Monday, May 16, 2005


When I was younger and less foolish, I became interested in mountaineering, in kind of a roundabout way: I read a series of four novellas that took place in Nepal, one of which involved the heros climbing on Mount Everest along with their guide, a Buddhist monk.

For some reason I became fascinated with climbing Mount Everest too. Not that I ever really thought I would, but I undertook to at least go look at it, and thought maybe I'd climb a less difficult peak nearby. In preparing for the trip to Nepal, I took a couple of classes in alpine mountaineering from a school up at Donner Pass called Alpine Skills International. I also read a ton of books on mountaineering, including a book by Heinrich Harrer entitled The White Spider, which I found incredibly moving, although, because the Nazi government, without his permission, used Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian, as an example of an ├╝bermensch, some consider the book to be politically incorrect. Don't judge Harrer by what you see in the work of fiction that is the movie, Seven Years in Tibet. If you're curious to know about him, read his books.

Anyway, one of the things that comes up when you read books about mountaineering is death. Mountaineers die, frequently. When I was in Nepal, I met a member of a climbing team whose friends had died on Pumo Ri in an avalanche a few days earlier, and another fellow, who really looked like he thought himself a ghost, who had nearly died doing a solo trek across the glacier that runs down the valley between Gokyo and Everest base camp. Reinhold Meissner, a much-beloved, much-criticized climber, lost his brother to a mountain near K2, and the story he tells of what happened is sadly haunting.

So mountaineers think a lot about risk. They even divide it up into two categories: objective risk, and subjective risk. When I was researching mountaineering, I found this topic quite fascinating. Subjective risk here means "risk that is caused by the person experiencing it," whereas objective risk means "risk that exists independent of the person experiencing it." Mistakes are subjective. Acts of nature are objective. Trusting an anchor you have set yourself, and tested carefully, is a subjective risk - whether you live or die depends on how well you evaluated the situation. Trusting that you will not be blown off the face of the mountain by an avalanche is an objective risk - you have no real control over whether an avalanche happens. If the way to the summit involves crossing under a snowfield, you just have to risk it.

Of course, part of the art of mountaineering is trying to turn objective risks into subjective risks. Harrer explains in The White Spider how he made it up the Eigerwand - the north face of the Eiger, which was one of the most dangerous unclimbed faces of his time. After careful observation, and based on the experience of other climbers who had tried to climb the Eigerwand, he was able to characterize the likelihood of an avalanche happening on a particular part of the face, so that when he crossed that part of the face, he timed his crossing to avoid being exposed to the risk of the avalanche.

So why am I writing about this? When I was reading all these books, I thought to myself, "I am not going to expose myself to objective risks. I am going to be smart, and not make any mistakes, and not take any risks that depend on parameters I can't control." I wound up not climbing, which was probably the right choice, but I think I'm not alone in thinking this way. I think mostly we live our lives with the illusion that most of the risks we take are subjective risks, and that we have control over them.

Nothing brings this home more strongly than the experience of being a passenger in a jet. There is no subjectivity to the risk. Of course, we pretend there is - we choose a particular airline, or avoid certain airframes, or certain airports, because that is all we can control, but any sense of control we perceive when we do this is a complete illusion, and one that, if we worry when we fly, evaporates the moment the pilot guns the engines.

The fact is that every instant of our lives is an objective risk. Think about this. A classic example of risk in our lives is our retirement savings. We put money into savings in hopes of using it when we are no longer able to work, or if we're lucky we get to where we no longer need to work. And we spend a lot of effort trying to avoid making mistakes - we see the risk of investing as subjective, and we try not to make mistakes. During the aftermath of the baby boom, this worked out so well that people generally talk about financial risk as something that can be managed. But really it can't, for two reasons.

First, you can stress out about saving for retirement, put all your money in low-risk investments (e.g., bonds), and then die of a heart attack or cancer at the age of fifty, and then your kids, if you had any, get to spend it, and you get nothing, because you're dead. That's not so bad if you wanted your kids to get it, I guess, but it's not retirement.

