I climbed the “Knife Edge” of Torrey’s Peak, one of Colorado’s 58 “fourteeners,” or mountain peaks that exceed 14,000 feet. (That’s me, in the blue).
I didn’t realize how scared of heights I was until I moved to Colorado. And I never really got the chance to face them either.
On this climb, I felt the closest I’ve been to “death” in a long time. I felt the adrenaline dump from my limbs. I couldn’t control my breathing. And I wondered at multiple points whether I had the strength to go on. After about 5 hours, I finally summited.
These are some of the thoughts I had as we descended.These are some of the things I learned about fear.
1) The adage that “all we have to fear is fear itself” is in many (but not all) ways true.
I think fear exists as a signal that something can hurt or even kill us, and it must be listened to and respected. However, the MOST trouble I got into on this route was when I let fear itself take over my decision making.
Sure, I could have fallen off a cliff. I could have hit my head. I could have missed a step and tumbled down onto piles of rocks. Those things could very well have injured or killed me. But the thing that put me at MOST risk was letting fear control my breathing. This interfered with my ability to take an important step or reach for an important grip. It slowed down my reactions and lessoned my focus.
For these reasons, my uncontrolled, emotional reactions to the dangers, rather than the dangers themselves, put me at the greatest risk. The threat of the cliffs and the falls only got greater the more I let fear take control of me.
2) The more I focused on each step, one foot after the other, the better I performed.
When I started to imagine what the path would be like 100 feet from now, or 200 feet, or one mile up, the more overwhelmed I got. My heart would start pounding and my hands would start shaking thinking about what might come next.
Likewise, looking too far back had the same effect. When I looked too far behind me, at the ground thousands of feet below or the rocks a good fall away, I started to get overwhelmed. “How have I come so far? What if I fall? Look at all the things I have to lose.”
Sometimes, looking behind me or looking ahead of me furthered my purpose, but only if it was a little bit – only if what I was considering still had relevance. Focusing on the power I had in each moment – each step and each hand grip – kept me calm and kept me safe.
3) This was by far the best-feeling summit I have had, and that’s because of – not in spite of – the emotional strength it took to get there.
I have absolutely no doubt that the most valuable experiences of our lives come with the greatest risks. The best experiences of our lives open us, they challenge us, they make us question ourselves and question each other, and this inevitable “opening” of ourselves is the way the good stuff gets in.
They’re risky because, for a moment, we’re unsafe, we’re unsure, we’re vulnerable to getting hurt. However, at the same time that we’re open to getting hurt, we are also open to new experiences, to growth, to new connections, to nature, to each other, and maybe even to some greater power or ideal.
We can’t selectively choose what gets in. We just have to have faith that the good will outweigh the bad. And if it doesn’t, we have to have faith that we can persevere.
4) When we’re really, really scared and feeling the effects of this powerful emotion, sometimes the most valuable resource we can use is each other.
There is absolutely no way I would have gotten off that mountain without my two climbing partners, (or maybe I could have, but it would have taken much longer and put me in much more danger.) They showed me what patience and empathy look like. They showed me how important it is to ask for help when I need it, or to sometimes just feel the calming affect of a hug or someone’s hand.
They were my greatest resource. And even though it was ultimately my responsibility to get myself up that mountain, having them as support allowed me to do it in the best and quickest way possible. Their encouragement empowered me. And they helped keep me safe.
I’m not sure how close I really was to death that day.
It felt like every step I took was a risk. You can see from the picture above – one slip, one bad move, and I could have tumbled down either side of that mountain.
Whether I actually was in danger isn’t the point. I put myself in a situation where I was mentally, emotionally, and physically scared to the point of feeling completely vulnerable, exposed, and ultimately, triumphant.
My last pre-coronavirus memory was about a week before the lockdowns. It was a Saturday night, and I and a group of friends were eating at an Italian restaurant down the street from my new condo. I was excited because we had just moved a few weeks before, and I was finally getting to experience the culture and nightlife that my new neighborhood had to offer.
After eating dinner, we went to a nearby bar, gathered around a table, and ordered a round of drinks. My friend shouted, “Five Coronas please!” We all giggled a bit nervously. We really did want Coronas; we weren’t trying to be ironic.
A few minutes later, the waitress brought the beers, and my friend said quietly, “Wait, do you think we’re jinxing ourselves?”
We shrugged, each took a sip out of our beers, and grabbed a deck of cards.
