Take your wild and precious life seriously
From Mary Oliver to Thoreau, Western writers have urged attitudes that ignite the soul—but is it a recipe for suffering?
In the opening scene of the new trailer for Nyad, Annette Bening, reads the last two, famous lines from the Mary Oliver poem, The Summer Day, aloud to her partner while standing in the kitchen:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Bening then delivers an impassioned, desperate, longing plea: “Don’t you want to be fully awake—your soul ignited by a purpose?!”
Her best friend, played by Jodie Foster, rolls her eyes: “Oh god, not that again.”
“I’m serious,” Bening retorts. Completely, totally serious.
I had to laugh out loud when I first watched it because I am that Annette Benning character. And every partner, friend, and family member of mine has at one point been the Jodie Foster character, watching me go off again about my eternal struggle for meaning and purpose, and at times rolling their eyes about it.
I’m usually not quoting Mary Oliver, but I probably am spouting Thoreau (“suck out all the marrow of life”) or Dylan Thomas (“Do not go gentle into that good night”), or, most often, my perennial favorite, Hunter S. Thompson:
Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN— and here is the essence of all I’ve said— you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.
Or, maybe I’m even quoting my old friend and creative partner, Rob Raffety, who once wrote to me that we only have one spin on this rock so we damn well better make the most of it.
Rob got it. Thompson got it. Annete Bening gets it. But it can often be hard for partners, friends, and those who are close to us to put up with this kind of constant existential struggle.
Later in the trailer for Nyad, the Jodie Foster character accuses Annette Bening of a certain selfishness (“This isn’t about you, ok, this is about me for once!”), and indeed I’ve often felt that my striving for meaning and purpose is kind of inherently self-centered. And it’s only made worse by the fact that my chosen pursuits are not in the curing cancer or going to the moon category, but more of the renovating an old Spanish home or climbing a piece of rock variety.
I am, at my most self-centered and romantically inclined, not too dissimilar from Thoreau sequestering himself at Walden Pond for no good reason other than to see if, with enough uninterrupted alone time, writing, and reflection, he might just figure out how one should go through life.
I once heard an interview with Alex Honold, of Free Solo fame, in which he was questioned on whether climbing is an inherently selfish pursuit. And he said yes, of course, it is. So why do it? He answered that he considered himself to be essentially like the explorers of old, trying to push the bounds of what humans can do and where they can go.
In that sense, Honold feels he is following a long tradition of humans trying to push boundaries, whether it was trying to discover new lands, cross Antarctica, explore sea depths, or climb Everest.
The spouses, kids, friends, and partners of those who embark on these kinds of pursuits put up with a lot. Free Solo was often more about the emotional rollercoaster of Sanni McCandless, Honold’s girlfriend at the time (now wife) than it was about Honold’s own internal, existential struggles.
That’s because McCandless is a relatable person trying to date a cute rock climber and instill some kind of normalcy into the relationship, while Honold is a harder character to grasp. He has other ideas that are more important to him than normality, even if they don’t make much sense to the people around him.
Of course, I’m no Alex Honold. I’ve always related more to his long-time friend and climbing partner, Tommy Caldwell. Unlike the odd character study of Free Solo, Caldwell’s journey in The Dawn Wall made a lot more sense to me. It’s the story of a physically, mentally, and emotionally injured person who throws himself at a project so big and hard it just might distract him from life’s inherent pain. And though Caldwell has faced challenges I can’t begin to dream of, I think I at least understand his general mindset.
For Annette Bening, who plays real-life long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad (who aimed, in her 60s, to be the first person to swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys), the big goal appears to be motivated, at least in the trailer’s telling, by a desire to have her soul ignited—the opposite of what Thoreau referred to as “quiet desperation.”
The Nyad character is a familiar stereotype in these kinds of stories: a romantic figure, singularly driven to do big and adventurous things with their life.
I feel that sometimes. But other times, I feel that my striving for meaning and purpose isn’t anything out of the ordinary, but just a completely natural reaction to the obvious existential absurdities of life. I simply don’t understand how everyone else isn’t thinking about this stuff all the time—and that it’s everyone else who is being unreasonable, not me.
I like this quotation from George Bernard Shaw, which you’ve probably seen before:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
I think that’s probably true.
Also, probably 95% of my life has been spent adapting myself to the world. It’s only in that other 5% that I feel perhaps I’ve managed to contribute something of lasting impact or use. The 95% is pretty boring. The 5% gets me excited. It’s where I’ve persisted in being unreasonable or unpopular that most of the good stuff happens.
What I struggle with is how to balance the pursuit of these big goals that ignite the soul with humility and acceptance that I’m mostly going to fail. This way of reaching for the stars that is espoused by so many admittedly Western thinkers is in fact, if you look at the Buddhist tradition, a recipe for continual suffering.
Now, I’ve meditated enough to understand that the self is an illusion (yada yada yada), but that cognitive insight somehow hasn’t translated into a willingness to relinquish the kinds of passions that have driven explorers, romantics, and writers since time immemorial—all the humans who I’ve followed and been inspired by in my life.
Still, as I’ve gotten older and, I hope, a little wiser, I’ve focused less on big, giant goals and more on equanimity. In practical terms, this means I’ve worked to find what Hunter S. Thompson called the Ninth Path, i.e., finding a way of life that works for me, and less on “the big rock candy mountain.”
Perhaps this is what makes rock climbing such a precious pursuit for me: it accommodates endless goals, but in order to do those hard climbs, you must train equanimity and mindfulness. Climbing focuses one on their breath in nearly the same way that meditation does—and, in my humble opinion—illuminates many of the same cognitive insights.
Climbing can be a way of life in the sense of Thompson and also unreasonable in the sense of George Bernard Shaw. And all I have to do is gaze at a photo of the Cerro Torre in Patagonia to feel my soul ignited.
It’s the same feeling I had when I looked up at the route that would become my first 5.12 in New Hampshire, or the way I felt preparing to climb the Needle, a multi-pitch spire in the Sandia Mountains outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. And it’s the same way I feel as the sun sets against the Cathedral-like burnt orange and streaked limestone cliffs of Siurana here in Spain.
Whatever the equivalent is for you, I urge you to take that feeling seriously. It is only one wild and precious life, after all, and it seems to go by quite fast, in the end.