I’ve been struggling to articulate my thoughts on the next concept following the Wards of Sadness. It revolves around having an aim in life and how my aim of climbing changed mine. So to fill the space whilst i’m chewing on that I thought Id try something different and recount one of my past adventures. Something I would like to begin doing for future adventures as well.
Once upon an Easter in 2017, a group of four of us embarked on a four day hike around the Giants Castle in the Drakensberg. A stunning feast of pure awe awaited us.
This was roughly our route.
The Giants Castle is a section of rock that juts out from the more distinct line of the escarpment forming a small peak on a spine whose tail is a prominent feature in the valleys below. The area to the north of this point forms a bowl of large cliffs and converging valleys. The aim of this hike was to summit the giants castle point and the hike back along the edge of the escarment over a large ridge called Mt Durnford and come down Langalibalele Pass. It would give us views of the point and of the bowl of valleys below from two different sides.
We camped in a campsite close to the hotel from which we would start our first day. We were all quite fit and covered the hilly sections of the lower escarpment quickly.
It’s in these early slopes below the towering edges of the plateau where the Drakensberg really starts to come alive. The rolling green grass and magical slopes of the barrier of a thousand spear as it is known in its local Language name. The Giants Castle itself was veiled in cloud that first day but the views were no less impressive.
As we came closer to the mountains the clouds lifted briefly showing the cliffs of the Castle in their full splendor as we hiked passed them on the way to Giants Pass.
The pass was grueling and I was apparently the slowest of our group at ascents. But slow persistence paid off and the views from close to the cave where we would sleep our first night were worth the effort.
In the morning the clouds had closed in thicker, covering the valleys below. We were in our own mountain world now. We had breakfast in the cold and with the mountain air filling our lungs we were ready to explore this dream like world.
Further up the pass we saw just how cold the night had been with these impressive plant freezes a common sight.
We crossed over the bulk of the Giants Castle which was a longer hike than anticipated. The back side of the Castle slopes away from the valleys and we were walking in the pathless and more barren terrain of the plateaux. When we came up the last slope up to the point it seemed that we suddenly stepped out of an elevator and onto a viewing platform.
To our left were the cliffs we had walked passed the day before and the bowl of valleys covered in a magnificent white blanket.
To our right was the rock spine which stretched out into the ocean of cloud which mesmerised us as it rose and fell. Sometimes covering the spine and sometimes revealing it.
Lourens had brought with him the remainder of our friend Schalk’s ashes and we made a cairn of rocks to place them in. A fitting resting place for a dearly loved friend and adventurer. Despite him taking his own life, I will love him until I die. I miss you Bro.
We hiked back off the point and got some good distance in before rounding a ridge which ran along the edge of the plateaux. We camped on its slopes facing the escarpment eager to be shielded from the eyes of the local herders. We had had an encounter that day which left us feeling less than comfortable with their interactions
On day three we would conquer this ridge, Mt Durnford. It was a much bigger slog than I thought it would be. I was constantly lagging behind and need more than a couple of breaks. There was a specific spot we had to crest the ridge at so that we could find the only gap in the mini cliff on the other side. The path down was treacherous but we got right spot in the end.
Whilst crossing through the various valleys of the plateaux that day we had another encounter with the local herders which was tense to say the least, they are pertty pushy and just say ‘give give’ the whole time. All the while covered in ponchos which gave me the impression they were armed and hiding it.
We had planned to camp at Bannerman Cave above Langalibalele Pass but were put off buy the increased density of local herders in this part of the plateaux. We decided instead to push on and come down the pass a bit to camp. For views this was a fantastic decision. The lower slopes of the Drakensberg are truly magical and we all sat and watched them talking of the hike as the shadows lengthened and called us to a deserved sleep.
We had only a small distance to cover back to the hotel and we took our time walking slowly on our tired legs. Savouring the clearer view of the Castle and the escarpment we had hiked through.