Even though this novel disease was spreading across the globe, with Italy and most of China entirely shut down, I didn’t think much of it. I was nervous, yes. But from what I had heard, it mostly affected older people or people with pre-existing conditions. I hadn’t yet heard the argument to “flatten the curve.” I saw it as a fairly similar threat to the seasonal flu – a danger that was deeply tragic to those it affected, but not something that I had to worry about too much.
Maybe I was ignorant, but that was my honest experience.
Over the next week, I started to learn more about the severity of the situation, mostly from writers that highlighted the importance of not overwhelming healthcare systems. My friend sent me articles about “flattening the curve” and about the accelerating death rate. Within a week, my opinion had completely changed: this was a situation that everyone had to take seriously. This could really be bad if we didn’t.
Very quickly, I developed a conviction to social distance. I sent my friends and family news articles urging them to do the same. And I started paying much more attention to what I was touching, started washing my hands longer and with more intent, and I even pleaded with my boss to send a sick coworker home. Perhaps, at this point, I was more properly scared.
I was convinced that this was a particularly threatening situation, so I changed my behavior accordingly. I felt cautious, but connected. Nervous, but hopeful.
Then, the Mayor of Denver announced that bars and restaurants would close until the end of the month.
Now, I was really scared.
Perhaps it’s a product of my generally positive health, maybe it’s a result of my socioeconomic privilege, but when I heard that entire sections of the economy were going to be shut down, and then that everything (except essential businesses) was going to close, my gut fell out from under me.
What…? How…? What are we going to do?
For a brief side note, I think it’s important to share that not all of my economic experiences have been smooth or easy. As, I’m sure, are many of my readers, I am a child of the Great Recession. I was in high school when the economy completely tanked. I saw my dad, who had gotten laid off a few years before and finally found his footing as a realtor, lose almost his entire life savings, half of his salary (as housing prices crashed), and – what was probably the worst part to witness – most of his dignity.
More recently, in my last year of graduate school, I endured one of the most grueling experiences of my adult life: applying for jobs. I was searching for over seven months, facing rejection after rejection. Never one to have acne, the stress of rejection paired with fear for my future fueled the spread of large, cystic bumps across my forehead. Of course, this only made the job interviews more nerve-wrecking.
Countless nights I averaged about two hours of sleep, tossing and turning through the shame of what felt like the ultimate professional and personal failure. I wasn’t just scared of not being able to support myself. I felt useless and without purpose. Looking for jobs, and fearing that I wouldn’t get one, was by far one of the most stressful experiences of my life.
I tell this story because I think it’s important background for my next point. Or maybe it’s not. Either way,
I think it’s notable that what scared me the most about COVID-19 wasn’t the disease itself, it was its economic repercussions.
It’s been over a month that we’ve been in lockdown, and I’ve paid attention, mostly via popular news outlets, conversations with friends, and perusing social media, to how American society seems to be digesting and debating this catastrophe.
I think it’s fair to say that we still don’t know which is the greater threat. Some have argued that the “cure” might be worse than the disease. Others continue to argue that we just don’t know enough yet to justify lifting restrictions. Some even argue that a form of social distancing should last for years until we have a vaccine.
I don’t know yet whether my heightened fears for the economy are rational, but I do know thatone potential upside to the lockdowns is that, more than any other event in our lifetime, this proverbial “pause button” has put our society on hold so that we can grab our magnifying glasses (or telescopes) and take a look around.
We can observe the deep political, economic, and social flaws that this pandemic is unveiling, andwe can start to imagine better realities that we can realize as humanity moves forward.
For the past month, I’ve attempted to do just that. The following is a list of some of my observations, particularly as they relate to the economy, our political culture, and what I believe is the most pressing task before us.
1. Our country is extremely unequal and our communities lack even basic levels of economic resiliency.
Many of us, including those I expect to be reading this blog, are already sorely aware of the deep inequalities in our country. Yet, the pandemic has brought so many of these inequalities to the forefront. We’re learning that the virus itself has hit black and brown communities much harder than white communities.
We are also seeing how an economic collapse disproportionately affects these same communities, as well as service workers, retail workers, small farmers, and other groups that were already scraping by on meager incomes and minimal benefits before the pandemic hit.
Economic resiliency, which is defined as “the ability of a community to use its assets to withstand, adapt to, and recover from adversity,” is nearly absent in most of our communities. We are seeing swaths of small businesses go under from this one, swift blow to the system. And we are seeing our most fundamental institutions – non-profits, local governments, and universities – struggle to envision scenarios where they can survive without massive layoffs or reductions of services.
