Below is a presentation I gave to the entire school today. A lot of it is stuff I’ve written before, but with a slightly different slant:
“I thought Terror was in the Southern Pickets”
The winds are picking up, buffeting our tent. Perhaps “tent” is too strong a word. It’s a pyramid-shaped tarp draped over two lashed together trekking poles. Regardless, the winds are picking up. I’m in the middle, next to the flexing poles, quietly pressing my knee up against them, bracing them, hoping they don’t snap and leave us exposed to the storm raging around us. Do Al and John, my fellow denizens of this farce of a “fast and light” shelter, even realize what’s happening?
I’m sitting up now. My knee is still braced against the poles, but I’m also holding on to them with my left hand. My right is stretched back behind me, holding down the back of the tent. Al is to my left, holding down his side. John is to my right, holding down his. Our shelter has transformed itself into a sail, and our collective bodyweight, and a few rocks, are all that are preventing it from taking off. I’m in my sleeping bag, but I’ve managed to also throw on a jacket just in case. Looking up, I see specks of light at the peak of the pyramid. The seams are beginning to rip apart under the relentless force of the wind. At this moment, with our tent blowing away a real possiblity, I’m thinking “Damn, this could be bad… I really wish I was wearing pants.”
Flash. One. Two. Thr-BOOM!
The lightning that seemed so inspiring from a distance is utterly terrifying when right on top of us. Strikes are happening within half a mile of our ridge-top, sil-nylon abode. There is no shelter. There are no trees, it’s just us and the storm.
Why am I sharing this story with you? It’s not to revel you with tales of mountain shenanigans or misguided pretentions of alpine badassery. That night this past August, as the winds threatened to blow away our shelter and lightning threatened to blow us off the mountain itself, for the very first time in my life I came to terms with, and accepted the fact, that I could very well die right there. No goodbyes to loved ones. No one around to know where we were. No one to know the story of some of the best days in the mountains I have ever had.
The situation wasn’t good, and only a little bit of luck kept it from turning truly and irrevocably bad. This night stands out because despite the seriousness of the situation, not one of the three of us uttered a word through the storm’s entirety. No statements of the obvious: “This isn’t good”. No freaking out: “Oh shit, we’re gonna die!” Instead, we just did what was necessary without complaint.
This is where you come in. At the end of the year, I won’t care if you remember which ancient Chinese dynasty Shi Huangdi established. If my seniors graduate and tell me they still can’t figure out how to export a PDF from Notability into Evernote, I won’t lose any sleep. But if you leave this place in the June of the year that ends your email address responding to every seemingly difficult task you face with “I can’t…”, or “I don’t want to…”, then all of us spread out among you in the pews, sitting in the back, and even right here at this podium, have failed you.
I very well could have died on that ridge below Mt. Challenger in the Northern Pickets Range, and yet my acceptance of that fact in the moment is secondary to the story. The true story is something that Al, John, and I exhibited that night and throughout that expedition, and that I see lacking here in our community. A quality that I find matters more than talent, training, upbringing, or intelligence.
Every day, I hear students concocting excuses for getting out of practices. I see members of my teams unwilling to sell out and leave it all on the field each day. I see students accept earning C’s because it is good enough, and won’t require them to do anything above and beyond the minimum. I see students quit sports they excel at because they think their senior spring is just about floating by. What is lacking, is a willingness to endure hardship. What is lacking, is a tolerance for adversity.
Why are we here?
At this point, you should be saying: “What the hell, Cooke! Why should I listen to you when you just called me soft?!” And if you’re not saying that, you need to wake up, because I did just call you soft, and called you out on it in front of all of your peers.
But you should be questioning me on this. Who am I to judge you? What do I know about adversity? I’m white, male, middle class, alarmingly handsome, moderately clever, infinitely amusing, and the second coming of Oliver Kahn in faculty/student soccer games (and only one of these is a gross exaggeration!).
So in the interest of full disclosure, reciprocity, and establishing that yes, I do know a thing or two about dealing with adversity and you should wake up and listen, here’s a bit of my story:
One year ago this past Saturday, my wife Emily passed away from cancer. There’s a lifetime of lessons to be drawn from this, but here’s what you need to know: For 790 days, from October 8th 2010 until December 7th 2012, my identity as a teacher, friend, climber, runner, and anything else you want to lump upon me, ceased to matter.