There are few times in my life when I’ve felt more connected to the mountains than the hikes in the Drakensberg. They are epic arduous adventures but each time I went I was reminded anew of the awe that I feel when hiking through them. I wish one day to experience that awe again, for I cannot recall the feeling and there are not the words to describe it. I recount this adventure here to remind myself of what I seek. To light a flame of hope in the amidst the chaos. Hope that I may one day be able to do these things again, however daunting the dragons may be.
Thank you for indulging me and I hope that you too experience this awe one day, in whichever form it calls to you in.
In a previous life, chasing my dreams on Panic Room 7A+ which I sent just weeks before the accident Photo by Dan Bates
At the end of the first two weeks in ICU I wasn’t exactly out of the woods yet, but the canopy was starting to thin. The doctor was confident that they wouldn’t need to amputate the left leg as well, the major life and leg saving surgeries were done. My body could now focus on healing, to close the envelope before moving onto fixing the bones. The Monday and Tuesday passed with no new drama, the same unpleasant ben pans, semi-sleep and pain. My temperature was still spiking up into the 38’s at times although my blood markers of infection had apparently begun to drop. I went for what I was told would be the last dressing change in theatre, whilst there was more pain after coming out it wasn’t nearly as bad as the actual operations. I was also starting to wean off the IV drugs in preparation for the ward transfer. The lower level of care would mean that I would need to come off the more dangerous IV stuff and onto Targinact, a powerful oral Opioid. By Thursday my temperature had stabilized and the infection markers in the blood test still continued to fall. A good sign that the infection had been slain.
On Friday I transferred to a normal ward where my wounds would heal. The doctor would monitor them and call for transfer to the next hospital where the orthopaedic surgeons (Bone Doctors) would work on fixing the gap in my tibia.
The epic Journey through the narrow gates of ICU had ended and without the hardcore cocktails of IV drugs and constant surgeries my consciousness stabilized. For the first time my consciousness was exposed, fully and unveiled, to the full devastation the Nothing had left in its path. Choose what ever definition you wish, Self, Identity, Core, what it is to be whoever I was, it was so apparently destroyed that it doesn’t matter. What had once been a focused, spinning, moving, cohesive whole had hit some kind of phenomenological obstacle in its timeline and was shattered into fragments much like the rocks floating in the void when Fantasia was destroyed. My Ego jumped desperately between the larger fragments, frantically seeking the Ivory tower as remnants of who I was crashed unrestricted and unbidden into other parts of me.
The day outside looked warm, the softer light of the late winter afternoon bathed Signal Hill in a beautiful light, above its slopes paragliders lived out their dreams, chasing life and thermal alike. It was a Friday and the conditions looked good. The climbers in Cape Town would be scrambling to get to their projects before the light fades, I was no longer one of them. I had endured psychological pain before, I had been humbled and forced to change who I was, that was dark, but I had persisted. I though perhaps, fortified as i was, I could weather this, I was wrong. My leg was buzzing sharply from the movement from transferring wards. Without the IV drugs my whole body was tingling, aware of every touch, my body ached from the immobility, pain from moving and pain from remaining still. But all that seemed to fade as I looked out that window. Did I need this? Had I not been humbled enough? To what end was all this suffering? As the sun set softly, warmly, invitingly like some kind of sick cosmic joke, I cracked. Memories, dreams, fragments of me came crashing into my consciousness, each time exposing the damage anew. The shockwaves of psychological pain slammed into me, forcing shudders as I cried. I broke that night, there in the artificial darkness of the hospital. I had been forced through the bottom, beyond the meta-structure of life, to a place so chaotic that only raw emotion could exist. A kind of fatal, existential sadness was all I could feel. A sadness that was connected to all things through death. The Sadness of the complete destruction of future, of dreams and of Love. The Sadness that called to the End.
The week after that night felt like eternity, busy with the tasks of living, bedpans, eating, physio (which basically involved me waving my arms around and sit-ups). The days stretched, blank and meaningless, as nothing of the path forward revealed itself. There was progress of a sort in healing and movement with physio and I learnt midweek that the orthopedic surgeon would come to see me on the Friday (an event that would eventually reveal some of the path forward). There were however some moments that broke the tedium during this week in the underworld.
