without event, aside from a somewhat confused encounter with a local man in his skid-steer at quarter to 1:00 in the morning. A perfect night.
More great Minnesota photography here!
What does it mean to be fully human? Everything I have ever written has in some way been aimed at this question. The paradoxical title of this blog points toward the answer. The same goes for the quote I highlight at the top of this page by Leo Buscaglia (If you don’t know who Leo is, do yourself a favor and watch some of his old talks on YouTube). Unlike the animal world which moves according to the relative ease of instinct, humanity lives by way of freedom in thought and action. But with the loss of instinct’s prepackaged game-plan comes the question: What does it mean to be human? What are we doing here? How should we spend this brief miracle of self-aware existence?
For a creature of instinct the question cannot arise, but for humanity, the question forms our very essence. To be human is to ask the question of what it means to be human. And with this question comes anxiety. Instinctual life has the character of unreflective security. Here thought, desire, and action are a unified whole. You can see this clearly in the lives of little children. For children, thought does not restrain desire and action (which makes them both delightful and maddening, depending on how much one must be exposed to them!). Anxiety emerges as this child-like unity is transcended.
Adult life is both reflective and insecure. In his classic book, The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm points to this separation from an original unity as the central problem of human existence. We long to return to this unity and have come upon many solutions that are only partially adequate. Of these solutions, he lists the temporary but intense induction of orgiastic states (either sexual or trance types), the surrender of the thrill and danger of freedom by way of conformity to a group, and the gratifying but impersonal immersion of the self in productive work. All of these solutions address the human problem, but they are all limited by the fact that they embody a sort of return to a past unity. As Ernest Becker put it, “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
Only with a new unity is it possible for humanity to be “fully alive,” to be “fully human.” This new unity is a love beyond fear. It is fear that limits our capacity for love, and it is our limited capacity for love that keeps us separated from each other, from the world we live in, and even from ourselves. This insight stands behind my attempt to make a connection between the idea of adventure and salvation in a paper I presented in Oxford last year. Love tears down the walls that we have carefully maintained to keep ourselves safe. For this reason, I am delighted to hear that Jean Vanier has been awarded the 2015 Templeton Prize. He is the author of Becoming Human and is the founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. His message is simple: By inviting in those who are vulnerable and different, we can develop the capacity to embrace our own vulnerability, and in so doing enlarge our capacity for love, for being fully alive. I’ve taken my own swing at articulating similar ideas, but first, listen to his own words. They have the authority of a remarkable life behind them!
Update: I went on to write a bit more about this here.
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?
Whenever I stay at my in-laws I bring my tent and sleep in the back yard. I just think it’s easier this way. It avoids all the suffering and tears that inevitably follow from spending more time inside with everyone else… not to mention the runny nose, itchy ears, and all the sneezing. I have pretty bad allergies, you see, and their old family farm house has a lot of triggers for me.
As a father of two young children and with all the commitments that go along with that role, It’s been fun to make our frequent trips to the family farm into mini-campouts. It’s also become my own little gear lab. I generally pray for foul weather, and get a kick out of testing my various gear combinations without the risk that would accompany pushing the limits further from shelter.
This talk of “pushing the limits” might sound a bit overblown for a guy who is camping in the back yard, but it should be noted that I live in Minnesota. When it’s winter here, even a walk to the mailbox can be an experience of “pushing the limits!” At any rate, I sleep outside year round, and when it came to Christmas this year, even I was pretty sure that I would not last the night outdoors.
Our first night there was unseasonably warm. It was slightly above freezing all day long. This did not please me since, as I said earlier, I pray for foul weather. My night out passed without event, but I was awoken suddenly by the voice of my wife, “Alex, Alex!!! Get up!!! You’re going to miss it!!!” Groggily, I fumbled with the zippers on my sleeping bag, tossed on my down puffy, and emerged from my crunchy tent. There stood my wife clad in nothing but mukluks, her nightgown and a smile (why doesn’t every night of sleeping out end this way?) The reason for her smile was obvious. The sky was aflame with the rising sun. We crashed through the crusty snow taking pictures and laughing. Sometimes I’m glad that I have allergies.