Or you can invest carefully, do a lot of research, and get blindsided because the companies that looked like safe investments looked that way because they very carefully and deliberately lied to you about their financial situation, using accounting tricks that, while definitely deceptive, were, in a formal sense, legal. A lot of folks who invested in Enron are learning about how to continue making a living past retirement age - even though they haven't keeled over from heart attacks, and even though they invested carefully, it didn't work out. Maybe they should have diversified more, but that would have just lessened the impact of the risk not panning out, and a more comprehensive financial collapse, which, lets face it, is perfectly possible, would prevent even clever diversification from saving you. And look at former United employees, who are left holding the bag because United can't pay their pensions anymore.

It can go the other way, too. Back in the eighties and early nineties, AIDS was a definite death sentence. People who had white blood cell counts below a certain amount, or viral loads above a certain amount, used to plan financially for their certain death. When the AIDS cocktails came out, and started actually saving peoples' lives, a lot of people who had planned on dying were suddenly in a position where they had to figure out how they were going to make a living.

Everything in life is like this. We make decisions because of a probabability that what we do will be the right thing, not because of a certainty that it will be the right thing. And we make mistakes all the time - calling driving a subjective risk assumes that we are in control. We think that accidents are mistakes, but really we make mistakes all the time. An accident is when two people make compatible mistakes at the same time, or when we make a mistake in really bad circumstances. How many times have you done something while driving and then later realized how much danger you were in as a result? If your answer is "not many," is it really because you are a good driver, or because you're not being honest with yourself, or not paying attention?

In every moment, the worst possible outcome is waiting for us, and the best possible outcome is waiting for us. We don't even know what the worst possible outcome is, or what the best possible outcome is, much less how to get to them, or how likely they are.

So if everything is an objective risk, it's hopeless, right? We should just sit back and take whatever comes, and not try to act in the world, because our actions make no difference, right? No, that's not the point. The point is that I know from looking back on my own life that I almost always let my fear of objective risk control the decisions I make. And if I once again look back on my life and look at the decisions I made that had truly amazing outcomes, those decisions were the ones I made where I deliberately or accidentally chose to ignore the objective risk. And recently, say in the past five or so years, I've been making a serious effort not to let my fear control my actions. And I'm much happier than I was in the years before that.


Blogger Penni said...

I liked all your posts, but I really liked this one. Seems like a good thing for me to be reading now.

Having read you for nigh on 20 years, I'd say your style has evolved beautifully.

But do come visit me at the other place, even though the formatting here is better!

Sunday, May 29, 2005 9:55:00 AM  
Blogger Penni said...

I've still been thinking about this post. I think it's easy to thoughtfully agree with it all being objective risk as long as it's you against the mountain. One can say, "I can't possibly be actually in control here," with a certain amount of equanimity.

But when other sentient beings are involved, it's much easier to become enraged, at least for me. I'm not very coherent about it (how can one be, when one is angry? ;-}), but I have two anecdotes.

One of the ways I've been attacked in court has been by calling me a "controlling" person. This makes no sense to me, because I don't want to force anyone to my will. But I'm very committed to having no one force me to their will. I finally realized the way in which the terminology makes sense (but not the implicit indictment, of course). A "controlling" person is somewhat who wants to make all their risks subjective. This doesn't entail controlling others. But it can seem to be: when you say, "I will do x" or "I don't feel y," you may be doing it for yourself, but the person on the other end of the action or feeling is going to feel "controlled." So it may not be unreasonable for them to accuse you of being "controlling." Perhaps the tragedy of this is its perfect symmetry.

The other anecdote is of one of those "life lessons" my father explictly taught me, the one about "act, don't react." He used the example of buying a newspaper from a surly newsagent and continuing to be polite. (My mother pointed out at the time that since I was growing up in very rural New England, the scenario was completely unfamiliar to me; but maybe that very fact helped me remember being taught the lesson.)

I hadn't really thought exactly where I was going with this, but I think that "act, don't react" must be the answer to dealing with someone who is being "controlling." If you act rather than react, you can't be controlled.

BTW, I'm very flattered to be added to your blog watch.

Thursday, June 09, 2005 9:06:00 AM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

I think you've stated the problem, and the approach to dealing with the problem, quite nicely. The symmetry you talk about is something we crazy Buddhists consider pretty central to our practice.

Of course, the trick about "act, not react" is that it's easier said than done. And that's where seeing everything as objective rather than subjective can help. Of course, that's easier said than done too, but it seems like it's one derivative easier than "act, not react." It seems like "act, not react" is something you have to train yourself to do automatically, not something you can spontaneously decide to do in the moment.

Friday, June 10, 2005 9:50:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home