There is fear that paralyzes and fear that compels. The distinction can melt into nothing in a split second, but the difference means everything in life.
At the height of summera summer that tested this country’s international power and our power gridI was testing my own fears against nature, and myself, in Montana. In my annual solitary encounter with exhilaration-cum-mortality, I was precariously skirting the rocky spine of a mountain, desperately seeking secure handholds and footholds.
It was the steepest climb I had ever done, with sheer drop-offs at nearly every step once I passed the tree line. Having achieved the peak and drunk deeply of its staggering views in every direction, I decided to spice up the descent by taking a more unusual route. I quickly found myself in trouble. A quarter mile down, descending the mountain face, I was surrounded by scree, or loose rock. In a matter of moments my heart had gone from pumping with excitement to being in my throat. Whatever move I made precipitated a minor rockslide, in which I was the featured performer, until finally my trekking poles helped arrest my fall. Frozen with fear, mouth dry as dust, I began hearing echoes in my mind of the desperate entreaties of my wife, siblings and friends, recalling previous outdoor ventures that resulted in injury: Don’t go alone! And don’t do anything dangerous! A painful and nerve-wracking hour later, I was back on track.
Why did I do it? A dear friend who was an avid hiker and backpacker once told me that he liked to push the limits, to take chances in the outdoors because it sharpened his awareness of what it meant to be alive. I know the feelingall the more because that friend was killed while hiking the Continental Divide. His fate was a testament to the belief that those who stand on the precipice feel more acutely than others the ineffable that separates life from death. If you do not pass through the fear, you won’t ever know what is beyond it. If you do not test the limits, you’ll never extend them. The fact is I am no thrill-seeker. And yet every few months or so I need to be alone outside taking a modicum of risk, and I seem to thrive on the endorphin rushpushing the heart rate, testing my physical limits, peering over the edge.
There is something vital and solitary about gratuitously plunging headlong into uncertainty. Physical risk need not be involved. But for me it helps. That is why the day after surviving my hiking miscue, I went speeding along on my mountain bike on a little-used trail that teeters 150 feet above the Yellowstone River.
My life is not better when I hover near the edge, but it feels richer and more textured for having done so. It hardly needs to be said that by any but the most parochial measure my life takes place far from any edge. I have not, for example, devoted myself to caring for a dying loved one or had to spend my days and nights protecting my children from violence or starvation. Living on the edge does not necessarily involve a euphoric flirtation with risk; it means extending oneself into uncharted territory, finding oneself in a hopeless situation and unceremoniously prevailingand helping others prevailwith dignity.
My father and mother, who never had a vacation while raising nine children and never climbed a mountain, kayaked or rode a bike in the Rockieswho worked as many jobs and as many hours as it took to make a decent life for their kidsknow what it means to be challenged beyond their limits. Testing my musculoskeletal and cardiovascular capacity against nature hardly compares with a lifetime spent putting others first, as my mother has done, or, in my father’s case, leaping into deadly waves at Omaha Beach on D-Day, barely avoiding drowning and, upon reaching shore, finding shelter from the barrage of gunfire behind and beneath the still-warm bodies of drowned and slaughtered friends.
What do I know of living or dying, let alone living on the edge? As I continue my reluctant and awkward dance with middle age, I begin to imagine what it must mean to have hard-won wisdom born of navigating one’s fears. Aspiring to wisdom entails testing oneself. What drives someone to take a risk, and how does one evaluate if it was worth it? Is it circumstances or character, nature or nurture, that guide or beguile us into believing that we are doing what we’re Meant to Do?
It is a luxury even to pose such questions, the kind we used to sit up all night discussing when we were 18 or 22. At that age, as Rainer Maria Rilke so aptly put it, we learn to love the questions themselves, for what is uncertain thrills us as young adults. Among my comrades, those were the days when danger, usually of the self-compromising variety, lurked behind every simple explanation and pat answer. We considered easy truths to be half-truths, and being too comfortable in life signaled the ultimate capitulation.
Left to its own devices, middle age will swallow up my spirit, wounding me with aches and disappointments and failures while offering no succor in the form of wisdom. So goes the logic of my fear. And so, a slave to adrenalin and endorphins, I wage a conscious and steadfast battle to make myself a little bit uncomfortable regularly: to leap across some void or other, to risk not everything but something. Because too much safety has a price, because I live in comfort, because risk and fear are part of what makes us human, I choose to live, however fleetingly, if not on the edge then on some edge. For life without edges is, well, smooth; and a smooth slope is a slippery one, indeed.