STANDING NAKED AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD
1924: Noel Odell watched the two men through his scope as they continued to climb higher into the “Death Zone”, that elevation above 8,000 meters (26,247 ft.). They were the first to ever make it this high and he estimated they were about 800 vertical feet from being the first to climb the world’s highest peak, Mt Everest. A cloud crept in and Odell lost sight of the climbers. George Mallory and Sandy Irvine would not be seen again until their bodies were discovered in 1999.
It was the early days of Himalayan mountaineering when attempting such peaks pretty much meant death. The natural question is then, Why then do it? A reporter asked George Mallory that very question to which Mallory gave his famous answer, “Because it is there.” Here is the full quote and it is astounding:
You ask, “What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?” and my answer must at once be, “It is no use”. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. 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 enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for. “So why climb Everest?” you ask.
Because it is there.
(Check out this short video of the 1924 British Everest Expedition)
Raw, honest, and refreshingly unapologetic, Mallory’s answer pierces through the layers of reasons and excuses we all build to protect ourselves from scrutiny. He could have taken the safe way out and lied. He could have spun any kind of reason to prevent people from thinking he was nuts. It’s what we do. He could have said, “It is for scientific reasons.” They did find some fossils up there. Or, “I’ve been hired by General Charles Bruce on behalf of the Royal Geographic Society to explore the world’s highest peak.” With the North and South poles each reached, there was a race to claim “the third pole” which was the world’s highest peak. Mallory, being British, could have easily replied, “For Queen and country,” and that would have been beautifully acceptable to everyone. No, George Mallory exposes his true self for everyone to see. He will go naked to the top of the world. It is awesome.
Mallory put up no facade about why he was attempting the third pole. He laid himself bare. He did not make up an external reason for his passion placing an insulating layer between himself and his critics. Mallory gave zero shits about what people thought and stayed true to himself. And in this day when it’s all about creating “Likes” through social media (personal advertising), Mallory’s response is as refreshing as it is liberating. Imagine a world where you don’t have to pretend or make excuses – a world where you are dead to the fear of people accepting or rejecting you based upon the image you can fabricate. You are happy because you are genuinely living, or maybe living genuinely.
Hold that thought.
2016: I was in a hospital waiting room with my son, Larry. It was a small room with outdated fixtures and decorations. Hey, the 1980’s just called they want their kitten hanging by a tree limb poster back. The only other people were a couple sitting across from us. The room was disappointing and my restless attention needed sport. I settled on the man and starting doing what I have been conditioned to do. I judged him based upon his appearance.
Unkept, unwashed, heavy-set, his navy blue sweat suit synced with the room’s theme. His thick, over sized glasses rounded out the package and gave him the look of Milton from Office Space. All of this should have given me that transitory rush of feeling good about myself, but it was lost on me because of what the man was doing in his lap. It was disturbing. With hands busy, his unwitting wife next to him quietly thumbing through a magazine, out in the public for anyone to see, right in front of my son and I which was awkward, “Milton” was unapologetically and quite unashamedly … knitting … and I soon loved him for it.
You see, men don’t knit. Or at least if you do, keep it to yourselves. We won’t ask and you don’t tell. What was the matter with this guy? Was he simple? My heart broke for him because he didn’t know any better than to knit out in public where people could see. And where was his wife in all this? Again based upon her appearance, she looked like she had it together. Did she really want the world to think she married a cupcake?
But these thoughts were quickly pushed aside by the stronger notion that a man has a pair of big balls of yarn to knit in public. The rusted machinery of my worldview began to lurch and grind into action as it changed position. My neural pathways connected “Milton” with George Mallory. “Milton” wasn’t going to climb Everest “because it is there,” but he can knit “because it is there” and like Mallory he didn’t give a stitch about what I or anyone thought. He wasn’t knitting to impress me. He was knitting because it meant something to him. This is cool.
