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Summiting Through Ideals and Suffering

...So there I was, pushing my mountain bike up a mountain, with little hope of ever being able to pedal it, except downhill where it might be dangerous. I'd never deliberately injected myself into a situation like this, before. But I simply had to make the San Juans a bigger success for my favorite sport of mountain biking. Defeatism had become disgusting. Although Anger was useful at the beginning to getting me going, it soon wore off. Now what?

The aerobic buzz was great, but it's not enough: the mind needs something to chew on.  Few things lend themselves to metaphor-mining like mountain climbing. The choice seemed obvious: Christ carrying his own cross up Mt. Calvary. So my mind stayed occupied all the way up the mountain by visualizing the awkward and uncomfortable (and weird) ascent as a type of Noble (voluntary) Suffering.

No doubt, the most metaphorical and non-literal allusion to religious tradition is sufficient to send many priggish atheist readers running for cover. But now that they've left the room, we are free to talk about them behind their backs. What metaphor would they find from their bland, modern, utilitarian, uni-sex, PC, "Whig Interpretation of History" worldview? If their worldview does not provide valuable myths and metaphors, perhaps they should reassess how superior it is to "old-fashioned superstitions," and how "intelligent" they are for believing it.

I was astonished how well my chosen metaphor worked as I kept pushing the bike -- despite the fact that I'm no more of a Christian than the priggish atheists who just walked out of the room. Normally my "brilliant" ideas don't work out as expected. I've learned to laugh it off. So when an idea works better than expected, it's time to wonder why. 

It was 3000 feet to the top, but it was the same effort as a 4000-5000 foot hike of the regular kind. I had to rest frequently because of the extra effort of twisting over and pushing the mountain bike. On the other hand, I felt no sharp pain. Although I expected to be sore the next day, that didn't happen.

Chiaroscuro of Hope and Suffering in the High Country

But, still, why was this silly thing working so well? The frequent resting, occasional slipping, bumping the tires into rocks -- the more miserable it was, the happier I felt. The best that I could do was ask the mountaineering guide that I had hired down in Lake City, William James:
Wherever a process of life communicates an eagerness to him who lives it, there the life becomes genuinely significant. Sometimes the eagerness is more knit up with the motor activities, sometimes with the perceptions, sometimes with the imagination, sometimes with reflective thought. But, wherever it is found, there is the zest, the tingle, the excitement of reality; and there is 'importance' in the only real and positive sense in which importance ever anywhere can be. [William James, Talks To Teachers On Psychology; And To Students On Some Of Life's Ideals. The chapter, On a Certain Blindness. Downloadable for free from]
But what our human emotions seem to require is the sight of the struggle going on. The moment the fruits are being merely eaten, things become ignoble. Sweat and effort, human nature strained to its uttermost and on the rack, yet getting through alive, and then turning its back on its success to pursue another more rare and arduous still— this is the sort of thing the presence of which inspires us, and the reality of which it seems to be the function of all the higher forms of literature and fine art to bring home to us and suggest.[William James. Talks To Teachers On Psychology; And To Students On Some Of Life's Ideals. The chapter, What Makes a Life Significant.] 

There is a big difference between routine, work-a-day dreariness and the Noble Suffering I was experiencing, or what Richard Byrd experienced when he was nearly dying "Alone" on his solo Antarctic trip, or what so many polar explorers or sea voyagers have experienced. Their bodies might be in even worse condition than the body of a routine drudge, but something else is happening "in there."
...that their souls worked and endured in obedience to some inner ideal, while their comrades were not actuated by anything worthy of that name.
The barrenness and ignobleness of the more usual laborer's life consist in the fact that it is moved by no such ideal inner springs.
Sodden routine is incompatible with ideality...
And now we are led to say that such inner meaning can be complete and valid for us also, only when the inner joy, courage, and endurance are joined with an ideal.
Climbing a mountain is boring and unfulfilling if it's just exercise. Taken to its logical conclusion, the Colorado Exercise Lifestyle is just one more manifestation of the standard Rat Race. Why not stay back home in the city, go to the gym, and work out on the StairMaster? Exercise needs to be joined to a metaphor to make it noble and meaningful.

Let's go back to our hired mountaineering guide:
...mere ideals are the cheapest things in life. Everybody has them in some shape or other, [...] and the most worthless sentimentalists and dreamers [...] possibly have them on the most copious scale.
The more ideals a man has, the more contemptible, on the whole, do you continue to deem him, if the matter ends there for him...
Inner joy, to be sure, it may have, with its ideals; but that is its own private sentimental matter. To extort from us, outsiders as we are, [...]the tribute of our grudging recognition, it must back its ideal visions with what the laborers have, the sterner stuff of manly virtue; it must multiply their sentimental surface by the dimension of the active will, if we are to have depth... The significance of a human life [...] is thus the offspring of a marriage of two different parents, either of whom alone is barren.
There must be some sort of fusion, some chemical combination among these principles, for a life objectively and thoroughly significant to result.
The solid meaning of life is always the same eternal thing,— the marriage, namely, of some unhabitual ideal, however special, with some fidelity, courage, and endurance; with some man's or woman's pains. 


XXXXX said…
I'm going to bullet my responses since I have already lost two attempts. I am out of town, using my little netbook.
Usually the metaphoric side of us, probably originating from the right brain, and the left brain logical side both engage at the same time and more or less equally. Too much right brain and one can get psychosis. Too much left brain and one gets a stilted approach.
Your way, of the logical brain leading and purposefully engaging the right brain is pretty interesting.
The James brothers are also interesting. Both fascinated with the mind and perception. William, becoming a psychologist, Henry an author. He wrote "The Turn of the Screw" among others. I suppose there is a great similarity between psychology, an inexact science based on observation, and fiction, an untrue story based on the true human condition.
You will laugh but gyms do attempt to use metaphor to increase motivation. I'm thinking of the screens displaying walking mountain paths, etc. and the machine simulates the increasing effort needed to match the visual.
I don't think it's either or. Sight seeing is OK too. Lots of history out there that is easy walking.
This is the short version. Bet you're glad.
Screens displaying mountain paths? I rolled my eyes at that one!

