The other day, I found myself too busy to take my dog for his morning walk. Bodhi’s a hyperactive blue heeler mix with big bat ears, a salt-and-pepper coat, and a little dark spot under his nose that looks, from a certain angle, not unlike Inspector Clouseau’s moustache. According to dogbreedinfo.com, heelers, or Australian cattle dogs are “a courageous, tireless, robust, compact working” breed and “not the kind of dog to lie around the living room all day” — a fair description of Bodhi, minus the “courageous” part.
I ignored the poor pup as he lingered around the legs of my desk proffering a sock for me to toss. Eventually he wandered off. A little while later, I heard the clack of Bodhi’s nails on the wood floor as he hopped down from the off-limits bed and sauntered back into the living room with a piece of tissue stuck to his lip. I walked into the bedroom to find used Kleenex from the trashcan ascatter on the floor.
“Bad dog,” I said without conviction, knowing I had only myself to blame, and made a note to play fetch with him on my lunch hour.
In the scheme of things, Bodhi’s pretty good. I’ve heard stories of dogs with excess energy taking shoes and furniture apart and even clawing through walls. On the ASPCA website, there’s a list of “Problems that Result from Lack of Exercise and Play,” which includes: “Destructive chewing, digging or scratching,” “Knocking over furniture and jumping up on people,” “Excessive predatory and social play,” barking, biting, whining, and more.
“Dogs are born to work for a living,” the ASPCA site goes on. “They’ve worked alongside us for thousands of years.” I would add that, prior to those “thousands of years,” dogs were wild for millions, made to survive in a harsh environment, hunt, compete for mates and resources, and so on. It seems the modern “couch potato” lifestyle doesn’t suit dogs any more than it does humans.
Yes, we too have been shaped by our environment over the course of millions of years — an environment without climate controlled suburban housing, cars, or even the Internet (!). Deep inside us there remain, at least in part, faculties that allowed our ancestors to weather brutal winters, fend off predators, hunt down large, powerful prey, and on and on. Our bodies and minds have been wired to respond in ways that make us more likely to survive. As a result, we are on some level built to deal with what most people today would call “risky” situations.
“Risk is an integral part of life and learning,” writes Laurence Gonzales in his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. “A baby who doesn’t walk, for example, will never risk falling. But in exchange for taking that risk, he gains the much greater survival advantage of being bipedal and having his hands free.” Physical action and risk taking are a part of our survival programming. (Research has even suggested that exercise played an evolutionary role in the development of our brains.)
At the same time, there’s another powerful, and in many ways conflicting, motivator we all share — the drive to make the world more consistent and predictable.
Over the past century or two, we denizens of the so-called first world have moved ever farther in the direction of safety and predictability. We’ve extended our life expectancy through the elimination of predators, construction of complex shelters and food production systems, and the creation of ever-more effective medical procedures. We wear helmets when we bike, ski, climb, kayak and so forth (a trend I strongly encourage, by the way). Our lives, like our cars, have become insulated from the consequences of an indifferent world. Many of us now live in what folk singer Malvina Reynolds called “little boxes made of ticky tacky,” well removed from the past that formed our instincts. “We live like fish in an aquarium,” writes Gonzales. “food comes mysteriously down, oxygen bubbles up. We are the domestic pets of a human zoo we call civilization.”
And yet, the survival urge lives on inside of us. In many of us, it rubs up against the bars of the human zoo, creating discomfort that cries out for action. It probably has something to do with why modern “adventure” sports like climbing, BMXing, snowboarding, big-wave surfing and the like have been gaining in popularity, especially among classes of people with access to ample food and shelter and leisure time. Isolated from the need to ward off threats lurking behind every tree, this instinct has in many of us taken the form of an “adventure drive,” in which we must face challenges that are at once physical, mental, and, to varying degrees, risky. This combination adresses a missing element in many of our lives. Disaster-style alpinist and margarita aficionado Kelly Cordes, waxed philosophical on such a drive in a video called “Somethin Bout Nothin”:
We do create situations where uncertainty plays big for us. But if you knew the result of everything in life, you almost get to a philosophical question: well, what the hell’s the point? … And I think that’s one of the cool things about alpinism: you end up being responsible for your own decisions, which doesn’t happen in today’s world hardly at all anymore.