For those 790 days, the only thing that mattered was holding down the tent – sacrificing comfort, interests, and passions in the name of being a caregiver. Not for a stranger in a hospital, not for an aging parent or grandparent, but for the one person with whom I was supposed to spend the rest of my life.
This was Emily’s second bout with cancer, and in that Friday afternoon in October of 2010, I knew that there would not be a happy ending. But every day, for two years and two months, I swallowed my fears and choked down those feelings of helplessness, despair, and anger. The circumstances were outside of my control, I just had to live with them. I had to be that rock, the steadying force for Emily and the rest of our family. I had to accept that no matter how bad it was, it was worth it to have that day with Emily, because by the end, one thing was certain: that day, no matter how awful it was, was going to be the best day of the rest of our lives together.
I’m not telling you this because I want your sympathy. I’m telling you this now because I genuinely hope that you never have to experience something like it. Yet I say this knowing full well that some of you already have. Some of you already have experienced worse. If you’re one of those people, I’m truly sorry, and can only hope that you still might glean something helpful from what I’m about to share. For the rest of you, I’m sorry, but at some point in your lives, it’s not all coming of age journeys, family vacations, strutting about like the big man on campus, climbing mountains, drinking fancy coffee creations in Newtonville, and waxing poetic on the relative merits of Whole Foods vs. Russo’s.
We all will face tragedy and hardship in our lives, and I hope that the following points will help you transcend that feeling of “I can’t…” and lead you towards “How can I?.”
Part One: Embrace the Cold
You’d think that, as an ice climber, I’d love the cold. And I do, to a point, but there’s very little more miserable than standing below an ice climb belaying your partner while you’re anchored in one place, completely exposed to snow, wind, and the inevitable falling chunks of ice. You can wear all the clothes you own, but you’ll never feel warm. The only way to warm up is to move, and you can’t. You’re going to suffer… you just have to embrace the cold.
Sure, in climbing the suffering is optional, perhaps even intentional. I’ve started the approach to Cannon cliff in below-zero temperatures. The climb never sees the sun, and the temperatures never got above the single digits. I chose to climb on days like this, but once you’re roped up and your partner is climbing, there is no escape. There are little tricks to alleviate the cold like stamping your feet, swinging your arms, or heat packs in your gloves, but these are only a temporary reprieve from the pain. You’re going to suffer… you just have to embrace the cold.
At the end of a pitch of ice climbing, you sometimes experience something called the screaming barfies. As your hands thaw out after being held above your heart for maybe an hour or more at times, the blood rushes back into them. This is an incredibly painful experience. It hurts so much you don’t know whether to scream, or puke, or both. It’s not fun, but if you can willingly put yourself in a position to do this again and again, you’re going to be able to adapt to circumstances that are forced upon you in the future.
One of the most common statements made to me over the past two years has been “I don’t know how you do it.” When I hear this, I kind of laugh a bit to myself and fight back the biting, sarcastic version of myself that just wants to say something like “you don’t get a _____ choice.” This would be unfair though, both to the person I am talking to, and to myself. There is a choice, or rather there was a whole series of choices that, once made, create the illusion that I had to follow the more difficult path. Those choices weren’t hard though. Most people maybe wouldn’t have thought twice had I made different choices, but I don’t think I could have lived with myself if I had. However hard it was, the sun was always going to rise the next day. I knew I’d suffer, but I wasn’t going to fight it, I’d have to embrace it.
Some things are worth suffering for.
Part Two: Find your Feet
How do you climb this?:
Most people who don’t climb assume it’s all about strength. Strength isn’t the key though – it’s all about finding your feet.
Steep terrain is intimidating. It’s physically draining, but fighting the fear bred by uncertainty is usually as simple as being mindful of where you put your feet. If you look closely enough, that vertical pillar of ice is full of small features you can use to your advantage. Step wide and kick into that protruding runnel of ice to force your feet back, moving your center of gravity forward, and taking the weight off your arms. Use the frontpoints of your crampons to chop away the top of a bulge of ice to create a flat-footed stance and alleviate the burning in your calves. Backstep or lean against another pillar or the rock face beside you. Look around. Don’t worry so much about looking ahead and worrying about what is coming, instead look down and be precise. Find good footing and relax.
