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Summiting: Ideals and Suffering

I kept pushing, pushing my mountain bike up the 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 for 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 will send many priggish atheists 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.

But we can make the metaphor more visual. Consider the famous scene in Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" when Flagellants march in their procession through a town in Sweden in the Middle Ages, during the Black Death. The movie really sets you up for this scene, and you might be quite affected by it.

I was astonished how well this metaphor worked as I kept pushing the bike. Remember 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 well 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.


Ed said…
Great post! Much better than my slap dash postings; this one shows some thought and effort!