With little chance to face primal challenges in our day-to-day life, certain types of people (disproportionately men, it seems… but that’s a topic for another day) seek out situations that exercise those faculties in their brains. There is a simplicity in it, and even at times a transcendental euphoria. When rockfall, originating in a couloir high above, zings by your head, societal worry falls away like a useless old husk. Assuming you have the appropriate skills and training, the raw challenge can be freeing, if only for a time, and ultimately an experience we can take back with us into the everyday world. If we’re smart and/or lucky, we can use the intensity of such experiences to see through to the marrow of our daily lives.
For some, the survival instinct remains just that. I’m looking at a magazine called Survivalist right now. It’s a thin, glossy publication with ads for food that will keep nigh-indefinitely in your bomb shelter, electricity-free water purifiers, and guns … lots of guns. The cover lines include such heart warmers as “How to Survive the Impending Martial Law & Economic Collapse” and “Breaking the Matrix of the New World Order.” If there’s one thing the editors of this magazine are sure of, it’s that shit is going to hit the fan soon. If there’s another thing, it’s that they and their ilk will be sitting pretty when that shit/fan thing happens. The third thing they know? All those yuppies who voted for Obama, drink lattes, and whose pantries are stocked with a measly week of provisions, are up a creek, sans paddle.
Clearly, I’m not a Survivalist subscriber, but that doesn’t mean I don’t empathize with the anxiety its readers feel. I think it springs directly from the new world we inhabit, in which many of our most powerful urges can be confusing, even harmful. Some of these remain useful, such as empathy and social bonding. Others seem to cause more harm than good now that circumstances have changed — our very understandable inclination to find and eat food, for example. In a country filled to brimming with cheap, nutritionally hollow, edible food-like substances, our survival programming has led to a health crisis of morbidly obese proportions. Instinctual fear of the unknown cuts both ways, keeping us cautious when confronting new things that might well be dangerous, but also creating deep anxiety in response to things that statistics and our rational minds tell us are incredibly rare, like shark attacks, commercial airline crashes, mass shootings, and the zombie apocalypse.
It would seem that, confronted with a significantly less risky world than the one our ancestors lived in for thousands of generations, we first-worlders are struggling to find a new balance. Could this explain why we choose to climb mountains and hurl ourselves off cliffs, or even horde ammo and stockpile duct tape and plastic wrap? Are our brains, geared for something more challenging than cul-de-sacs and cubicles, still searching for a way to express a deep survival instinct?
As opposed to the generalized anxiety that grows in a world where threats are removed from our immediate sphere, climbing “is a fear that one can understand because you have a reason to be anxious or frightened at that point: you don’t want to fall,” said the writer Matt Samet in an article called “Risks and rocks: the mentality behind the mountain.” “It makes sense in a way that’s not chaotic. So in a way that’s the cure for the angst I feel in modern society.” Samet battled for many years with depression, anxiety, and a confounding addiction to prescription medications, all of which he documents in his book Death Grip. The immediacy and primal simplicity of climbing helped him to cut through the fog of his psychological afflictions.
I’m the first to admit that without significant research and study, this is just another theory, half-baked and three-quarters cocked. But if it’s true that many of us require stimulation beyond video games, golf, or the latest episode of Dancing With the Stars to feel right inside, I’d posit that a day on the rock, on the slopes, or in the waves is healthy, despite the risk. Yes, there is danger there, but a meaningful danger, as opposed to the more insidious kind we face from our modern lifestyle, where cancers slowly grow, arteries gradually clog, and — despite or maybe because of our declawed environment — people inexplicably commit suicide by the tens of thousands every year. These are the dangers of carefully constructed cages, creeping, persistent, terrifying in their banality.
In truth, the ideal is to have a life that is relatively in control and safe, in which we needn’t fear attackers or worry about getting enough food to survive. Then, moving from such a stable base, we have the freedom to choose which risks — whether on a mountain, in our careers, or intellectually — we take, and how to take them. This is an impossible reality; humanity will never succeed in eliminating all risk from the environment. And it’s worth remembering that, even if we could, death will still await us all. Nevertheless, it is worth striving for.
Thus, I wish you all the satisfaction of coming home safely from an epic adventure to a warm house, a good meal, and to your family and friends. There’s not much that can beat that.