Two Kinds of People & Three Things to Keep Close to Your Heart

A photo of the salt flats near Robert Smithton's Spiral Jetty earthwork in Utah
Everything is changing; nothing is permanent—now what?

The way I see it, there are two kinds of people: those who can find happiness when faced with the greatest challenges and tribulations, and those who find unhappiness even when given the greatest advantages and privilege. I bet you’ve known some of each. The first kind, nothing can harm; the second, nothing can satisfy. The former is infinitely capable of acceptance and adaptation; the latter never fails to find fault and assign blame. 

I’d like to believe that we can choose which type of person we are. 

To be the sort of gal or guy who finds peace amidst the metaphorical storm, there are a few important things to keep close to your heart. First, things change. Empires rise and fall. Stars form and expire. Our galaxy is whipping away from every other galaxy in space like spots on the surface of an expanding balloon. You and everyone you know and care about will grow sick, grow old, and die. There are only so many ways of looking on this unavoidable truth. Accept it, fight it, ignore it, or give in to despair. Only the first of these makes sense to me. The second is futile, the third temporary, and the fourth self-destructive. 

OK, everything is changing; nothing is permanent, not even the things I hold most dear—now what? 

Now you loosen your iron grip on things as they are now and on things as you want them to be. Because to find happiness in a world that inevitably takes from you all you treasure, you must be willing to love things for what they are, even as they become something else. You have to love the impermanence intrinsic in everything. You have to be OK with change, because change is constant. Permanence is just a figment of our clever monkey minds.

Another thing to keep near to your heart—bloody and fibrous and built for only a finite number of beats—is that suffering comes from within. The person who’s never happy is an expert at finding fault in the external world. He sees other people or the government or some illness or his bad luck as the source of his pain. The Buddha, so it’s said, noticed that the real source of our pain is internal. Attachment to our idea of how the world should be is the root of suffering, and relinquishing such attachments can offer freedom from suffering. 

Dr. Henry K. Beecher, in a study performed during WWII, likewise noticed the profound role of the mind in our experience of pain. He found soldiers wounded in battle were far less likely than civilians suffering from similar wounds to request analgesics. The answer was in the context. For the soldiers, injury meant an escape from the battlefield; for the civilians, it meant possible disruption of home and work life. “The intensity of suffering,” Beecher concluded, “is largely determined by what the pain means to the patient.” 

A third thing to keep tucked away inside that whooshing, palpitating, four-chambered orb of striated muscle in your chest is the fact that words and arguments will only get you so far. As hard as we may try to snare the deepest truths in our net of language, they always slip away. So too is this bit of writing just a finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself. (What is “finger”? What is “moon?!”) Depending on how you look at it, this is cause either for disappointment or delight. Your choice.

The Book of Changes

A flaming log in a campfire.

“Blaming life for changing is like blaming fire for being hot.” I wrote this in my freshman year of college, in an email to my good friend Mike. We were attending schools in different states and had sought out a correspondence to deal with the newness of it all. Both of us were facing what felt like overwhelming changes at the time. We were out from under the watch of our parental units and confronted with all manner of unfamiliar responsibilities and scenarios.

I don’t recall what my point was exactly with that platitude about fire; it was the kind of thing I’d spout in a moment of poetic reverie without fully understanding why. Now though, nearly two decades on, it makes a certain kind of sense to me. Heat can cause problems—it can burn—but it is essential to the thing we call fire, inseparable, and also what makes it useful. Likewise, the mercurial natural of this ride we call life… let’s just say it’s pointless to take offense at such things.

These remembrances of things past come easily to mind of late, I think, because change looms large on my horizon. In a week, my wife and I will leave behind our little blue bungalow in Salt Lake City and move to the California coast, just a few hours north of Los Angeles. I’ll be moving on from Petzl, where I’ve worked happily for almost six years, to Patagonia, a company whose story I’ve been following with interest for over a decade. My wife and our dog will stand as constants, along with some furnishings and sundry books and artifacts, but not much else. Just life doing that change thing again. The funny thing about change is, even when you recognize its inevitability, it’s bound to catch you off guard.

The first response most of us have to change is fear. Change is scary in the same way darkness is—we can’t see what lies ahead, and so we fill in the blanks with phantasms of our own making. But it’s important to remember that there’s no real alternative to change. The things we identify with and attach ourselves to are bound to shift, evolve, and eventually fade away, one way or another. (In Buddhism, this concept is known as anicca, or impermanence, and it’s one of the three marks of existence.) A static world in which we can hold on to anything, even ourselves, exists only as a philosophical concept. Change, ironically, is the one constant we can count on.

So, with that in mind, I’m working to let go of the dualities my brain is trying to bring to this latest set of changes—the pros and cons, the fears and desires. Instead I try to focus on each step in the process and let the change happen, as it will whether I welcome it or not. The past is a memory and the future is a dream—what happens in between is an infinitesimal point that flickers and dances like a flame. The truth of this condition can only be experienced, not intellectually understood nor directly expressed. Some things never change.

Climbing Season

 

a climber crimping and a pair of hands typing on a keyboard

Years ago, a friend of the family and a very smart fellow gave me a book of short stories called Winesburg, Ohio. He handed the faded little Penguin paperback to me with a sense of reverence.