The Doctors changed the dressing whilst I was awake for the first time on Saturday. The anticipation of the potential pain to come was in fact worse than the event itself. Horrified as I was, I confronted every new sight. Seeing the shape and devastation of flesh for the first time was macabre to say the least. The poles of the external fix which held my lower leg in place could be seen extending deep within the muscle to the bone as they penetrated openings in the skin. Once they were powerful machines carrying me into the future, now one was gone and what was left of the other was shattered into pieces, desperately clinging to life.
Tuesday was a day with many people, I saw friends and family and Drs including the trauma surgeon and orthopedic surgeon who screwed my knee back together. In as much as seeing friends and family saved me, the doctors vague answers plagued me. There was talk of possibly a year for the bones to heal. I had no real idea what this meant but the answers weren’t forthcoming. A year in hospital? A year of lying in a bed? Could I do that? I didn’t think so. The doctors assured me that the answers were coming and that there was a path, but lost as I was I could not see it. What was once a life defined by passion and drive was suddenly an empty meaningless vessel with no direction. Frustration infused itself in to the sadness as the nights tormented me. Lying broken in a hospital bed I was forced to witness, again and again, the death of what was.
The dressing change on Thursday was easier and coming off antibiotics after a full 28 days since they were first administered the day I arrived was progress indeed. I also transferred into a wheelchair for the first time, progress for sure. I had been quarantined in the ward as I had been contaminated by some wound colonizing bacteria from the hospital, it was apparently not infecting my wounds however (I don’t understand it either). Confined as I was, despite being in a wheelchair, I could not go further than another spot next to the window in the same room. The same view of signal hill with its paragliders chasing their fucking dreams. I mean thanks God, thanks for this Grief. What was once enthusiasm and a love of life was now replaced by bitterness. Where before I would wake in the morning and say ‘Hell yeah’, I now awoke each morning longing for the Hell to end. By the end of the day I was overwhelmed but also exhausted, I hadn’t slept at all the previous night and the emotions had defeated me. The doctor gave me a different combination of sleeping drugs, thankfully it worked and I found myself pulled by sleeps embrace.
What I was had died, I was no longer the active, climbing, purposeful person I had worked to create, that was clear at least. Who I was I had no idea, pieces scattered in the sand in shadow. I doubted I would be able to reassemble what was left, definitely not something that I’d recognise. Death is never an easy thing to witness and it had taken all of me to pass through that gate. The damage was complete. And I could not bear it.
Finally I slept, I could cry no more and the world disappeared. There was no telling what trials the morning would bring, or who would face them.
My home in ICU with the machines continually feeding me drugs Id rather not take. Photo by Dr Carlien Wassermann
By way of a disclaimer, this post contains graphic images which some may find grotesque. I would encourage you to view them however, they are part of what life is and facing these things will only make you stronger. The same is true of the contents, these next few posts expose a side of life which isn’t easy to face but again you would be diminished for not doing so.
After some rest over the weekend, rest being a relative term, it was back to theatre on Monday evening to have the dressings changed. At this point my left leg was basically held on by my calf muscles and the ex-fix. It would have been too painful and too much risk of infection to open the leg in the ICU so all dressing changes would be done in theatre. Although I came out of theatre feeling drained, it was at least a small compensation that it wasn’t as bad as the last weeks oppereations. Dr Bischof had also cautiously mentioned that they were more confident that they could save the left leg, something which was by no means certain at this stage.
Tuesday brought more emotions, I can’t tell you why it hit me so hard that day but it did. There were so many things that seemed to happen during the day as well. The Anesthetist came to place a new epidural catheter, they need to change them every few days for risk of infection. The placement of the epidural is unpleasant to say the least, a large hollow needle is inserted between the vertebrae and into the area surrounding the spinal column and the catheter is then fed into that space, to find to exact spot the doctor needs to move the needle around a bit and it feels like someone is literally scraping your spine from the inside. the process was further complicated by me not being able to sit forward, usually epidurals are used for child birth and are inserted in a seated position. I needed to roll over and stay in that position for some time, a painful situation for me which was again accompanied by an increase in drugs to compensate. The dull high of the morphine and the reality separating feeling of the Ketamine is a combination I would never get used to. Its as if you fade away from reality, reality becomes dull and feels like its breaking into whatever smaller parts it consists of. It felt to me as if I was being pulled by death’s scythe out of reality and it was out of my control if I came back or not.
