The Void and the SelfPosted: August 3, 2011
“There’s no atheist in a foxhole,” the old saying goes. Death forces anyone to acknowledge their mortality, and any beliefs about an afterlife, but does that saying hold water today? What happens when we’re confronted with death?
The expression conjures up an image of the soldier with hands pressed together and eyes clenched shut, huddled in the foxhole. The expression seems to imply that everyone close to death makes their peace with God. That everyone confronts the reality that is God.
Certainly a century ago, the guilt of missing too many masses or dying without having confessed would be unbearable for a wounded soldier on the battlefield. But the church no longer has such a firm grip on our subconscious and metaphysical beliefs. Prayer as a reflex to death probably doesn’t happen for many 21st century Americans.
Yet there may still be something to that phrase, even if the soldier remains steadfastly atheist.
The nature of war is random, taking life from civilians and soldiers who are mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. No one can dodge a bullet. But if you are a soldier and you are to survive, survival depends on you, and on your realization of this fact. I mean, if God were in the business of saving, God would not want you to be sitting on your ass praying for the shell to miss with your eyes closed. You better be ready to jump out of the foxhole.
Human phobias and pathos are part of what make us human. Violence, fear, and trauma can be crippling. But even as hands shake and legs quiver, another part of us know what needs to be done – to call an ambulance, to pull out the rusty nail, to look away from the cliff, to keep running, to soldier on.
Sometimes we feel very intense things – horror, terror, pain, extreme boredom – that make us want to do nothing more than curl into a fetal ball, but in the same moment another part of us coldly and rationally knows what must be done. And we have the ability to choose to do the latter.
This all brings me to Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void1, an amazing story of survival under the most unlikely circumstances. Survival after Simpson believed death to be an inevitability.
The movie, with narration provided by the actual climbers and reenactments by actors, tells one of the most powerful stories I have ever heard. Simpson and his friend Simon Yates, with a friend waiting in base camp, are attempting to become the first climbers to scale the west face of Siula Grande in the Andes. They make it to the summit, but at the beginning of the descent, Simpson falls and suffers a severe break of his right leg, with the knee joint entirely destroyed and tibia coming up into the thigh.
Yates then courageously decides not to abandon his friend on the mountain, although an injury that severe often is a death sentence. He proceeds to lower Simpson down the mountain with ropes. They have almost reached the bottom when, during the blinding evening snowstorm, he inadvertently lowers Simpson off an ice cliff. After holding Simpson’s entire body weight for 45 minutes with frostbitten fingers in sliding snow, Yates has no choice but to cut the rope.2
Simpson is dropped 150 feet into a deep crevasse at the foot of the ice cliff, a crevasse so deep, black, and foreboding that Yates simply assumes Simpson was dead the following morning. Simpson, however, has fallen onto an ice bridge with few additional injuries. The reader can only imagine the immense, soul-crushing loneliness of the abyss. The idea of sitting at the bottom of a deep, dark, and cold hole has fascinated many writers such as Haruki Murakami, and here is a man who has lived it.
In an amazing stroke of luck, Simpson finds a way out of the crevasse when he abseils further down into the inky black darkness. But he is still on the mountain face, and must pass through the crevasse-ridden glacier and a moraine field, while incapable of walking. This means he must scoot and crawl his way.
But as soon as he emerges from the crevasse, something remarkable happens:
“There were no dark forces acting against me. A voice in my head told me that this was true, cutting through the jumble in my mind with its coldly rational sound. It was as if there were two minds within me arguing the toss. The voice was clean and sharp and commanding. It was always right, and I listened to it when it spoke and acted on its decisions. The other mind rambled out a disconnected series of images, and memories and hopes, which I attended to in a daydream state as I set about obeying the orders of the voice. I had to get to the glacier.”
The voice is coming from him, and to argue otherwise would be ridiculous. Simpson is an atheist, and confesses he thought nothing of God while hanging in the darkness. But the phenomenon of the voice is fascinating. “It” forces Simpson to set goals – i.e. get to that rock in 20 minutes – and berates him if he fails the task. Much of the time he succeeds.
But the journey down the mountain only gets harder. After a day he starts going snow-blind. After two days Simpson realizes it’s unlikely anyone is waiting at base camp. All the while he is fighting hallucinations. Some are strange, and some are profound – particularly when he awakens to the sound of his voice, in his head, reciting a Shakespearean soliloquy:
Ay, but to die and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensisble warm motion to become
A kneaded clod and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world …3
Simpson survives, due in large part to the voice. This story resonated tremendously with my readings for a Religious Studies class I took, The Experience of God, and with my reading of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. The theologian Schubert Ogden’s closest analogy for God’s relation to the world is the relationship between our minds and our brains, and here is a story where the distinction between mind and brain grows vague and indistinct.
Other theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer talk about living completely in “this world.” David Foster Wallace’s characters struggle to remain on task as workers in the IRS, fighting the impulse to nap or scratch or daydream. There’s some sort of surreal connection between Simpson’s crawl down the mountain and the plight of the IRS workers. “Enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is,” says one character, “… Actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one.”4
I think both experiences show that there is no one true self. That we are much more than “lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.”5 Our experiences shape us in ways we may not consciously acknowledge. Simpson has suffered panic attacks since Siula Grande, but has come to terms with the trauma after telling his story and reflecting upon the experience.
We contain multitudes. I’ve been having dreams where I’m two or ten years in the past, and the people are vividly alive in my mind, flawlessly acting as they’re supposed to. There are many voices in our heads, and we don’t have to obey the squalling baby screams (“a small, naked child, curled on the ground, its skin raw and tough, flayed-looking, and it lay shuddering under a seat where it had been left, unwanted, stuffed out of sight, struggling for breath”6), even if they are the loudest.
Confronting death shatters the illusion of an immortal, imperial self, playing the world like pawns on a chessboard. And when things are not going its way, the imperial self turns into a childish self, deserving of pity and pampering and better treatment from unfair life (“IT’S SO UNFAIR. I CANNOT BELIEVE…”). Simpson had a choice to wallow in self-pity, being royally screwed by the weather and bad luck, abandoned by his friends, and in terrible physical pain. A situation so bad it surpassed the hyperboles of fiction. He did not.
For the vast majority of Americans not mired in poverty or sickness, this is a choice we have every day.
2 This is a decision much debated among mountaineers. Both Simpson and Yates agree it was the right choice to make. Simpson points out that he would have died hanging in the snowstorm if Yates waited much longer.
3 Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Act III, Scene 1.
4 This seems to be the most frequently quoted line in The Pale King, probably because it’s simple and weird and … quotable. I would hasten to add that it certainly does not come from the author, and its clichéd quality is meant to challenge our conventional notions of courage but not replace them. It’s a quote that makes us think about about how we normally think.
5 David Foster Wallace, Kenyon Commencement Speech. Myself and other Pomona grads quote the hell out of this; I’m sure it would annoy him to no end.