After only days of city- and state-wide lockdowns, I personally knew many people that were either laid off, took a pay cut, or worried about losing their small business. While some scientists are arguing that lockdowns or some form of social distancing could last for a year or more, the speed at which so many people were affected by these economic interruptions is notable.
Clearly we have an economy that is extremely insecure, unequal, and far from resilient to adversity. This tweet said it best:
2. Hyper-politicization of issues, especially crises, makes everything worse.
Most who know me know that I strongly identify as a liberal, I always vote Democrat, and I even went through an intense “social justice warrior” phase during my first master’s program where I eagerly and angrily argued with anyone in my path about women’s rights, people of color’s rights, LGBTQ rights – you name it. If there was an injustice that you didn’t yet know about, you were going to hear about it from me.
Now, about four years later, I’ve calmed down quite a bit. Not because I care less, but because I saw that infusing hyper-emotionalism with self-righteous anger might make us feel good in the moment, but it gets us nowhere in solving any of the problems we’re so passionate about.
When an issue becomes hyper-politicized, two things happen:
Emotions, especially emotions of fear, anger, or disgust, cloud our rational mind and blur our judgement;
We create and enforce an “us” versus “them” dichotomy that leaves little room for nuanced discussion or problem-solving.
In this crisis in particular, I’ve noticed this dichotomy emerge:
If you’re liberal, you care about protecting people’s health and lives. If you’reconservative, you care about the economy and protecting people’s livelihoods.
Most of us seem to be forgetting that our health is irrevocably connected to our livelihoods and that our livelihoods are intrinsically connected to our health. It’s not just the virus that disproportionately affects black, brown, low-income, and other subjugated communities. This economic fallout, like all economic downturns, will most certainly impact these communities more than the rest of us.
The most fundamental reason that hyper-politicization is problematic, especially during crises, is because it impedes creative problem-solving. “Us” vs. “them” morality doesn’t just send a “right” vs. “wrong” message. It takes it a step further to say that if you are “us,” you are a good person, if you are “them,” you are a bad person.
One of our most fundamental human drives is to belong to a group that’s bigger than ourselves. If venturing outside our moral group doesn’t just mean we disagree, it means we’re a bad person, many of us would prefer to stay in our moral enclaves of safety than venture out into the wilderness of free, individual thought.
In my opinion, one of the leaders that has most exemplified a desire to transcend political boundaries to propose nuanced solutions to the problems arising from COVID-19 is Dr. David Katz. His Coronavirus information page can be found here.
Dr. Katz, and many others, display courage and creativity during this trying time. Now, as a collective, it is our job to give space for more of these thinkers to emerge without digitally grabbing our pitchforks and chasing them to the gallows.
3. Pitting science (or health, or anything else) against the economy helps no one.
One of the most disturbing tendencies I have seen, in this crisis and in others, is the American tendency to pit science against the economy. In regards to coronavirus, we say “listen to the science,” as we beg people to stay home, shutter their businesses, or avoid going to work. In discussions about climate change, we repeat, “The science is irrefutable,” as we propose shutting down coal mines or banning fracking, both immensely harmful to the environment and also the sole source of income for thousands of Americans.
Two seemingly opposing forces can be true at the same time. A paradox, which is what we have here, is defined as
a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.
I propose this paradox to all of you:
We can care about both the strength of the economy and the health of our planet – and ourselves. Arguably, we must do this if we are to avoid future populist movements fueled by scientific denialism, nationalism, and fear-fueled anger.
4. We need to reimagine an economy that is equitable, resilient, and sustainable.
One consequence of the global lockdowns is the surprising speed with which the natural environment seems to be bouncing back from centuries of pollution, deforestation, and our relentless pursuit of fossil fuels. We’re seeing before our eyes how quickly a change of course can reap benefits in our fight against climate change.
Ironically, we’re seeing that humans are the greatest threat to ourselves.
As with all observations, the point isn’t what we see; the real question is, what are we going to do with this information? We already know that our current economic system is unequal, our communities are vastly ill-equipped to withstand adversity, and that untempered human activity will lead to our demise.
Still, it would be unjust, unwise, and unrealistic to demand an end to it all. Instead, we need to focus economic growth where it is most needed, both on a national and international scale, and we need to challenge the idea that wealth should always beget more wealth.
The goal of our global political economy should no longer be growth; it should be enough.
5. Whatever we do, we need to do it together.
I have umpteen memories of walking through my parents’ house in suburban Chicago, hearing Bill O’Reilly’s voice billowing through the halls – a slow, fiery anger burning in my chest. I was so angry that, not only was my dad watching Fox News, he subjected the entire house to it by blasting the volume on the T.V. in the room closest to the front door.