The discomfort in my bowels had been growing for days now and with laxatives I finally passed movement again. I had to use the bedpan twice that day and both episodes were amongst the worst experiences of my time in hospital. Not only was turning, lifting and positioning painful, but the actual act of shitting was as well, follow that with the inability to clean oneself and having to have the nurses roll me off the pan and clean up the mess. Each episode left me broken and drained.
I did see Nick and it was comforting to chat to him. I also got new Magic cards which helped to take my mind off what was a very emotional day. The ever elusive fits of sleep with their strange and very real Precedex dreams would flit bout me like ghost of healing, as ethereal as they were important.
Although I had gotten through the emotional rollercoaster of the day before, today would see me in theatre again, looking back on this week I can liken it to going round after round with the devil in an MMA cage. Monday, theater; Tuesday, rest; Wednesday, theater; Thursday rest; Friday Theatre; and Saturday was like judgement day and judged I would be. The operation today was by the orthopaedic surgeon to reconstruct the Tibia head which had broken into three sections. He would open the knee up on the side and manually rearrange the pieces before fixing them together with two castellated screws which would go right through the Tibia head from side to side. The surgeon was encouraging post-op, he said that there was more bone contact than he expected, exactly what that means I can’t tell you, but he seemed to think that the operation went well. My family came to visit again and I spent a long time talking to them and then to the anesthetist, Dr Carlien Wassermann, who had kept me alive in the first operation. Despite the operation, the day passed quicker than the day before and it felt that there might be a bit more light ahead. The day merged with the night in that same way, without ceremony or sunset, in the ICU the only thing that really changes is the hue of the light. It’s just as bright at night and it’s just as busy.
At least I got a bit more rest in today between surgeries, by all accounts tomorrows surgery would be a big one and as events would later transpire, I really needed all the rest I could get. I had another bowel movement which was painful, the rolling and the lifting to get on and off the pan were quickly becoming some of my worst memories of my hospital stay. But beyond that the day was more peaceful, it felt for the first time that there was a bit of space for me to think. I thought of the future, the distant and now unknown future, the chances of saving the leg were growing with each day the doctors had told me. But what did that mean, what kind of functionality would I be able to get out of the leg, would I be able to walk again, or climb again? My entire life had been changed to centre around climbing and it would seem that that was no longer an option. Although these thoughts were heavy and the chaos thick, I did at least have time to think them and the anxiety they provoked only seemed to strengthen my resolve further. Although i didn’t know what the future held, I knew what must be done to engage with it. Having opened some new Magic cards the day before and my continued fascination with stories of mythology, I was perhaps not hopeful but certainly had a better understanding of what may be necessary to move forward: Pick up your Spear and go conquer the dragon that assailed you. The Dragon was life and the only spear I had left was my mind. It may prove a futile journey in the end but that’s irrelevant, the only honorable course of action was to fight. I didn’t know how valuable this day of introspection would be as things took a more dire turn during the night. During the afternoon I received more blood ahead of tomorrow’s surgery. Unbeknownst to me, tests had been returned that showed my infection markers had begun to rise.
The night was terrible, I managed to drift off to sleep early after a quieter day but awoke shortly after midnight with increasing pain the the right leg stump and left knee. It began by feeling sensitive and I could feel more pain with the tiny movements i would do, by morning it had built to an intense pain in the right hand side of the knee. I could also feel I had a temperature, which was confirmed at first light when the nurses did the rounds. Somewhere infection had taken root and Dr Bischof was visibly concerned. She ordered blood to be taken and cultured to try to isolate what type of infection it was. I was put on further antibiotics, these ones they apparently use to treat Tuberculosis but they used them because they have a good bone penetrating effect. The antibiotics were delivered intravenously and the drip bag was kept in a thick silver liner to prevent exposure to light, it was unnerving to say the least. The trauma doctor brought in an orthopaedic surgeon to assess the knee clinically and they decided that if the went through with the surgery, they would literally cut the knee open on the side and go in and manually clean it out to try to stop the infection from eating away at the cartilage in the knee. In the end the doctors decide to proceed with the surgery despite the infection and at 15h30 I went under again, this time for 5 hours. The orthopaedic surgeon opened and cleaned the knee whilst Dr Bischof and her supporting team performed what is called a gastronomicus flap and grafted skin taken from my thigh onto the gaping hole in my flesh.
