April 14, 2021
Awakened by the familiar robotic chirp of my alarm clock—a boxy, 1980s relic with no snooze function—I fumble in the dark trying to switch it off. The sudden silence is warm and welcoming, as are my blankets. And it takes every bit of tenacity I can muster to peel them back and get up.
Stepping into a cold shower is no more enjoyable now than it was three years ago, when I started taking them. But on the average day, seldom is my will—the ability to decide on then initiate an action—so cleanly measured.
In hindsight, selfish decisions often appear more thoughtful; and the list of things I intend to start, say, or do tomorrow is always growing. When that frigid water hits me, though, for better or worse, I am who I am. For there is no ambiguity when it comes to embracing or avoiding discomfort. We either stay with the pain—fear, uncertainty, anxiety—or we run from it.
“We tend to protect ourselves from the experiences and situations we don’t like,” Frank Ostaseski wrote in The Five Invitations. “But there is a sense of liberation and confidence that gets built up within us when we do the opposite, when we push away nothing.”
Comfort is as addicting as cocaine (a friend told me). And moderation has never exactly been my strong suit. So I intervene; essentially, I cheat. I find ways to undermine our intrinsic, human desire for what is easiest, quickest, and most agreeable to the senses. Like buying a secondhand alarm clock with no snooze button.
“I cannot be free if I am rejecting any part of my experience,” Ostaseski continued. “The rejected experience will keep showing up like a bad penny.”
There is nothing inherently good about comfort or convenience. Really, they are just more expensive types of avoidance. Relaxation and enjoyment are, too, losing their value, as they become conflated with increasingly more elaborate forms of distraction. (What the fuck is a Tik-Tok anyway?)
Spending the bulk of our time and energy simply trying not to experience anything we dislike, we become masters of avoidance, living in perpetual anticipation of some other experience. But there is no alternative experience we should be having. As the philosopher and Zen teacher Alan Watts put it, “This is it.”
Commuting from Issaquah to the top of Snoqualmie Pass takes about 45 minutes. And at this early hour, the road is dark and nearly empty. Oftentimes, this is the most peaceful part of my day. Save those mornings, of course, when it isn’t. When I’m the only sensible driver headed east on I-90, and they—no matter how few of them there are—are all just traffic. Seriously!? Seattle is back that way!!
Every so often, though, right as I’m about to lay on the horn, my hand stops in midair. Now, suspended in this moment, in that split second before compulsion gives way to action, honking is no longer an impulse—it’s a decision.
“Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now,” Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning.
We make an incalculable number of seemingly arbitrary choices every day. And every single one of them has consequences. Our lives are shaped by these decisions, molded by what we do or don’t do in a million fleeting moments. Self-possession is no accident, it’s a choice made daily, a way of living.
On clear days, the light of the rising sun is amplified by the untouched snow. Hopping out of one of our company vehicles—dilapidated pickup trucks and box vans with loose steering and various lights that either won’t turn on or never turn off—for a brief moment, the stillness is palpable, almost eerie. Like standing alone in an unshaken snow globe. Taking in a deep breath of crisp, Pacific Northwest air—the occasional flurry falling from nowhere or swirling up from the ground—I wonder: What the fuck am I doing up here?
“If you insist that your life is about what you body is doing, you do not understand why you came here,” Neale Donald Walsch wrote in Conversations with God.
When the answer to this question arrives, I’m often still trudging through the shin-deep snow. The crunch of my boots ceases, then, a second later, I realize I’ve stopped walking. The feeling is… good—but not always comforting. Like spotting a familiar face, unexpectedly, in a crowd of strangers. Billowing out in front of me, my breath disappears into the ether. And as my focus shifts to the waves of frosted pines in the distance, it dawns on me, once again—I chose this.
“He had reached the wilderness period of his life and was hacking his way through the jungles of experience,” Thomas Wolfe wrote in You Can’t Go Home Again. “He had stripped himself down to the brutal facts of self and work. These were all he had.”
For most of this winter, for, after expenses, little more than a free season pass, I’ve been parking cars at a ski resort with a bunch of college kids. The work itself—lining up some cones or sticking a few “No Parking” signs into a snowbank—requires minimal responsibility. It’s a thankless job, too: trying to add a bit of order to an increasingly chaotic world. But anything worth my time—is also worth my attention. Life is simply too short to work for financial incentives alone.
Author and professional lion tracker Boyd Varty describes this notion as “purposeful action toward an unknown purpose.” We are allowed to do things well for reasons that only make sense to us. We are allowed to care more about our lives, than what our lives are about.
Every day I’m up here (when I’m not busy avoiding all other trappings of adulthood) is an opportunity to practice equanimity and self-restraint; more so on the days when just about everyone seems to think the only function of my job is to, intentionally, ruin their day. Sorry, friend, but not everyone trying to help you—works for you.
“Are we not all warmed by the same sun, frozen by the same cold, shone on by the same lights of time and terror here in America? Yes, and if we do not look and see it, we shall be all damned together,” Wolfe also wrote—back in 1934.
There is no interaction empathy will make worse. Nor situation anger will make better. So bringing my own feelings of skepticism and indignation to the mix helps nothing. We cannot mitigate another person’s neuroses with our own. We can only choose—every day, again and again forever—to do what is easy, or what is right.