Even my escape route was blocked by Bill O’Reilly.
My dad passed away three and a half years ago. I remember some details of all the heated, political arguments we would have. No matter how many chain e-mails, YouTube videos, or memes he would send me, there was no way he was changing my mind – and there was no way I was changing his.
Clearly, the thing I miss and love most about my dad isn’t his political leanings or his social ethics. From my perspective, he lacked an understanding of how our political, social, and economic systems tie together. I also, regrettably, think that his diehard devotion to the meritocratic ideal led him to blame much of his own economic struggle on himself.
No, what I miss most about my dad is that he always, always encouraged me to speak my mind, to think independently, and to act on my convictions with passion…even if my thoughts and convictions were entirely the opposite of his.
This commitment to free thought, creativity, and action is what our society sorely needs. Without it, we can only repeat vapid political maxims, edge further away from each other, and criticize those making decisions without taking any responsibility for action ourselves.
I have a suggestion for all of us:
Let’s crawl out of our ideological bunkers, choose courage over fear, and start getting to work on creating an economy, and a future, that will sustain us all.
It was November, 2011, and I was sitting in the living room of my Paris apartment. The window was open, it was just past dusk, and I could hear the buzzing Vespas on the street two stories below. I was on Rue Vielle du Temple in Le Marais – Paris’s hip, LGBTQ neighborhood and old Jewish quarter.
I was finally where I had always wished I would be: living – studying abroad – in Paris. I was twenty years old, so officially an adult (by most standards). I was attending Sciences Po, a fairly prestigious university located in the Latin Quarter. I lived in a spacious (by Parisian standards) apartment with my best friend. I was healthy and had good grades and a stable family.
Yet here I was, sitting on the edge of an old fold-out futon, googling,
“Am I depressed?”
I had dreamed of living in Paris since I was 15 – since I met a group of exchange students on the top of the Sears Tower during a visit in high school. After that, I ate, breathed, and dreamed Paris. Almost daily, I would conjure detailed experiences of my imaginary life as a twenty-something living, studying, or working in Paris. The city represented so much of what I valued (and, to a large extent, still do): culture, art, beauty, pleasure.
But most of all, from ages 15-20, Paris represented an escape.
In high school, dreaming about my future life in Paris kept me going when I felt alone, disconnected, or angry. It kept me going when I felt abandoned by my older brother and sister who, when they left for college, left me at home with my unhappily married parents. And it got me through what felt like the worst experience of my life until that point: feeling betrayed by my best friend and walking into the high school cafeteria, alone, unsure of where to sit or where I belonged.
Paris was my light at the end of the tunnel. My future life in Paris, which I imagined would become a reality when I would finally get the chance to study abroad there in college, was almost my sole motivating force in high school.When I got to college, I made some friends, got my first serious boyfriend, and joined extracurriculars. But even though those first two years of college were some of the best of my life – I spent most of my mental energy envisioning my life somewhere else.
Paris was the haven I had created in my head to escape all the things I didn’t want to face in reality. So it might not surprise you to hear that getting there and feeling depressed sparked in me a sort of existential crisis.
I wondered – if this habit, this belief that had guided my behavior for so long, had led me so astray, what other beliefs were unproductive or even harmful to my or others’ wellbeing?
The moral of the story is this:
Getting to a place that I had always dreamed of – reaching a goal that had always driven me – and feeling miserable, led me to embark on a journey to explore a few, very important questions:
What values and beliefs were guiding my behavior?
How many of these beliefs were misguided, or worse, harmful?
What habits had I formed as a result of my beliefs?
How could I cultivate new beliefs, values, and principles to make better, more intelligent decisions?
Could these different decisions lead to a better, healthier, happier, more meaningful, and more fulfilling life?
I think it’s clear by the existence of this blog that I did, indeed, discover that many of my beliefs, values, and actions were causing me (and those around me) pain. I also, thankfully, worked very hard to cultivate new beliefs and values that led to new, and better, behaviors.
I was twenty years old when I was sitting in that Paris apartment googling, “Am I depressed?” Now, I’m 29 with two master’s degrees, a fiance, a cat and a dog, a condo in Denver, and a full-time job which, among other things, gives me an opportunity to try to “make the world a better place.”