The gastronomicus flap involves cutting a part of the calf muscle out but leaving it attached at one end, then rotating that flap of muscle around to the front of the leg and suturing it in place. This bulk of flesh serves to close the hole in my leg where the rock had gouged out tissue and further tissue had later been removed as it died off. This large hole left the bone exposed. The bone would not regenerate if not covered by flesh and skin to provide an infection free area with good blood flow.
I would be missing a large chunk of my calf muscle but at least the bone would have a chance of healing. After 5 hours under anesthetic with my body already taking shots, I awoke feeling broken once again. Not for the last time did I have this feeling of being a conscious passenger without agency traveling through this Hell which seemed never ending and tomorrow would prove no different as the source of the infection was brought to light.
Yesterday’s operation had tired me out completely and I actually got some sleep, it was patchy but it helped. I felt a bit recovered when I awoke in the morning but today would prove to be one of the hardest and lowest moments of my stay in hospital. I later looked back at this period and thought about the ebb and flow of a kind of vital life energy during this ICU period, it was as if each operation took all the energy I had and I was barely able to recoup enough energy to be able to make it through the next operation. It was brutal, knowing each time that Id come out feeling broken again but still having to just hold on as the rollercoaster rose and fell, with my consciousness on board, a passive bystander.
The anesthetist came to change the epidural around midday and was surprised to find the epidural site infected. She decided to avoid placing a new line for fear of further infection. She and Dr Bischof were concerned, an infection penetrating into my spine was a dangerous and unneeded complication. I was given a stronger flow of the IV drugs before rolling onto my side so the doctors could cut open the area and disinfect it. Reality once again cracked and distorted, blurring around the edges as the morphine, ketamine and precedex dimmed the flame of consciousness in a most unholy way. I could still feel the cutsa and scraping as the doctors worked but at least there was minimal pain.
Without the epidural controlling the pain sent up my spinal cord and only the IV drugs to dull me, I was far more aware of the sensations in my legs, I would have to ride out the rest of the ICU stay with more pain, and there was heaps of it to come. The anesthetist did inject local anesthetic around my femoral nerve in both legs although i can’t say this helped much.
Dr Bischof wanted to assess the extent of the infection and whether it had moved into the spinal cavity itself. She arranged an MRI scan to determine this. Without the epidural movement was much more painful and I would soon be wheeled into the MRI room and transferred first to a stretcher type bed which could be wheeled into the NRI room (there can be no metal in the MRI room so the normal hospital beds aren’t allowed inside) and then onto the MRI table itself. Both painful transfers after an already pain filled day. To add a further complication, the machines which regulated the flow of drugs into my body were also made of metal in places and I was detached from these stemming the drugs which deferred the pain.
Inside the MRI was tight, hot and claustrophobic with a hard thin board to lie on, add to this the loud alien sounding noise that the MRI makes as it spins and moves and the resultant experience was truly nightmarish. I lay corpse still, alone with the sound, heat and terror of infection. The pain increased as the drugs faded. In total there were three scans done, each lasting an eternity as I waited to be pulled out of the MRI between each. The nurse attending to me administered a dose of drugs buy hand when I was pulled out. Each time she did the pain reduced but so did reality, slipping away into that strange escher drawing like state typified by the ketamine high. It was all I could do to keep my mind from splitting apart as the nightmarish cycle of pain, desperation and mind altering drug trip coalesced. All the while the over loud alien whooshing sound of the MRI threatened to fully derail my sanity. Again I was transferred to the stretcher bed before being transferred back into my hospital bed, this time there were fewer drugs in my system and the pain lanced through me and consumed my conscious field, there was nothing but pain in those few minutes.