It's been a long time since I tried Henry James. I thought his novels were aimed at women. (Then again, most fiction is.)
Maikel said…
To our dearest Teddy Bear Boonie - we have had such a wonderful time playing in the mountains like kids with you. Your sense of humor and your warm kind heart has made getting to know you such a fun experience. Now about those big words that I have to look up...
Susan & Maikel Wise
I enjoyed it too.

Now then, about them big words. On our laptops and tablets, we are only about 3 clicks away from any word in the English language. With Google translator, the same is true of furrin' languages. So with all that capability, why should we be afraid to use it?!

Michael said…

You touch on two of the paradoxical "blessings" of our age: The technological advances that have diminished and nearly broken Adam's curse (of eating only by the sweat of the brow), making sustained physical labor a rarity...and the somewhat related shattering of and stomping on supernatural illusions and religious world-views.

Humans really did suffer too many long centuries under the often cruel and miserly hand of a step-mother nature; and superstition, that impulsive child of the psyche, along with its inherent indignities and predictable atrocities, really did need to be spanked and sent to its room. But what we have wrought instead...a gray and glib utopia...leaves many of us cold.

So in our dissipation and ease we go about trying to recreate challenge worthy of our souls, and souls for which it remains worthwhile to attempt challenge--in other words, something that requires sacrifice, and a world-view that imbues sacrifice with meaning.

We try. But there is no sweat like the sweating for bread; and there is no red like the martyr's blood.
Sometimes I think there are bigger consequences than we think to becoming a society of cubicle-thralls rather than people who do "sustained physical labor."
XXXXX said…
The thing about metaphors (or archetypes) is that they are within us. We can read all we want about them but it's ultimately NOT a cognitive experience in terms of logic/reason.
For people who are very physical, like yourself, the experience probably does have to originate in the body, as you referenced earlier the importance of the mind/body connection.
But that's not true for everyone. Jungians are terrific at following their dreams, working on trying to remember them better, working with dream material with an active imagination, etc., learning to enhance their ability to be in the middle zone between wakefulness and a dream state. Dreams are full of archetypal material. And the result of doing this is similar to what you described.....a dramatic shift in awareness, in understanding, an improvement in one's ability to manage their circumstances, rise above, improve, enhance their mood and attitude.
For people who are seriously physically disabled, working with the mind is all you have (with the exception of physical therapy and energy work.) Sometimes I even think that the body can get in the way. When one is simply forced to go within because that is the only direction available to them, it can be absolutely astounding what can happen.
Michael said…
Undoubtedly. In the physical health sphere it's been clearly established that sendentary lifestyle has been one of the main factors contributing to widespread obesity and its many related diseases, both shortening our lives and reducing their quality.

And in the emotional/spiritual sphere there can be little informed doubt of the boredom and irritability and dissatisfaction that arises in many from going too long without exertion of physical vigor in the service of a real and tangible objective.

Goldilocks again: Too much labor, no good; too little labor, no good; somewhere in the middle, a middle which will be different for different individuals, is just right.
XXXXX said…
Hope I may add one more thing.......
It isn't surprising that a religious symbol (Christ carrying the cross) would arise in you who describes yourself as not very religious.
The archetypes are there first. They are a psychological image of a physical instinct and so they can take many forms. That the Jesus story caught on like wildfire is simply that the stories about him run true to these images. Unfortunately, many take them literally rather than symbolically. They are very powerful, as you proved.
Michael said…
George, I agree that certain basic themes and symbols, certain arhetypes, may well arise within us naturally. Of course, though, even the non-religious are heavily exposed to the symbols and images and tales of the dominant religion in their culture.

Therefore, when Boonie finds himself resonating to a Christian myth, Occam's razor would perhaps suggest that we attribute this primarily to his known and easily identified exposure to the opposed to a postulated universal archetype rising from the deep.

And conscious atheism or agnosticism has never precluded emotional or sentimental or "spiritual" or imaginative or intuitive or other non-logical experiences or impulses that are consistent with religion...especially the religion one has been culturally exposed to.
Michael, I've been without internet the last few days. Sorry about not getting your comment approved.

I agree that "atheism or agnosticism has never precluded emotional or sentimental or "spiritual" or imaginative or intuitive". But some militant and prejudiced atheists, fanatically devoted to Political Correctness, DO preclude a metaphorical use of 2000 years of religious and cultural traditions and mythology.

Hell, they won't even use a normal cuss-word when they bang their thumb with a hammer.
XXXXX said…
Glad you said that Michael. I was toying with the idea to post yet again with something along those same lines but somehow my mind's eye was seeing Boonie's eyes roll to the back of his head as he politely went ahead and posted our comments.
Not all archetypes/metaphors are religious, of course. But it is quite true that the form they take are quite related to whatever culture the person has been exposed to.
Michael said…

I agree with you. Hitchens and Dawkins, for two examples, have seemed to me to be gratuitously angry and extreme in their attacks on, it seems, any of religion's contributions, derivatives or associations.

And I like your clever illustration--of hammer and thumb.

Interestingly, though, Hitchens himself volunteered that he valued deeply some religious devotional poetry (I think the specific poet he mentioned was Milton, but I could be mistaken).