When things get hard, it’s easy to be scared. The route ahead seems uncertain. Take a deep breath, relax your grip, look around, and find your feet. You are able to tackle things you never would have imagined possible if you open your mind to the possibilities around you.
Part Three: Let the Outcome be in Doubt
Whereas the first two parts are responses to hardship, this one is proactive. Nothing will fully prepare you for losing a loved one, being the victim of violence, or any of the other countless worldly experiences that make up the horrible side of life. You just have to accept it and deal with it the best you can.
You can, however, lay the foundation for how you react to these situations in your everyday lives. Some of you, just as some have a natural ability to learn an athletic skill or learn an instrument, will naturally be able to accept stress and flourish despite it. Most of you, however, like me, will not be so blessed.
The 18-year old version of me was in no way special. I was not a great athlete. I did not face any other-worldly challenges that you yourselves don’t face. Depression, bullying, a broken family… I experienced them just as many of you do now. But somewhere along the way, long before October 8th, 2010, when all of the sudden it really mattered, I figured out how not only to tolerate adversity and uncertainty, but to thrive in the face of it.
I don’t ice climb because it’s easy. I do it because it is hard. I do it because every time I climb up above my last piece of gear, I know that I need to have my act together. If I don’t, I could very well die. I do it because my hands freeze. I do it because those moments of terror pale in comparison to the feeling of overcoming that fear. In that moment, when you don’t know whether you can do it or not, when you don’t know whether you can hold on, make the move, and get to safety, nothing else matters. There is only you and the next move – you and the task at hand.
I do it because most everybody else is too chicken to brave the elements I seek out, and while they’re safe at home doing what’s easy and comfortable, I’m learning something about myself that can’t be replicated on the sofa. I do it because it is incredibly difficult, and because of it I am at my best when the outcome is in doubt.
Surviving those 790 days with some semblance of my sanity only happened because I actively and willingly seek out discomfort.
Where do we go from here?
Embrace the cold. Find your feet. Let the outcome be in doubt.
Don’t do things because they are easy. Do the things that are hard. Doing the easy task may earn you an A in history class, but it is going to set you up to fail when you leave the comfortable confines of CHCH.
Find something that is hard. Do it. Fail repeatedly. But instead of letting it defeat you, keep coming back for more. I’ve had my ass kicked by by a marathon, mountains, rock climbs, ice climbs, books, papers, relationships, circuit training, and even parent-teacher conferences. On this climb here, somewhere above the gaping jaws of doom mid-way up, the Arc of the Covenant opened up before me and my mind melted. I was terrified. I wanted nothing more than to run away. I retreated, rappelled off, and slogged back out the 5 miles to the car, broken, defeated. I’ll be back though, and I’ll climb it.
Remove “I can’t” from your vocabulary. You can. And if you truly can’t, you better know this not because of some innate sense of self-awareness, but because you’ve tried, repeatedly, and are going to try again despite those failures. Don’t suffer a mysterious illness the day after a loss. Don’t avoid teachers’ questions because you’re afraid of being wrong. Show up, work hard, and get better. You’ll never be proud of the work you avoid.
Although these things may seem trivial now, they DO matter. Like it or not, your real lives have already begun. Are you going to fold in the face of hardship? Recognize that it may not be fun, but you will survive it, and you will be better for it. Take a deep breath, relax your grip, look around, and find your feet.
I’d like to say thank you to Mr. Conrad for challenging the faculty to rise to the occasion and present to the school. I’d like to thank him again for not firing me over some of the language and attitudes I’ve expressed here today.
Thank you to Ms. Williams, my senior presentation advisor, for editing out the parts that definitely would have gotten me fired.
Thank you to Ms. Foscaldo for setting the precedent of faculty presentations, and to my seniors for saying I should do one too. (Of course they didn’t actually think I’d go through with it, and that they’d have to sit through it)
Thanks to D-block faculty… I’d say I’m sorry for going long, but I’m not.
Thank you all for listening
Most of all, thank you to everyone in my life who helped make those 790 days bearable, and the last 367 so hopeful.
And finally, to bring it all full-circle: when you see an airbrushed sky and picturesque lightning in the distance, hunker down. Shit is about to get real serious, real fast.