It was the second night that my wish for bad weather was to be granted. Throughout the day the weather stations talked of the temperatures “falling off the shelf” and the arrival of high winds causing blizzard conditions. The winds were to arrive in the afternoon and temperatures were to reach -18°F as the night progressed. In hopeful expectation, I had brought two down bags (a 40° bag and a 15° bag) which I planned to nest one inside the other. For sleeping pads I brought my RidgeRest SOLite as the first layer, followed by my NeoAir Xlite. All of this was then to be snuggly inserted into my new single walled, 1 person, 4 season tent.
I had not personally slept out in conditions like this before. I’d done -8° with no wind, and a of couple years ago (again, during Christmas at the farm) I slept in an igloo with temps around -11, but igloos are famously warm by comparison, and wind dramatically changes things in the winter, so this really was going to be a different ballgame.
As the day went on, the predictions came true. The winds began to howl across the lake from the northwest, and the temperatures steadily dropped. Finally the time had come. With a nice full tummy of bacon wrapped li’ll smokies and and two shots of olive oil, filled my water bottle with hot water, grabbed my pee bottle and left the cozy warmth of the house for my tent.
It was perfect. The wind was surging through the trees with an enormous roar. It was like daggers, stinging any exposed skin. Off to bed. Getting situated with two bags, various bottles and all the zippers was a bit of a chore, but once settled in, it was a heavenly experience. All around me was this weather that we’d been worrying away at all day. To be exposed to it for even a short length of time would quickly kill anyone. And yet, here I was, in it, touching it, listening to it, tasting it. The tent shuddered against the wind, and the night went on.
At one point, I don’t know when, I woke up. To my surprise I was too warm. The wind was still howling. I got a nice shower of frost in my face as I unzipped my bags. “Need more ventilation,” I thought, so I unzipped the door. What greeted my eyes was much more than ventilation. The clouds had blown over and in their wake was a sea of icy stars flooding the sky. Not expecting that, I was gripped anew with child-like wonder. I spent the next several minutes with frozen hands fiddling with my camera trying to get a decent exposure before finally zipping back into my warm cocoon.
I found out later that temperatures had got down to -20°F. Though I did not expect to make it through the night, I ended up being toasty warm the entire time. Unfortunately, I was not greeted by my wife this time as I emerged from my tent, but I was sure to return the favor by crawling into bed with her and giving her a chilly hug once I got inside. Sometimes I’m glad that I have allergies… sometimes.
Note: I wrote after Christmas in 2014 but never got around to posting, so all references to weather conditions are dated.
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)
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.
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.
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.
More amazing iceland waterfall art for sale here.
This past year I’ve dabbled a bit on the relationship between adventure and salvation (here and here), but I have now been given the opportunity to do a more focused treatment of these ideas. I was recently informed that a proposal I submitted to a conference in Oxford, England called, Paul Tillich: Theology and Legacy has been accepted. I had basically written off the possibility of going due to the expense, but at the last minute I decided to toss together a few of these crazy ideas and see what happened. Below is the proposal I submitted. I’ll be flying over in July to present the paper which I am currently working on. I’ll be sure to post the full paper once it’s finished. Stay tuned.
Paul Tillich, Salvation, and Big, Unnecessary, Crazy, Travel Adventure
Paul Tillich emphasized that salvation has a paradoxical form. Among a growing community of people, the cultural quest for salvation has recently taken just such a turn. Rather than keeping the evils of death and meaninglessness at bay via the comfortable promises of a technologically manipulated environment, some have taken it upon themselves to, instead, quit their jobs and embark upon incredible journeys in some of the harshest environments of the planet. They thrive on rather minimal preparation, entrust themselves to the kindness of strangers, and frequently change their plans. From bicycling 30,000 miles home, across Siberia—in winter, as Rob Lilwall did, to more humble “micro-adventures” as Alastair Humphreys encourages, these adventurers have at least one thing in common: They encounter an intensity of life that the normal mode of technologically-dependent life systematically subverts.
What I hope to argue is that this movement points to the experience of salvation in our time. Tillich’s thinking on salvation was often framed by the ideas of what he called structure and depth. These were the terms he was thinking in when he described culture as the form of religion and religion as the depth of culture. The basic problem that he identified is that religion has been artificially separated from culture and that culture is then ever in danger of losing its depth. Thus, if salvation is the dynamic encounter of the depth of being within the structure, and if the structure has lost its grammar of depth, then it is understandable that people will go looking for depth elsewhere. And we might expect that they will do so precisely by spurning empty cultural forms. I hope to show that these individuals represent a theologically interesting enactment of the fragmentary overcoming of estrangement in our time.