Rising from the couch to meet your challenge
When Mallory was asked, “Why climb Mt. Everest?”, he allegedly responded, “Because it is there.” The jury, I believe, is still out on whether the quote is apocryphal, but what we know he did say — though less pithy — was quite profound.
“What is the use of Climbing Mt. Everest…it is no use. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever…We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, and not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. So it is no use. If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go…That is what life means, and that is what life is for.”
Sorta makes you feel like strapping on some climbing gear, doesn’t it?
Ben Saunders opened his TED talk, “Why bother leaving the house?” with Mallory’s explanation of why people take on great challenges. It is his burning question, and he answers it mostly by trudging hundreds of miles through the most desolate of Earth’s environments — Antarctica and the Arctic. His lament, however, is that by assuming there are no “Everest’s” left to climb — that all of the great challenges and explorations are gone — we will deprive ourselves of “leaving the house,” and resign ourselves to a life of couch dwelling.
The Wayne State TEDsters roughed up Saunders in his previous talk, concluding (easy for us in the warm comfort of a conference room) that he was just out for the glory. But this time he wasn’t just bragging about little triumphs like walking to the North Pole alone for ten weeks pulling 400 lbs. of provisions in negative 35 degrees.
Now he was talking about an idea. The idea that has driven people throughout history to explore, and climb, and sail; to hunt and compete; to join the army or join the circus; to do what is hard, rather than what is easy. It is the idea that there is more to life than ease and comfort. That inspiration and learning and growth happen in the midst of challenge and adversity. That life goes on, but living happens at the edges. That, despite the structures of ease and security in which we dwell so comfortably, we should step “away from what’s comfortable and familiar and step into the unknown.” Or, even more pithily, “get outside the house a little more often.”
But, Saunders adds, this is possible “if only we could sum up the courage.”
We may think such ideas are inadequate for our century, except perhaps for a few who live on the fringe, like Saunders. But Henry David Thoreau’s contemporaries thought the same thing when he went to the woods to: “…live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
This idea has been around a long time — since time began — and it will be around long after we are gone. Our only question should be: what is our challenge, and can we summon the courage to meet it?