My friend Allen Steck is planning on writing an article entitled “Is climbing worth dying for?” It’s an interesting question coming from an 83 year-old man who spent his life climbing and mountaineering, achieving some of the most difficult and dangerous ascents known in the climbing world, all of which could have killed him. His answer of course is yes. It’s compelling for a person like Allen to share his very experienced and unique perspective with the world, his whole lived experience indeed seems to say that climbing was for him worth dying for. We’ll have to wait for the article to understand what all his thoughts on this are… I’m looking forward to it.
Personally, I don’t think that there is any inherent objective meaning in life. To one person climbing is worth dying for, to another it is not, and there is nothing contradictory or paradoxical about this, life takes a diversity of forms. We each choose what life means to us and through living it demonstrate what unique meaning we’d like others to find in our lives. This is beautiful and empowering don’t you think? Your life is your life and it is the ultimate act of creativity and powerful vitality to craft it by choosing what, for you, is worth living or dying for. One birth, one death (not counting near death experiences), what we are born with passion or care for, and what situations we find ourselves in; these are our parameters. In between is literally infinite possibility for us to play with.
Yet should we think about things in terms of what is or is not worth dying for or rather what is worth living for, as trite as that may sound? If one has a negative or fearful relationship with death will they answer this question conservatively and become hermit-like shut-ins? Which of these questions elicits from us the most strength, love, and truth? Whichever delivers us a balance we can live with of risk, value, and courage, that is the question to engage..
When I think of what is worth dying for I think of a few different questions.
1. If I were facing death what would be the trade-off that I would have zero conflict choosing death for? Family members, friends, an important ideal or belief, a personal truth, certain situations of justice, any children, there may be more but I think a lot actually fits into those categories. In the end it would be the truth of the situation and what I felt called to in that moment.
2. What fills my life with joy? Many of the same things, friends, family, writing, backpacking and being immersed in the outdoors, music and singing, helping people. Those are the most important things to me. I thought this list would be much longer but when I actually held them up to the idea of say, dying tomorrow, these are the things I would want to do: go hiking with friends and family, share a meal under the stars singing and making music together by a fire, and maybe writing one last post about what it all meant to me. That’s it. The painting I wouldn’t even think to make time for…
Though it may seem that these questions are abstract, distant, indifferent, or unnecessarily academic when experiencing the very real loss of a friend I personally could not feel more different. It is my sense of loss, my own pain and the pain of others, and the great love I feel for my friend Amy that is actually making these questions all the more meaningful. I have been talking about my own life in this post, but when thinking about and processing Amy’s life these questions have been useful also… partly because I don’t think she would have said it was worth dying for to do what she did that night, but I also think that she did show the world with her life what was most important to her, what was “worth dying for.” Amy chose to live her life in a beautiful way and it is precisely because her life was infused with intention, choice, beauty, love, and care that it is surpassingly more important to behold than the accidental and unintentional way in which she died. How she ended up leaving this world is small in comparison to how she spent her time living here.
Yet her death has been really difficult for everyone to understand and accept because she was so young and had been leading such a successful, beautiful and full life. While shock and disbelief are very common reactions to the sometimes violently abrupt punctuation of death, the sense of conflict people are feeling between how wonderful Amy was and that she has died young also belies expectations and beliefs about life and death; expectations and beliefs that are being challenged by this experience.
Questions like “How could this happen?” belie more than just our sense of loss for the person we have loved that is no longer with us; questions of this nature reveal our desire to believe that dying tragically only happens to those who are risk takers. Nobody wants to believe that tragedy strikes haphazardly, without reason or warning, and just as regularly in the lives of those enjoying life as in the lives of those who would perhaps say that climbing, or any other thing, is indeed worth dying for. The thing is, we don’t need to be at peace with death or engaged in dangerous activities to die; we can die at any moment. None of us is entitled to a long, happy, peaceful life. I don’t say this to scare anyone or be shocking, it is a simple part of the reality of living. I actually see something beautiful in it, a sense of grounded humility followed by gratitude, gratitude, gratitude, untethered to outcome, past or future…just the breathless thank you of realizing that we may not have forever, but we have this…
While we have all struggled to “make sense” of it the conclusion I feel I have reached is that her death doesn’t make any sense at all if you expect a death to match a life. But if you take away any sense of entitlement to a long and happy life and accept that we all die at some point in ways that are sometimes random, sometimes mundane, sometimes tragic, and sometimes apt, I guess…it makes sense. Not because it was right, but precisely because death isn’t always subject to right; it often comes in ways we don’t expect it to and that aren’t necessarily related to the way we lived.
Perhaps because death is so dramatic, so final, we feel that we want the way we die to match or go along with the way we lived, in this way it is sort of our final statement to the world…I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that I don’t believe that the way we die defines our lives in this way… as though a moment in one’s life could define years of growth, change, up and down, etc…
Is climbing worth dying for? Will we ever have the opportunity to look death in the face and actually make the choice that this question presupposes we can answer?
Then again, perhaps if we did ask this question more frequently we would understand the true value of the activities we fill our lives with. Entertaining death as a real aspect of our choices could have the effect of helping us to value the people we love more, to make different choices, to make changes we’ve wanted to, also to take more risks believe it or not. Having faced or acknowledged our mortality perhaps we become more willing to take certain risks, stick our necks out a little…Were I to die tomorrow, would I regret not going out with this person? Not trying to play an instrument? Not talking to this old friend? Yet even with this question, there will be things we don’t do, lives we don’t live, paths we don’t take; it seems to me that part of loving ourselves, and others, is accepting both the incomplete and yet completely perfect nature of any life. No matter how a life was lived there a wholeness to it that is sacred, unquestionable, and entirely ineffable. That includes all the consequences of our choices, even those we don’t like.