Well, what can you do, part 2..

March 27, 2014
Will Gadd

Boom Lake-8538Over the years I’ve watched a lot of people in extreme situations, and their reactions to those situations. I’ve watched people freeze up on the controls of their paragliders and die when they hit the hillside. I’ve watched paraglider pilots flail at the controls to the same outcome. I’ve seen skiers freeze as a slope buckles under them, and others haul ass to the edge of the slide path.  Some people wake up in the morning and try to kick ass on the day. Others get up. I find these differences fascinating, especially as I wrestle with life so often.

In the last post I wrote about taking a phrase of resignation and defeat (“Well, what can you do….”) and looking at it as, “Well, what CAN I do here?” It’s a simple little perspective switch and not exactly earth-shaking in its originality, but it works for me. When life isn’t working how I think it should the problem is generally with me, not the exterior world, and I need to do something about the problem’s wiring, not just “accept” it. As an athlete if my training isn’t producing the results I want (increased performance) then I need to accept that it’s likely the issue is in the mirror and not rays from space causing the problem. Occasionally we are all in situations of such monumental direness that there isn’t much we can do, but the more I see and read about people surviving horrendous situations the more I believe that removing the bullshit mantra of “acceptance” and replacing it with “act” is important. If you read stories from the survivors of wars, famines, disasters and climbs gone horribly wrong they all accept that luck had a huge hand in their survival, but also that they tried to make small changes as best they could, and continued to do so all the way to their eventual survival (or death–things don’t always work out). Deep Survival has some interesting stories on “Who lives, who dies, and why,” definitely worth reading. One of the main factors in survival is a belief that the “victim” can act, can change the situation, and the will to do so.

But “acceptance” is the mantra today, the self-help path to enlightenment. Search the web for a few minutes and there are all kinds of groovy sayings like, “Acceptance is having the faith, despite the circumstances, that all is well.” No, most of the time all is not fucking well, and if you’re thinking it is well then something is probably going badly wrong somewhere. I’d argue that true acceptance is not saying, “Oh, OK, I’ll accept this bad situation,” but, “I accept the reality of this situation for what it is, and it sucks. Now I’m going to change it.” That’s an act of rebellion, of freedom, of self-determination. “I can do…”

Doing something is not always better than doing nothing, and doing nothing can also be an action. The paraglider pilot who flails at his or her controls all the way to the ground has done something, but the action has made the situation worse. A very important thing to understand in paragliding and all mountain sports is that, when the glider folds up above your head like an invisible set of hands has crumpled it, you have to wait to see something you recognize in order to fix it. But you have to wait like a cat waiting to pounce on a bird, not like a bad dog waiting for the wrath of its master. Waiting for the right moment is action. Mental paralysis through blind acceptance is not action.

A few years ago  I remember my then two-year old daughter wrestling with her frustrating skis after a fall. Sometimes she flopped on her back like a bug and I picked her up. There is no arguing with, “Daddy, pick me up!” That’s my job, and I did it, over and over. But at some point I reached down to grab her jacket for the kitten hoist every parent knows and she pushed my hands away and said loudly, “I CAN DO IT!” She was mad, frustrated, and determined to do something different. She wanted to change the situation, to do it herself. I would like to be more like her, able to take help, but also to do it myself, and not just accept that lying on the snow is OK. The picture of her above is taken recently, skiing into Boom Lake. I’ll still pick her up, but she can do it most of the time. She knows what she can do.

I write these blog posts as much to clarify my own thinking through your responses and conversations as I do to say what I think. Examination is as important as action.