For the past nine years, I’ve studied philosophy, politics, culture, and psychology and I’ve expanded my knowledge of the world’s problems and the pain and suffering that they cause. I’ve also dedicated a significant portion of my emotional energy to reflecting on my own beliefs and behaviors to try to decipher which ones are productive and giving me the life that I want and which ones are harmful or leading me astray.
While it might sound obvious, the following realization has been key to my personal growth and healing for the past decade:
What we believe influences our behavior, and our behaviors are the building blocks of our lives.
After my experience in Paris, I began a search that started with amateur academic research, then led to graduate school, then at last brought me here. During my graduate studies, I learned something important: when we start talking about beliefs, and the practical consequences of beliefs, one field tends to dominate the discussion.
Philosophical pragmatism became my intellectual home in graduate school and, even though I now have a “professional” job, it still guides my intellectual and moral life. This is because, unlike a lot of fields of philosophy, pragmatism doesn’t give us immutable moral, political, or social answers. Instead, it gives us a theoretical framework for crafting answers to these problems ourselves.
Many of us, when we hear the world “philosophy,” think about an old (probably white) dead guy who wrote something very intelligent a long time ago. But philosophy is about so much more than the books we read in school. In particular, philosophical pragmatism – a branch of philosophy formed by thinkers such as John Dewey, Jane Addams, and William James – helps us clarify our thinking about problems as little as “What should I eat for lunch today?” to problems as big as “Who should I vote for?” or “Should I believe in God?”
While we can examine all of our beliefs for their practical consequences, this blog will focus on exploring our most fundamental beliefs, the underlying assumptions upon which all of our other beliefs lie. It will also look at our respective cultures’ dominant beliefs. Our lives take shape around our individual fundamental beliefs as well as the fundamental beliefs embedded in the social, political, and historical context in which we find ourselves. (The realities of our lives, after all, are shaped by so much more than our individual choices).
Thus, this blog is both an individual and a collective project. We will reflect on our own beliefs and behaviors as individuals. And we will also reflect on our society as members of a particular culture, within a particular moment, in a particular time.
Nobody knows better than me that unfettered personal reflection or excessive outward analysis can quickly lead to neurosis rather than enlightenment. Though, like most valuable things that can both hurt us and make us stronger, critical reflection on ourselves and our world is imperative if we are to create the lives, and the world, that we wish to live in and pass on to the next.
I created this blog, guided by a philosophically-pragmatic ethos, to give those of us who need or want it a space to explore these big questions. Above all, this blog is an online community meant to give readers and writers a personal yet collaborative space to explore the answers to the following questions:
What is true?
What is good?
What is valuable?
Answers we come up with here are not meant to be fixed, rigid, or perfect. In fact, this space isn’t meant to give us answers at all. Mostly, it’s meant to help us cultivate and define our values. And
our ability to choose what we value gives us power, and only through individual and collective power comes change.
Importantly, this blog is predicated on the belief that organic, emotional experience is where many of us begin our most valuable journeys of personal and cultural reflection.
After all, it was a failed journey to the City of Light that led me to ask big questions about the nature of my own darkness.
This blog will include posts of short essays that have two parts: the first part will include a personal recount of an experience where the author was prompted to explore a topic related to one of the “Big 3” questions: What is good? What is true? What is valuable? Just as this entry began with my story of Paris, it is my hope that other writers can share their stories as emotional pathways to their intellectual explorations. Emotions may not always be rational, but they can serve as catalysts for rational thought cultivated through critical reflection.
The second part of each entry will explore a topic related to the “Big 3” but can touch on a variety of topics related to philosophy, politics, culture, and psychology. The only requirement is that the topic explored is related to the project of humanity.
Finally, it is my hope that these posts share a creative ethos, rather than a deductive one. This means that their general attitude assumes that humans have the ability to grow, change, or develop in order to become better – in whatever way we define “better.” After all, this blog is called “Creating the Good Life,” not “Finding the Good Life,” and that’s an important distinction.
Essays here will worry less about what is definitively true and more on what is good and how we can bring the true closer to the good. (Check out John Dewey’s Reconstruction in Philosophy if you want to learn more about this.)
This blog will feature my own writing and, hopefully, essays submitted by others.
Like any writer sharing her story for the first time, or any blogger trying to create something she deems valuable, I hope these ideas connect with others and that my readers want to contribute and share. Yet, even if they don’t, I feel comforted knowing this:
This is a space to explore, question, create, and solidify the beliefs, principles, and values that guide my behavior. Even if it only reaches my own computer screen, I will be shaped for the better.
Now, if you’re up for it, let’s start exploring exactly what I mean by “better.”