The room was quiet except for the rhythmic clack of his jousting needles. Now I felt bad for how I had mentally filleted “Milton”. This I know – I can be a real jerk. I try to hide it. The sounds of silence in the small waiting room only provoked my shame so I filled it with words to take off the edge. Keeping my eyes on “Milton”, because I couldn’t not look at him, I began telling Larry about recently finishing Stephen King’s It and how disappointed I was in (ahem) it. It was a twelve-hundred page monstrosity that could have been told in under five-hundred pages. Bushwhacking through the ponderous back story was like slogging through chest-deep pasta. I just wanted to get it over with.
Hearing my comments, “Milton” looked up and caught me looking at him. Assuming I was including him, he responded. What followed was a clever commentary on It. He had read It too. He agreed with me and then went on to deconstruct a couple other of King’s books. My mouth had gotten me into a conversation over my head. As a defense, I didn’t respond and let “Milton” talk himself out. The conversation withered and fluttered to the floor.
1943: Psychologist Abraham Maslow posited a hierarchy of needs. It is easily understood in the graphic form of a pyramid. The idea is that once a lower need is met, a person is then provoked for the next need hence a hierarchy. Once your physiological needs are met, you start wanting safety (emotional as well as physical). Once you feel safe, you can move on to relationship (so if you’re having trouble with someone, maybe they don’t feel safe, or you don’t). And so on.
2016: People hang out in the middle of Maslow’s pyramid. The Life Force of social media is the need for Love/Belonging with a few forays into Esteem. The problem is striving for the reward without first filling the need. It leaves us wanting. Something is still empty and we’re not sure why because we just had a reward. So we repeat never going higher. Self-actualization gets shoved into the closet until it becomes a ghoulish skeleton that haunts us later on. We’ve confused achievement (getting more and looking better) with being true to ourselves (owning who we are and plugging into the bigger scheme of things).
This is why Mallory’s statement is so inspiring to me. It speaks to the highest need of realizing who I really am. It is a signpost pointing to the answer of the “Why am I here?” question. This is also why “Milton” is such a hero to me. He shirks convention and cultural context in pursuit of knitting – something that means a lot to him for reasons that are none of my business. When you are true to yourself, that’s when contentment and fulfillment happen. You feel good about yourself.
Pleasure is life’s signal that you’re doing something right. A need filled. Somewhere deep inside, we all know that pleasure alone is not the goal. Pleasure is the flag that gets raised once you’ve achieved the summit. Pursuing pleasure for pleasure’s sake alone is a slippery slope of 200 mph gut-crunching avalanche. Life goes all to hell. Skipping over the need and going straight to pleasure never works..
You’ve got your Everest. I’ve got mine. You’ve got your knitting basket. I’ve got my own. It’s not the activity itself, but what is behind it. The private person behind the public image. It’s about moving on from the “Likes” of your public image to living naked and unafraid at the top of your world. Would we really do all the stuff we do if we couldn’t post it on Facebook? Hopefully at least stop taking gape-mouthed selfies.
1953: 29 years after Mallory was lost, Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay are the first to summit Mt. Everest. Hillary comments on their achievement.
“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
Present: You and I will never stand on the world’s highest peak, but we still have our Everest. What if our Everest were things like being in the present moment, putting others ahead of ourselves, doing nice things secretly, and showing ourselves love and compassion? What if these are the things we do because of who we are and not because of the recognition it will bring? We all know from experience that it is in these moments that we are the most happy. And if people would stop stressing us, it would be easier to spend more time there. Maybe “Because it is there” really means “Because I am here.”
And then what? The hierarchy of needs doesn’t stop just because you’re at the top of a paper pyramid. The needs and yearning continue. This is where we richly and more fully engage the things bigger than ourselves. Each of us was created, however you believe it came about, and the more you engage any work of art (being true to yourself) the more you experience the Creator. Maybe that’s why mountains are called the arenas of the gods. Whether its climbing, knitting, blogging, or something like leaving dollar bills on the sidewalk now and then, we all have our Everest calling.
If you haven’t already done so, you would be doing me a huge favor by taking a moment to sign up for my emails. I promise you there won’t be many.
Thanks for being so awesome.
Post Script: George Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999. He had fallen a couple thousand feet. The question is whether or not he summitted Mt Everest before his accident. Among the personal effects found on and around his body, one item was conspicuously missing – a picture of his wife Ruth. George had taken the picture with him to leave at the top of Everest.