When I returned to the ICU I was finished, my head spun and my breathing was erratic. I am certain that the MRI ordeal was as much as I could take. there was no escape and reality was truly too much for me to take. but alas there was more coming, the constipation caused by the drugs was ever present and the discomfort was again growing, my abdomen distending from the pressure within, despite the activity of the day I would find sleep almost impossible due to the discomfort
The only salvation that day was when the head nurse came to offer me some comfort and told me that they had found no evidence that the infection had spread from the surface deeper into the spinal cavity. It is uncertain to me that I would have had the will to fight that too.
I did manage to get a few hours of sleep in the morning before Dr Bischof made her rounds. she reassured me that the infection had not spread and it seemed that my infection markers were dropping in the blood test results. The anesthetist came to change the Main Line from the vein in my right shoulder to my left. They change these IV points frequently to avoid infection, in my case though my body seemed to reject the intrusions faster than most and the site would become clogged or inflamed and would have to be moved. Each day I would have at least one change or blood sample taken, I looked and felt like a pincushion for the storage of doctors needles. The intrusions into my body were a norm but I would never grow used to them.
I did manage to have a bowel movement again, as uncomfortable and distressing as that was, it did bring some relief to the discomfort. However, a new problem emerged when they removed the catheter for the first time since I arrived. The drugs mess with one’s ability to control bowel and bladder functions and the muscles had also not been used for two weeks, despite the build up of pressure, I could not urinate at all. Most of the night was spent trying to re-learn how to pee. Initially my efforts were useless, a terrifying feeling as one as can imagine. Later, I succeeded in passing small amounts of urine which relieved the pressure just enough to be able to find some light sleep. Only to wake minutes later and begin the ordeal again. Moving to place a pee bottle between my legs was painful each time, again and again I fought the muscles needed. After a full twelve hours of effort and distress I managed to urinate and although I would still have difficulty with this in the future, the battle had been won.
The first sequence of surgeries were over and the left leg had been saved, so it was time to start preparing me for transfer to a lower care ward where the wounds could heal before the next phase of the journey began. These first two weeks had taken me beyond what I believed i could bear, but even with the emotions and the drug trips, the journey was mostly rooted in physical experience. Something which would change drastically as I was moved out of ICU. The next battle would be one of sadness and loss. Like Atreyu in the Swamps of Sadness I would know what it was like to lose my Artax.
Concepts are challenging slippery devils to catch hold of. Just as you think you’ve got it pinned down, poof, it jumps out of your grasp and you’re left chasing it around the room as the phone rings and the kettle boils and some wave comes crashing in to upset your day. So how to we pin these things down? Well usually we use words and symbols. Concepts about economics are encapsulated in a body of literature and symbols and it’s customary for people to spend years deciphering these. So to are concepts of life and meaning enshrined in literature and symbolism. Myth, Religion and Culture are filled with examples of these words and symbols. Through the art of the centuries people have been grappling with these complex concepts and experimenting with different representations of their form. Trying to pin them down only to be frustrated by their elusiveness. The concept I’m trying to solidify out of it’s wave state in this post is as elusive as it is important. To try to coax it from its hiding place lets first look at some of the symbols and stories which I think gravitate around it.
The Battle of Helm’s Deep
In the Lord of the Ring’s written by JRR Tolkien, a battle is portrayed as happening at Helm’s Deep. It is a ‘no way out’ nook of the land which has been fortified with garrison walls and is described as the best and last defensible location of the kingdom of Rohan. Rohan is one of two kingdoms of humans on middle earth, the other is Gondor. Both are beset by cunning and massively overpowering foes seeking dominion over Middle earth. The battle that takes place is the first of the battles in ‘The War of the Ring’ and the odds are most definitely not in favor of the humans. Rohan’s foe, Saruman, has by cunning weakened their forces and resolve whilst preparing industriously and intelligently his own force to destroy them. The loss of this battle would ultimately lead to the destruction of one of the two powers left to stand against the coming darkness. Despite the seemingly impossible odds, the humans are able to fight and defend Helm’s deep and although become greatly diminished by the effort are able to prevent the sundering of the two kingdoms of light.
