WRITTEN BY EMILY PENNINGTON
It’s the question on the tip of everyone’s tongue each time I conjure the courage to spit out the idea for my latest sufferfest. Why climb over 10,000 vertical feet in a day? Why push for a summit in 70mph winds? Why waste a perfectly good Saturday waking up at five in the morning to bloody my fingers on sharp granite crystals?
When I went to see The Dawn Wall this weekend, it was the question on the lips of every talk show host who interviewed climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson too. Why did you want to do this? Why would you let something as insignificant as a giant rock consume 6 years of your life? Couldn’t you have done something more useful with your time? Why climb El Cap at all?
The short answer? Because it’s f*****g compelling.
Perhaps the “usefulness” angle in these mind-numbing queries fascinates me the most, because the very idea of “usefulness” is, itself, subjective. No one seems to question the usefulness of a weekend afternoon spent attending a movie or a sporting event. People are not publically chastised for family vacations to Las Vegas or New Hampshire. We do not run up to people in airports inquiring why on earth they are reading a fashion magazine.
And, here’s where this topic really gets my mind soaring and gives me a “why?” of my own. The things we do in our free time don’t often get called into question until they enter into the realm of the uncertain or the perilous. It’s as though the willingness of one person to jump into the void or self-harm to test the limits of human potential creates an instant desire in most to protect the status quo by labeling the outliers as crazy, adrenaline-junkies, or freaks.
The moment we cringe or label someone else’s ambitions as “reckless” or “a waste of time,” we begin to close the book on our own mind’s ability to expand into the space they inhabit and, in turn, grow. We protect the mental clarity of the decisions we have made by shunning the wild dirtbaggery of someone else’s. We reinforce the societal constructs we’ve worked so hard to uphold.
It’s almost as though the talk show hosts knew that if they legitimized the climbers’ lifestyle, they’d be calling into question the validity of the life path that they’ve chosen, full of morning commutes, polite banter, and business casual wardrobe. So, instead, they make the easy joke. They ask “why,” and they pause afterwards for a predictable laugh break from the audience, because surely these maniacs can’t be on the right track.
I think what I love the most about this tension between the squares and the dirtbags is that, at the end of the day, they all want the same thing. Both sides just want to feel fulfilled. Some people achieve it through chasing comfort and upholding obligations because it feels right. It feels safe and good and like home. Contrarily, others seek to subvert that definition of life satisfaction by subjecting themselves to the most extreme conditions and seeking out a hermetic lifestyle in direct opposition to their counterparts. I know which side I stand on, but I don’t see either mindset as inherently right or wrong.
Because despondency is a hungry animal that wriggles into our weak spots, and the melee weapons we have to obliterate it are only our items of deep interest and joy. Modern life is insufferable, no matter who you are. We need to learn to take pleasure in the small places where we can. This is especially true for workaholics and people with children.
Maybe George Mallory explained it best when responding to questions about his Everest expedition in 1922. He boldly affirmed, “The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use.’ There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever… What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”
This weekend, I’ll be off on another sufferfest. I’m not doing it because it’s going to be comfortable or educational or because it’s an insightful use of my time. I’m doing it because I feel like it and because it brings me joy. Because there’s a rash of misplaced energy moving up my spine that needs to be released, and drinking a mimosa is not my preferred method of unwinding.
At the end of the day, maybe Ellen Degeneres and every other talk show host are right. Maybe I am wasting my time. But the magic of being human is that only we get to decide what time wasted means. And I think that time “wasted” is often time best spent.
Read more of Emily’s writing over at her site here.
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