Alternative Title: The Parable of the Crimp
If you watch really proficient rock climbers, you’ll see they can hold themselves up, dozens of feet above the ground, with just the tips of their fingers on the tiniest ledge of rock, about the width of a pencil, called a crimp (example image above). If I had not seen it, I would have said it was impossible. When I tried to do it myself, I became convinced that it’s impossible. The feeling! The aching in your fingers, and the awkwardness of the angle tearing at your finger-bones is unbearable. (When I go climbing, I have to hang on to massive, handle-shaped-handles called Jugs which are literally the easiest of the options.)
I think the crimp holds a few valuable lessons. The first is just how tough people can be with the right experience and training. People can do pretty incredible things, things that look impossible if you haven’t seen it, and things that feel impossible if you try them. And the truly weird thing is that you too can do things which look and feel impossible. Let me repeat that for emphasis; there are things which right now look impossible to you, which when you try them will feel impossible, which you can someday, with the right experience and training, accomplish routinely.
The second is about humility; just because people can do some things which look and feel impossible, doesn’t mean that people can do all things that look and feel impossible. No matter how much experience and training they get, no rock climber can defeat a flat, vertical wall. To use a phrase my father is quite fond of, “that dog just don’t hunt.” You can waste a lot of time trying to learn to climb flat walls, I know I have. Please do better than me. Furthermore, just because I know that it is possible for someone to hang on to a crimp, just because I know that I too can eventually do it, doesn’t automatically mean that I can do it right now. No amount of focusing or analyzing or meditating on the Sequences is gonna change those facts; some problems are training and experience shaped, and the shortest path is the one without fake shortcuts. In these situations, patience is a useful and underrated skill.
In one of his recent films, as Sherlock Holmes is coming down from a drug and stress induced vision quest, his brother tells him that, for Sherlock, “solitary confinement is locking you up with your worst enemy.” In that moment, I related a lot with Sherlock (sans the drugs, #straight-edge punk). I have experienced a lot of depression, anxiety and insecurity over the years. I have self-sabotaged more times than I can count. I have made more dumb mistakes than I think I will ever be comfortable admitting. I have disappointed people’s expectations of me, and almost always I had only myself to blame. I have had all kinds of feelings towards myself, but “my own worst enemy” is certainly in there. I have been incredibly hard on myself, and I’ve been a very difficult person for me to live with. Part of my mind says that it’s this hardness that has been critical to me accomplishing what I have. Like an overbearing parent, “I’m hard on you because I believe in you” is the story I told myself. I think that the truth is somewhere in between, somewhere subtly different but far better than all this, but that is to be addressed in a different post.
It has often seemed impossible to learn to manage myself. It has often seemed impossible to be better. When I tried, it often felt impossible. And many times, just reading the right thing didn’t help. Just knowing, intellectually, that it was possible didn’t help. Lots of concrete plans and attempts didn't help. But other things did. Training and experience helped, and now I can do things routinely which once felt impossible. It took patience and strategy and a fair amount of panic, but it got better. I didn't feel like it would, but it did.
I don’t mean to collapse this metaphor to only “mental health”. That’s just the most emotionally vivid aspect of my experience with it - and I don’t really know how to separate my feelings from my mind from my decisions from the world I live in. They’re all entangled in strange causal webs, and to talk about one in sufficient detail demands I talk about the others. But the metaphor applies to lots of things. Until we have fulfilled our heroic responsibility, I imagine there will be things we must face which look impossible, and which feel impossible. Maybe they will be impossible, but maybe they won’t be. Either way, we’ll be needing both hope and humility in great abundance. I only wish that this story provides you with a little of each, from one internet weirdo to another.