Marks and Remarks
Food for the Mind and Eye

No. 0157, February 14, 2018


  Doing It the Hard Way

     "The Marker"

Copyright 2018 by S.W. Paul Wyszkowski

     Henry Worsley, an athletic, multi-talented, likeable man, 55, married with kids, among other qualifications an experienced arctic explorer, decided to cross the Antarctic continent (over one thousand miles) on foot, alone, dragging behind him 350 pounds of equipment and supplies loaded on a sled. He would be the first to accomplish this feat. He trekked for seventy one days, through difficult up-sloping terrain, in temperatures averaging -40 degrees and winds gusting to 200 mph. He pushed on relentlessly, by sheer force of will, focusing on not dying accidentally as a result of confusion, inattention or exhaustion, which were constant and growing threats. In the end, he was unable to reach his goal because of sickness (kidney and liver failure) and frost-bite. He was rescued and taken to a hospital where he died a short time later. To his family and to the many who, like him, find fulfillment in testing themselves to the limit, he is a hero, a man worthy of highest admiration.

     Something is not right here. What Worsley had done and suffered through would be indeed worthy of highest admiration had he been driven to it by necessity. I am not sure that either testing one's endurance to the limit or doing something because no one has done it before qualifies as a real necessity. Worsley did not have to subject himself to this lethal ordeal, he chose to. Was it worth it? To whom? Was his agony, as well as his family's and his friends' and associates', justified by whatever satisfaction he may have derived or hoped to derive from pushing himself to the limit to achieve his goal? Perhaps he was driven by a Nietzshean will to power, in this case, power over his own body and mind, an ultimately futile aspiration since the will is not a force independent of body and mind but a product of their function. The question remains: was this trip necessary?

     We humans are by nature experimenters, adventurers, and discoverers, constantly pushing the envelope. This is actually a core part of the joy of being human. But as we push on it is impossible to avoid unforeseen obstacles and dangers the future being less than perfectly predictable. Bravery, endurance and indomitable will may be called for when, sooner or later, despite our best laid plans, we find ourselves in real trouble and must rely on our own strength and wits to extricate ourselves. But this is not the same as deliberately seeking out risks and challenges for no reason other than to push oneself to the limit. Testing one's limits, when actually necessary as when preparing for a new adventure, may be undertaken in a controlled situation in relative safety (as is the case with NASA astronauts, for example). The rational thing to do is to minimize the risk/reward ratio and to set goals that are realistically achievable. Given a choice of several paths leading to the same desired effect, reason says the easiest one is the best. There is no rational incentive to pick the hardest and the most dangerous one when there is a way to avoid it.

     Of course, we are not rational beings. We love risk for its own sake, for the thrill of it. It makes us feel more alive, we claim credibly. We actually enjoy overcoming obstacles and rising to challenges. (Up to a point, this is not only good for us but actually necessary for maintaining physical and mental fitness.) When life does not provide sufficient action and stimulation, we invent and play risky games. Or set out to cross Antarctica on foot. We admire and cheer high risk takers and worship them as heroes. Because of this appetite for risk, occasionally we succeed brilliantly in ventures that benefit mankind. For the same reason, occasionally we also create monsters Frankenstein never dreamt of. Mostly, we struggle to keep our success rate greater than our failure rate. How we define "success" and "failure" is, of course, critical.

     "Never give up!". "Never be satisfied with less than the very best you can be or do!". Bad advice. We should never say "never" - "never" takes it out of the realm of imperfect reality where all things constantly change more or less chaotically, and into the Platonic/quixotic realm of ideal absolutes. Nevertheless, many people are willing to die rather than renounce their faith in an ideal because it is integrally one with who they perceive themselves to be. There are, however, rational reasons for choosing to sacrifice one's health and even life, and to refuse to give up the struggle to the very end. When we recognize that the wellbeing of many critically depends on the sacrifice of one, the math unambiguously points the way. Unless one believes, as many do, that one's own wellbeing takes precedence over everyone else's. But however we choose to act it is under the pressure of a perceived necessity. I have to assume that in choosing to push himself to his extreme limits Worsley also must have been motivated by some perceived necessity.

     "In your 'Elements of Existence'" notes Prickles, our resident scholar of heroic behavior and a thoroughly rational hedgehog, "you postulate, as the Prime Motivator, a transcendental, universal Desire for greatest possible enjoyment and appreciation of being/becoming. Which includes avoidance of unnecessary suffering. So, I take it, according to you, it is this Desire that is the ultimate necessity we can refer to when we consciously choose to act?" Yup. You got it. The problem is, of course, that our ideas of what constitutes "enjoyment" and "appreciation" vary wildly. In fact, some people seem incapable of enjoying life unless they perceive themselves as suffering. "I think full appreciation of the given," says Prickles, "even when it is less than the theoretically achievable optimum, is an art well worth practicing," and she saunters off to appreciate the rest of her day.