Homage to Caledonia

by I.A. Isherwood

‘What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.’

Mountaineer, soldier, and schoolteacher George Mallory knew something about the power of adventure. For a man who risked and eventually gave all to follow his passion, there is something both wise and unsettling about the notion of joy being the end of life. He was a man who died brutally on the side of a mountain, but one who was pursuing adventure, and with it we must assume, pursuing joy even at such a terrible cost. That is, after all, why he climbed.

Another member of the Great War generation, C.S. Lewis, had a different opinion on what joy was. His memoir, Surprised by Joy, ruminates on the notion of joy itself, an elusive feeling but one unmistakable to those who have felt it. Lewis gave a vivid definition to one of his fans: ‘Real joy seems to me almost as unlike security or prosperity as it is unlike agony. It jumps under one’s ribs and tickles down one’s back and makes one forget meals and keeps one (delightedly) sleepless o’ nights.’ Joy is the unquestionable feeling that you’re a real human being, one with a soul.

Mallory, the tweedy adventurer, and Lewis, the tweedy professor, both had enviable conceptions of life’s purpose that seems particularly relevant for those of us who spend most of our lives soullessly in front of a computer screen.

Recently, I was a part of an expedition to Scotland through the GRAB program at Gettysburg College. The expedition was to hike a portion of the West Highland Way: to camp, cook, do some minor climbing, and soak in Scottish culture and history. I went with 12 comrades, mostly, (very) recent graduates of the college. We were in the not-so-backcountry for eight nights, camping near historic inns and pubs, in the midst of unbelievable highland scenery.

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The author trying to be something of a woodsman.

For those of you who have read this blog, you know that I have been struggling with my own dependence on technology. In short, I feel that the way I live my life is too dependent upon artificial means of communication. I spend too much time in front of a screen when I would be much better served using that time actually practicing the two foundations of my vocation: reading and real-life communication.

The first thing that the trip confirmed to me was the bliss of disconnection. I didn’t miss twitter and I didn’t miss facebook. I felt absolutely no guilt for not being able to check my email.

Instead, on the trail, I talked to real human beings, ones with interesting pasts and a shared present. People with dreams and a whole lifetime ahead of themselves. When you slog through fourteen miles with people in the cold rain, you learn something about character, and something about our capacities for resilience. Watching the group learn to cope with discomfort, make subtle but important concessions for our collective happiness (in the midst of collective unhappiness), made me realize the real value in these kinds of trips. They force you to interact with people in authentic ways, face to face. There is a beautiful anarchism in this simplicity.

There was another lesson, I think, in the week, one that is more personal but worth discussing. Academia is hard on the soul. The field attracts high achievers who often become workaholics because of the pressures of publication and promotion. It is not unlike other high-pressure fields, but our profession differs, I think, in that it breeds an unusually high degree of cynicism: about the job market, about the quality of life, about pay and benefits, etc.

When you are walking up a steep, scrambly hill, with a thirty-five pound pack on, sweating through your layers, and adjusting your hood to prevent rain from soaking you further, you focus on what’s actually important. Breathing in and out. Taking one more careful step. Not falling. Not overdoing it. Just putting one foot in front of the other, one switchback at a time, until you reach the top. Then, confronted with the majesty of the world’s beauty from the summit, your body alive with adrenaline, you take a sip of water, a deep breath and soak in what you’ve just been through before moving onwards towards a foreign horizon that’s alive with the adventure of unpredictability.

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At that moment the pettiness of our daily bureaucratic lives vanishes. It does so because all of that stuff doesn’t really matter – not at that moment certainly – possibly not at all. All that matters is the connection with the world around, the real world, the one of dirt and sweat and thirst and the exhilarating feeling of catching one’s breadth.

What I found on this adventure was joy.

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