Jacob wrestles with God
This is a direct excerpt from the Bible that I found online, from Genesis 32:
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. 28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[a] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” 29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[b] saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
Joseph Cambell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces
Joseph Campbell was influenced by Jung and studied myths across the globe and from across time, from this he distilled out what he called the Hero’s Journey. A kind of blueprint pattern which seemed to span many myths and cultures. The video below describes it quite well. Although I have never read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I have done some digging into this concept, I would add to the video’s description that the Hero’s Journey is not complete until the new found knowledge or skill gained from the struggle that the Hero endures is reintegrated into the community or society and as such, updates the otherwise stale culture.
Infected Rain: Stop Waiting
Whilst not everyone will appreciate a spot of death metal, they do tend to write about interesting topics. Here Infected Rain use the lyrics”we are…always waiting” and “…get up…get up from your knees….fight…fight for your dreams…”
The Battle of Britain
Even in the realm of recorded history (not that myths and story shouldn’t be thought of as history of some kind), we see examples of this idea. Here Churchill is referring to the coming Battle of Britain which was by all accounts a decisive event in the history of our world. What the world would have been like today if Britain had fallen in WWII is uncertain, although I don’t believe that it would have been quite as liberal as it is today.
Do not go gentle into that good night (by Dylan Thomas)
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Resilience, strength, fortitude, or some other synonym?
So what is this crazy Watson oke getting at here, can’t we just call it strength or something similar and move on? Alas it is not quite so simple. When I awoke in ICU I was very much in survival mode, it was really autopilot stuff. I didn’t have the time or energy to sit and think about how to do things, things were happening too fast and there was too much damage, both physically and psychologically. The physical damage had nearly killed me and could still possibly do so, through infection or some other unfortunate chain of events. The psychological damage was also extreme, one moment i was balls deep in living my dream of being a fulltime nomadic climber, living in nature with my dogs, crushing projects that were beyond my imagination and meeting extraordinary people to share the journey with; the next moment I awoke in an ICU without a leg and the very real possibility of losing the other, pain that was beyond my imagination, the full death of any planned future and of any dreams which I had worked so hard to move towards (and no dogs although they were alive and well). I was definitely not in Kansas anymore. Given this extraordinary set of circumstances, how was it that I was still alive and how was it that I was still what approximates sane? Sure I was beat up, taking shots, but I didn’t feel like I had given up, like Id been crushed by the weight of it all. Not that I like comparing myself to others but there are countless stories of people who go through flood events which are much less severe and turn into little puddles of jelly. A breakup or being fired or a stock that falls can send people into the blackest of holes. But I felt strong and resolute, It wasn’t a hopeful kind of strong for sure but I somehow knew that should I survive, this wasn’t going to be the end of me. Why was that?
During the second week of ICU I had a small break of sorts in the intensity of the operations, quite what made me able to think about these things on that specific day I don’t know. But the timing was fortuitous, the next two days would be one of the biggests tests of my life and to come through it in one piece would prove to be a challenge the likes of which I had not yet encountered. I thought of my experiences climbing and how I had been humbled over the years, of how each time I had been laid low by some event or failure. Through all that I had continued to grind, continued to fight, sometimes without hope. I thought of previous failure, in projects I managed and relationships, even academic failure and more personal failures I won’t elaborate on. Each time I rebounded, I learnt that overcoming such things is paramount in life. Although this time was the most extreme thing I had been through that character, that pattern, still resounded in me. Lying there looking at the rain falling on the city beneath me, crying and utterly destroyed, I understood one thing: You have an obligation, pick up your spear damn you and fight that dragon that assailed you, the outcome matters not, it’s the fight that counts.
So lets unpack these examples above and see if we can pin down this elusive concept. Its not as simple as one might think but definitely worth pinning down.
