Touch the Void

We are graspers. Climbing uphill our whole lives, drenched in sweat as we fight against time, injustice, each other, ourselves, everything. The struggle persists and we claw until we are raw. But what happens when we let go? What happens when we are let go?

I was reminded this week of the film “Touching the Void”, an incredible story of two mountain climbers who face an unbelievable situation: One had badly broken his leg after reaching the summit. He was unable to walk on his own, so was slowly being lowered down a wall of ice by his climbing partner, attached to him via a long rope. A storm approaches and inhibits the men from communicating; they can no longer see or hear each other, but the rope remains. The injured man slips and is now dangling, unconscious over an abyss. After an agonizing period trying to determine the status of his partner, the climber at the top concludes he is dead and is faced with the terrible decision to cut the rope for his own survival. His partner plummets, still alive, into a dark crevasse.

If you know this story, then you know it was the right thing, the only thing, that could be done. In the end, both lives are saved, when certainly both would have perished if the rope were left intact. Do we face such choices? What if we choose to cut the rope? What if, dangling over a precipice, our rope is cut?

The analogy here is not that our relationships are dead weight to be discarded (though for some that may be the case). Nor am I suggesting that we sever our connections with each other and with the world writ large (thought that can be tempting). Paul Simon is right: a rock feels no pain and an island never cries. Many people do retreat from humanity as a way to insulate themselves against difficult feelings. However, any one of us who has done this knows we cannot survive long without the lifeblood of human relationship.

As Herman Melville famously (didn’t) say:

“We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.”

It’s not the sympathetic fibers that need severing. These invisible threads between us connect us and reinforce humanity.

I’m thinking of a different kind of rope. The rope between us on which travels obligation, resentment and fear. It is, quite literally, an unhealthy attachment.

This attachment is not love. It is what kills us and what kills our relationships. Love can only survive with true connection, true connection needs no rope of attachment, no cords that draw us in to another’s suffering or pain or anger. Compassion – and likewise, connection – is not about owning another’s feelings. When we are mindful of our own emotions we can see how we react to the pain or anger from another person. It’s not our pain or anger to hold on to, we need not fix it or feel in charge of it or be tethered or bound by it. It’s not a rope that we need – or ought – ever hold onto.

We may choose to let go of the rope, or it may be cut for us, but when we are released from unhealthy attachment, we become free. Sometimes we fall to cold darkness, but that is only momentary. We will find our way back to light and life, and on ground more solid than ever.