“I’ve been really into Sherwood Anderson lately. His prose is just amazing. I think you’ll really like it—the way it captures the lives of the people in this little Ohio town.”

That night, I read the first few pages and fell straight asleep. Nothing about the writing or the subject matter engaged me. I should have given the book back, but it slipped my mind and it ended up following me from state to state as I moved across the country. It’s been riding the pine on my bookshelf for some seven years now.

Last week, I picked up Winesburg, Ohio again for no particular reason. I’m not sure what changed since my first attempt, but now I was fascinated by the observations that Anderson put on the page. In the very first story, “The Book of the Grotesque,” I found this passage:

“It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque, and the truth became a falsehood.”

There was something going on here—something vague and barely graspable, yet deeply important—that was pushing through the surface of his words, and it immediately resonated with me. I felt I understood why my friend had given the book to me. But why hadn’t I seen it before, the first time I read the story?

I ran into an old friend at a party a few weeks ago and we started talking about climbing. No big surprise. As a Salt Lake climber who has worked in the outdoor industry for more than 10 years, that’s what most of the people at most of the parties I go to want to talk about.

“Yeah man, I’m just really psyched about climbing right now!” my old friend said. “I’m focused on climbing a lot and building a base and just ticking all the classics in the area.”

My friend’s sentiment stood out to me because not a week earlier, another acquaintance had, nearly verbatim, expressed the same thing: Focused. Stoked. Climbing.

I remember that feeling, when climbing was all I wanted to do. It was a good feeling. Pretty simple. Scaling rocks was the focus of my life, and I built my schedule and my budget around it. But these days, I’ve had a lot of other goals and interests (writing this blog, which is surprisingly time-consuming, being just one of them), and climbing is no longer the main character in my life; it plays a supporting, yet enduring, role.

There’s a verse in Ecclesiastes that goes something like, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” Beyond skiing season, mountain biking season, or climbing season, I take this to mean that the interests and the goals in our life are bound to change, and this is natural. We might look back and the things we can’t image living without don’t mean as much, while the things that floated in the background, uninspiring, can suddenly rise to the surface and become significant.

Things change. Interests change, contexts change, relationships, passions, perspectives… . To those who close themselves off to new discoveries and cling too tightly to old beliefs, there’s a danger of becoming one of Anderson’s “grotesques.”

In a recent blog post, the writer Andrew Bisharat said, “I think it is OK to be open to changing up your interests. What is important is that you still find a way to have goals that remain relevant and interesting to your life. We are human beings first and our goals are simply supplements to our own weird journeys.”

I feel this sums it up nicely. The key to navigating the shifting landscape of life, as far as I can tell, is be open to the inevitable changes. It’s up to each of us to either reject and lament change, or to accept change as the wellspring it is—a constant source of energy and surprise.

Lessons of the Peppered Moth

The Peppered Moth changing

It’s not just “survival of the fittest” anymore. It’s the adaptable, those most willing and able to learn, who persevere.

The world is full of people whose inability or unwillingness to adapt to changing landscapes left them out in the cold. Factory workers who knew only how to work in factories. When it became cheaper for businesses to send production overseas, the factories closed and the workers languished. They felt they had nowhere to go.

Likewise the young climber who prizes his fitness and skill above all else. In the height of his strength, he might imagine he will always be as he is now. He doesn’t consider what his life will be like when he is injured or his body no longer performs as it once did. He doesn’t consider the many ways to be happy and useful and fulfilled when things are different.

The case of the Peppered Moth is perhaps the most popular demonstration of Darwinian natural selection today. Prior to Britain’s Industrial Revolution, the mostly white Peppered Moth was thriving. The black variant of the moth was rare, its coloration poor camouflage against the pale trees on which it rested.

But the Industrial Revolution, with its machines and factories, brought change: soot particles that eventually darkened the trees on which the Peppered Moths rested. Now the darker moths were the better hidden, while white moths became easy pickings for keen-eyed birds. Lo and behold, the black moths became the more common variant for more than a century, until pollution regulations of the 1970s began to stem the sooty tide.

The difference between people and moths is that change for the moths comes only at the population level, through death and reproduction. When more black moths survive to bear offspring, the population grows dark. When more white moths survive to bear offspring, the population grows pale.

We humans, however, have a unique memory and intelligence that lets us adapt much more quickly. We can record our experiences and our lessons learned. We can share our knowledge. We can predict the future from the past and, in theory, act accordingly. This is one reason our kind inhabits so much of the planet — we are able to adapt within a single generation rather than over the course of many.

Still, many of us seem to live like the Peppered Moth, sitting and hoping desperately that the rules of the game won’t change so we won’t have to, either.

But the game is always changing. The sand of time drains ever down, drawing with it our bodies and minds. Technology destroys old opportunities and creates new ones. The changes in our climate are already set in motion. No matter how we fight or what we’d rather, the world we inhabit in 20 or 50 years will be very different from the world today.

When things change around us, we can be like the white Peppered Moth who sits on a black tree branch and waits for the birds to come. Or we can see the new landscape and make an effort to adapt, to lighten and darken our wings, or even shed our wings and grow gills. This is no mean task, granted, but the first step is to change our minds and attitudes, which is something the Peppered Moth can never do.