With Spitlers and Zikes as two family lineages that feed into mine (Dad’s mom and Mom’s mom), I have plenty of German blood. And even more German culture because it seems to be the one that influenced my upbringing the most. I’m punctual, a bit obsessive about intellectual matters, have a very defined view of physical property and its sanctity, duty and commitment are bedrock for me. Of course there are other influences, too, that Irish and Welsh blood, the majority English ancestry, but those cultures didn’t seem to carry as much weight in my childhood.
Over the course of time I’ve read many German authors and loved them Goethe, Hesse, Mann, Kafka (Austrian), Rilke among them. In spite of my philosophy degree though I only found one German philosopher with whom I resonated and that was Heidegger. The German penchant for systematic thought stuck somewhere in my head, making my think I should produce at least one work in that vein. And, I’ve never been able to do that. Although systematic thought attracts me as a thinker, doing it I find too restrictive, a prison for the mind. It tends to be very culture bound no matter what wonderful insight kicked it off. (Hegel discovered that 19th Germany was the pinnacle of human development, for example.)
When friend Tom Crane passed torschlusspanik along to me, it vibrated down those personal paths: the ancientrail of ancestral culture, the ancientrail of philosophical thought. I felt it more than understood it.
It’s real. I love the image. Death as a gate closing off possibility. I suppose you could say that it’s another version of fear of death, one pressing a bit more against the bone as time passes. The third phase notion I’ve played with for years now is the domain of torschlusspanik. As we pass out of the family and career oriented second phase, our life necessarily includes the reality of approaching death.
What I call mortality signals begin to crop up more frequently. Kate’s bleed, for example. The struggles with oxygen. Glaucoma testing. That 3rd phase kidney disease. Sure, we get these earlier in life, too. When my hearing went in my left ear, I realized my body would not always work as it had. Death is the ultimate expression of the body no longer working as it had. At 38 though I could take the hit and diffuse it over the number of years I imagined I had left. At 72, a different matter.
I watched “Free Solo” this week on Hulu. In it Alex Honnold, the man who free soloed Yosemite’s famous El Capitan, the best wall in the world according to Alex, says, “I don’t want to be happy and cozy. Nothing great ever came from happy and cozy.” You have to hear him because he’s about to climb without rope, with nothing more than his hands and feet and chalk dust, a 3,000 foot plus sheer wall of rock. One mistake and you’re dead as he and others say many times. In another scene, talking Sanni Candless, his girlfriend, who wondered out loud about the danger he faced, he said, “Are you asking if I’m going to optimize my lifespan? No.”
Doesn’t seem like torschlusspanik is going to be much of a problem for Alex. He represents, I think, one end of a continuum. On his end he lives in to the opportunities that present themselves. That’s his raison d’être. On the other end of the continuum are the procrastinators, the never leave the couch (happy and cozy) types. There also the ones stunned early on by social convention, who live their lives according to someone else’s script, looking to external values for legitimation. And, the fearful ones. Who let anxiety about what might happen, or what might not happen clog up their days. Many other types, too. Narcissists. Psycho and sociopaths. You know who they are. Or, perhaps, who you are.
The rest of us fall somewhere between Alex and the damaged folks. On the damaged end of the continuum (and remember we’re talking only about the degree to which torschlusspanik is likely to impact you) it’s not to difficult to imagine a lot of regrets, of disappointments, of wish I could have and it might have been me. That gate might have started closing early, keeping them on the other side, or; it might be starting to close now. What can I do?
And so we return to the question of success that I broached several weeks ago. As I’ve written this piece, I realized that success fits into the stunned early by social convention trap. It is an external value against which we can evaluate our actions, our work, our marriage, our domestic life, our work. Alex, our exemplar, knows what he wants to do. He know how to do it. And, he wants to be great. To do great things. He did. Scaling El Capitan without ropes has been called the greatest athletic achievement of our time.
But I don’t get the sense that he’s measuring his success against other climbers. Rather he seems to be in competition with himself. To be better. To try harder. To reach for the edge of his limits. And, there we are. The answer to the success question. It’s not about external values and evaluators; it’s about the inner drive to know who we are, who we can be. It’s about the sometimes desperate need to express our truth, in whatever medium or context, or shrink away from our life and begin to die. If we have done that, lived into our truth, worked to express it, given ourselves to it time and time again, then the question of success fades away.
I guess you could call it a free solo approach to living.