Written By Anton Krupicka
Last week I read a pair of books by Dave Eggers---A Hologram For The King and Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? In both of these novels, the central theme is pretty obvious: as a modern, middle-class man, with no grand, unifying cause---no popular war, no NASA-sponsored mission to the moon---where are we supposed to find purpose?
It's not a question with an easy answer, and, even more unsettlingly, the fact that it's relevant implies a level of privilege and frivolous malaise that feels indulgent in a world that still houses abundant strife and deprivation. You know, existential purpose only becomes a "problem" once the basics of life---food, clothing, shelter---are met with ease. And plenty of people around the world are still struggling to consistently attain those essentials.
Nevertheless, this is a comfort I---and a lot of others in our current society---inhabit, so the mind agitates. On a recent RadioLab podcast episode, the hosts assigned this need for strife as the impetus for the invention of American football at Yale University around the turn of the 20th Century. Without a frontline of bayonets and trenches, young men could now assert their masculinity and agency in a game of contrived battle, incrementally muscling a funny-shaped ball down a grassy field to the raucous adulation of rabid spectators.
I have heard this same deep-seated need---for a proving ground, a resistance or challenge to throw oneself at, a surrogate purpose beyond basic creature comforts---offered as the motivation behind the otherwise arbitrary, often absurd, and frequently fantastically dangerous pursuit of wild, technical mountain summits.
I am ambivalent as to how valid this concept is for me. Certainly, challenge is essential to me for the learning and growth it induces. However, I've never found the my-life-is-at-stake fear aspect to be nearly as appealing or necessary. There's a widely-held belief that risk is what defines climbing. Without it, you're basically just out for a walk in the hills. This may be true, but I personally abhor adrenaline and fear.
Instead, for me, the goal has become a kind of all-encompassing integration. I much prefer occupying that space where the right confluence of skill, effort and difficulty renders everything effortless, preternaturally aligned, magical even. Getting there often requires much effort and absolute presence---in fact, I think these things are the main ingredients---but I've always found true risk and the associated terror to only detract from the experience.
So, while I often feel guilty at having to contrive difficulty and struggle in my day-to-day life---by pushing myself in the mountains---I am certainly grateful that doing so is my choice, and that the challenge usually assumes more the form of overcoming inertia, vertical feet, and inclement weather, not mortars or malnutrition. And that the rewards aren't simple survival, but rather, ragged breathing, unbridled joy, and a deep confidence that I am both way more insignificant and way more capable than just staying at home on the couch would otherwise let me believe.
Note - We asked Anton if he had some words for our Thought Collective. He obliged with this short essay, of which, takes the Thought Collective section up a notch. Thanks AK!