“What would you do if you could no longer do the thing you use to identify yourself?”
A while ago I posted that question on my Instagram feed. I’ve thought about it for 16 years. Since the day I quit climbing. Cold turkey. I have answered in different ways as I evolved, and as time accumulated between who I was when I was doing that thing and who I am in the moment of remembering it.
When I was younger what I did wasn't what I wanted but what I NEEDED to do. Climbing was oxygen. At first it was essential. Later the more O2 I had the hotter I burned, and the fire changed me.
Indeed, a man becomes his work. Rather, what we pay attention to and deeply explore, what we practice hardest, eventually defines us. I was shocked by some comments on the IG post about how, "a wise man doesn't let the things he does create his identity," and, "... it should be a question of why one would choose to be defined by merely an act of doing something."
Clearly, the commentators aren't participating in their actions wholly or deeply enough to be shaped by them. It's not just a cliché or me saying it without thinking, instead I find it a hard truth that, "You become what you do. And as hard as you do it." In that becoming we change. We create. We grow, if the action is positive. Self-destructive acts - that do not have the intent to break down and rebuild at their origin - are just that, destructive, and in the end a dead end. But diving at the bottom intent on reaching it in order to touch it and push off, upward, to bounce, well, that's a different story.
What if we stop doing the thing that defines us? The thing that we used to discriminate between trivial and important, to shape our values, to guide us morally, to learn, to change, and grow? If, through that process we created identity, and continued action reinforced and refined it, what happens when we stop doing it?
I was dependent on climbing. I identified myself with climbing, and as a climber for over twenty years. Happily, I stopped doing it voluntarily instead of being compelled to quit by injury or circumstance. I allowed myself time to reflect. I gave myself space to move and look around me. I was in a deeply loving relationship with a woman who allowed me that. She accepted my loss of direction, and my depression, she helped me to see, and to rebuild and recover my desire for living. She helped me understand that I became who I was as a result of what I had done but that I was not bound to that identity. In fact, evolution demanded I let go of it.
Of course, without climbing I felt a void inside. I experienced it all around me. Years after I quit people - who still identified me as a climber - would ask about it as if I was still doing it ... and then ask how I could possibly have stopped. A simple question, avoided at first because it is difficult to answer. But it grows louder, insistent. Who will I be without the mantle of my chosen action, my craft, around and inside of me? What will I become without the discipline it enforced, the hierarchy of values it shaped, and the social circle it drew tightly around me? Choices lead to paths. Paths lead to destinations. My decision to start climbing put me on a lifelong path. It defined The Way, and step-by-step took me to, first the center and then to the edge of the map. What then?
It's no different from another obstacle confronted on the difficult path already walked. I invented me. I built myself from existing, hand-me-down parts and those I acquired through action and meditation, by doing and thinking. I filled in blank places on a page and called it a map. The more skill and capacity and tolerance I learned, and the more horsepower I added to my engine, the larger that map became. At its edge though was a void. That black hole was not simply ahead of me but within. And it scared the shit out of me. What then?
Know the bottom is rushing toward you and you it.
I took a headlong dive into self-confrontation and once I leapt it was too late to go back. Gathering speed. No handhold to grab. Nor rope to catch me. I tried to fill the void with fluffy, comfortable, surrogate actions to slow down or ease the coming impact. Shooting. Ski Mountaineering races. Business and the marketing of equipment and ideas. Lifting weight and talking about it. More business. Training others. Racing my bike. Capturing images. Writing. Teaching. Each action on its own or all of them summed will never shape me the way that climbing did and never, ever replace it. Of course, the effect of time and place, of age and coming of it, influenced how climbing would change me. I am less plastic now, physically and psychologically. And truthfully, I'm not looking to be changed.
There will be no wholesale re-creation. Neither will I permit stagnation. Because that is the equivalent of death.
Have you examined who you are and why? Is your condition the result of a decision or an accident? If you are training, you have taken the helm. At least you have chosen to control one aspect of your life and Self that you can control. Ultimately, through practice, what we can control expands, and life becomes less of a thing that “happens to us” and more of a thing we steer.
Understanding that our actions affect who we become, and understanding that we control our actions, gives us the ability choose a destination, an outcome and work toward it. If you are conscious, and goal-obsessed every time you lift a weight or push a pedal you can decide where you want to go and who you will be when you get there. But if you simply follow another’s prescription you will only progress as far as your prescriber can imagine.
And what if they can’t imagine everything that you might achieve?
Decide. Execute. Become.