The first thing that strikes me as obvious with regards to this pattern is that is is completely devoid of hope. Hope, as the Roharim so eloquently said, has forsaken these lands. At Helm’s deep they had no hope of victory, it was a ‘Deus ex Machina’ that ultimately brought victory. When Jacob fought with God, what hope did he have of winning, the fact that God didn’t obliterate him instantly in the story is rather fascinating, but he could certainly not have hoped to win. So to in Churchill’s speech we read a tone of desperation but also of nobility, ‘their finest hour’ speaks to valliant action in the face of overwhelming odds. Even though there is no hope and cruel death is sure to be their fate, even when the Chaos of existence is surely too much to bear and will obliterate one, there remains a mode of being that is valliant, an obligation to transform that Chaos into Order in some way, however small. These stories above are examples of what happens when we do so, we are rewarded. Sure these are examples of the successful stories and no doubt there are countless stories of people who did such a thing and were still torn asunder by the Chaos, in my mind that doesn’t kill the theory though, to do nothing, to give up has never inspired myth or Legend. There is no fairy tale which reads: …and he cracked, sat down, peed himself and began to cry, the evil dragon of Chaos took pity on him and offered him some treasure to make up for the suffering. There is a randomness at work in life that does in the would be heros in a majority of these stories, and so they end. But the stories of success, so commonly presented to us and which seem to resonate with us emotionally are those where some kind of valiant action was undertaken despite the seeming impossibility of a better future. So abandon all hope ye who enter here, it will not avail you. But enter you must.
The next thing that I have come to understand about this resilience or strength is that it is voluntary. You must make a choice to fight, constantly. In Helm’s Deep the King of Rohan has a moment of weakness, with hope lost he gives up the fight, resigns himself to failure. Aragorn reawakens this fire within him by offering him a noble death by riding out against their foe head on, an act which will surely see them killed. In the book better than in the movies, Aragorn’s character was well portrayed as the redemptive man, a Christ like figure who had forsaken his obligations only to realise his faults and rejoin the fight. This was again a voluntary choice and his actions inspired those around him to do the same. When Jacob wrestled with God, it was God who said ‘let me go’, not Jacob trying to flee. Jacob, astoundingly, was fighting with God voluntarily and would not stop before God blessed him. If there is one thing you really want to avoid fighting with its a being who’s powers are described as omnipotent. But yet there’s Jacob, wrestling with him intentionally, the story is preposterous but yet we see it repeated over and over again in many guises. Even in modern art where Infected Rain is screaming at us, ‘Stop Waiting’, ‘Get up’, its a choice we must make despite the death of hope. So choose, will you go gentle into that good night or will you rage against the dying of the light.
But for what reason? Why should we fight, continue the suffering, endure the trial if there is no hope and in all probability no future reward? The answer to that is nothing short of the closest approximation to the meaning of life as I can get to. It is the very substance of our being that guides us into this resilience. Again i paraphrase Jordan Peterson’s words to describe this: There is a mode of being which transcends the suffering of life, and that mode of being is to stand up forthrightly, pay attention and speak you being forward. In other words you fight voluntarily using your best weapons of attention and spirit (or in Peterson’s words Logos, I suggest you dig into the meaning of that word on your own). Fight to turn Chaos into Order, the continuation of which allows you to bear the immense suffering that existence requires and not for hope or reward , simply to bear the suffering, personally. To stand up under the weight and say: I accept this burden and I will carry it until it crushes me completely because it matters that I do. It is understanding this that allows us to break free of the Nihilism of defeat and capitulation. To know that everything we do matters gives us the courage to act valiantly when the world goes dark and all hope dies. It is what the moral or the core that these stories above can be reduced to: If you continue, in every moment, regardless of what came before or what comes after, to fight, to turn Chaos into Order, you will balance the suffering of Being. Perhaps not in the future as the failed stories will attest but at least in that moment you will be able to bear the suffering levied upon you, no matter how great.
So its not Hope that makes us strong, or I would truly have cracked. Its not instinct which shapes how we act, its choice, a stark choice between the light and the dark. And its not Nihilism that builds our strength, its the knowledge that everything you do matters, now, and you had better make meaning of that. Pick up your spear, damn you, and fight that dragon that assails you, because it matters that you do. That’s what these Stories, Myths and Legends are telling us. This is what I drew from, this is why I am still here.