Writing blogs about books, as I told a friend in our weekly conversation a few days ago, provides a ‘borrowed structure.’ Borrowed, that is, from the property of the author. Allowing me to follow their path and put my opinion right at the end. I know, its sort of cheating, isn’t it? But it’ll get the mind working, and sometimes even produce something half-decent.
The book I’m reading currently is Facing Up, by Bear Grylls, the host of Man Vs. Wild. He wrote this on his Mount Everest summit attempt. I use the word ‘attempt’ because I’m not done with the book, and the point where I’m at, as I write this, he is still at Base Camp. Hence, my usage of the term ‘summit’ even if the back cover suggests otherwise. Quite stubbornly, I’m sticking with the adage, ‘I’ll believe it when I read it.’
Reading about his journey so far has made me question the nature of our everyday life, and whether we encounter any real struggle, if at all. In comparison to an Everest attempt, our struggle is nothing. You can use the modern-day justification of ‘what’s difficult to you may not be difficult for everyone else,’ but soft lines like these don’t work when talking about scaling the tallest mountain in the world, nor should it. There’s very little physical struggle comparable to summiting Everest. The life of a ‘someone’ with such ambitions, is tough, in the harshest sense of the word.
Bear during his Everest attempt was 23, the same age I am as I write this. In that time he has reached Everest Base Camp and higher [I won’t give it away that easy], spent three months in altitudes about 15,000 feet and is attempting to summit Everest, all after he quit the British Army, during which he suffered a back injury that nearly derailed everything he’s doing in the book and everything he’s known for now. My question is, as I read the book is what ignited the primal spirit in a 23-year old that made him want to say, [if he does end up summiting Everest] — ‘Right, now that I’m done climbing the highest mountain in the world, I’m going to spend the next few decades showing people how to survive in the wild, drink their own urine, and eat everything that moves.’ To me, sitting in a comfortable chair, typing into a laptop [as opposed to Bear’s typewriter, the man is authentic], it seems a world away.
How can this stark change take place? Yes, he did grow up on farmland. Yes, he did surround himself with nature and animals all his life. Yes, he endured brutal physical training, both as part of the army and while training for Everest. But even for most people, once they get exposed to comfort and convenience, they go soft. And from then on, many do not go back. How did he take this pain and suffering, and not only allow it to mold him but make a career out of it?
Throughout the journey, and I didn’t think this was possible, I ended up liking Bear Grylls even more. Not because of his journey from injury to the top of the world, but because of his natural and humble demeanor throughout. Such a well known ‘survivor’ attempting to scale the highest mountain in the world, could use posterity as a signaling tool to indicate something along the lines of ‘I realized, on top of the world, that nature was my true calling, and I decided to listen to it.’ That could very easily and believably set the undertone for his stint as the host for Man Versus Wild. Yet he does so little to envigorate that feeling, even chides away from it.
Bear does not let immaturity get the better of him, remains courteous towards his fellow base-camp-mates, always prays before a climb, is very open and honest in his diary [sections of which he includes in the book] and rings home to check on his farm animals, more so than his family. When he encounters the gargantuan power of nature, in the form of a crevasse or ice fall, he does not allow young-arrogance to get the better of him, but traversers it with the respect and reverence far beyond that of a 23-year old. It is only fitting that Bear pens these words as his best-friend Mick is helped back to camp after an unsuccessful and almost fatal summit attempt,
“I felt shocked at how resilient these vast mountains were, and I felt humbled at how little all these efforts had come to. I don’t think that I had ever realized just how truly hostile these mountains can be.”
One mountain amid the most difficult test of nature has captivated thousands who spend their life-savings or spend months hunting for sponsors and train for years to scale its peak, many times unsuccessfully. Yet they return again and again. Why? For so long I never understood it, why endure so much? Because its stories like these that not only depict human suffering, but also human potential.
There is something about this life, even as I sit here in a comfortable room, that intrigues me. Us, as readers should ask ourselves, can I bring a little bit of voluntary discomfort into my life every day, just so that I can adapt and become stronger? Maybe not physically, but mentally. Even within the confines of my own home, how can I slowly ensure that I am becoming, in the most basic sense of the word, ‘resilient’?
Bear’s journey is really something. I’m not talking about the journey from his home in the United Kingdom to the geographical top of the world, I’m talking about everything after. To become the definition of, at least in the way we television viewers know it, ‘survivor.’ While some may disagree with that, his show, quite realistically, and quite humbly shows, maybe not survival, but pure discomfort. It doesn’t look enjoyable in any way. Why would you do that? If you love the great outdoors so much, why not work in a sanctuary? Or rescue animals? Become a wildlife expert? Something sane and safe? Why jump off airplanes to go into the wild, in order to find your way home?
Similar questions can be asked about the very essence of the book, or about any book that tracks a journey to Everest, or anything else that we as comfort-seeking human beings have chided as ‘for the insane.’ Ultramarathons, extreme-triathlons, free-solo climbing, open-water swimming, build human resilience and spirit, one which modern society cannot provide. You can’t get this ‘suffering’ sitting in a carpeted and air-conditioned office, with coffee in a motivational cup in your hand, nor can you get it in the aesthetic-seeking photogenic mirror of a gym.
The more I read, and reflected, the more I realized that there is some voluntary suffering that is required in life. Means by which we escape the comfort and convenience of our soft lives means by which we can understand what real struggle is, means by which we can realize human potential, in a way we, as inhabitants of modern-smart-cities never have before. Many people who go so deep into this tryst with suffering, like Chris McCandless in Into The Wild, can never re-acclimatize to modern living, and eventually, drift into what they hope to find in nature. Some never get it.
Regardless of where you find your calling, reading about stories and people who have endured brutal hardships to find their true calling, whether its a mountain, a finish line, or a starting point, I can tell you this — the struggle is not inescapable, the struggle is not just essential, the struggle is service to yourself.
Edit: I have just finished this book, Bear indeed reached the summit, much to the resolve of his struggle, and to the truth on the back cover of the book. Looking back at the disparity between his achievement, and the despair of those who have lost loved ones and parts of themselves to nature, he concludes,
“Without any doubt, though, the draw of the mountains is their simplicity. That fierce force of nature, where the wind hows around you and you struggle for breath and life itself; it is strangely irresistible to man.”