The Unexpected Virtue of Disappointment
It was a Wednesday, day two of a 2-day climbing trip to Arizona as a lead up to a team retreat. My friend and I had just walked half a mile along Highway 60, crossed a bridge, jumped over the railing, and scrambled our way down towards the approach to The Pond, a climbing area in Queen Creek Canyon. My heart rate was higher than it needed to be and it had little to do with physical exertion.
As is often the case with outdoor climbing areas, getting to The Pond means navigating tricky terrain. This approach qualifies as 4th class terrain, which means that it is technical, can be physically challenging, and requires you to pay close attention to what you are doing because carelessness can have catastrophic consequences. It’s more of a scramble, less of a hike. Ropes are optional in that you technically shouldn’t need one if you are an able-bodied adult, but they can be very helpful in overcoming mental hurdles if needed.
This particular approach begins in earnest with a short, steep cliff. Climbing it involves using rebar handles affixed to the rock for hands and feet, and pulling on old climbing slings strategically placed along the sketchier bits. Rationally, I knew getting up this cliff would be pretty straightforward. Emotionally, I was having a very hard time.
4th class scrambles intimidate me on a very deep level. Far more than hanging on a rope tens of feet in the air ever has. So there I was, pacing back and forth, shooting resentful glances at the rebar handles on the rock, and scoffing at the sight of slings that have clearly been there for longer than I care to speculate. My friend, Dave, had already climbed this bit without hesitation and was doing me the kindness of scouting the next section in the approach. Maybe the promise of easier terrain up above would motivate me to come up and join him.
I was spiraling. I had been in a similar scenario twice in the years prior: trying to keep my cool on 4th class terrain, fearful that I was one misstep, one shitty handhold, one gear malfunction, one slight miscalculation away from great bodily harm. I kept pacing back and forth at the bottom of this approach, my mind awash in chatter: “What are you doing here?” “You should have prepared for this somehow.” “Why do you always do this?” “You’re holding your friend back. Again.” “Just accept that you’re not equipped to do what it takes to climb outdoors. Sell your gear and pick a different hobby.” You know, a standard pep talk.
Dave called out from above and shared what intel he had gathered. It gets much easier after this difficult bit and he thinks we’re close to the climbing area. I told him that I was in my own head, that I was afraid and I wasn’t sure I could make it up there. “I can set up a rope to help you up, or we can bail and go somewhere else. It’s not a problem.” Man, what a sweetheart. After another moment, I gave up.
“Sorry, man. I think we bail.”
“Okay, give me a moment.”
He disappears to retrieve his pack, which he had taken off while he was scouting around. As fear loosened its grip on my throat and my heart rate started to drop, I was struck by a completely different emotion. One that was, arguably, much worse.
I stood with my back to the cliff, already facing away from the thing I had just given up on, and felt a profound sense of disappointment. I thought about the last time we had scrambled up to a climb the year before. It had also been day two of that trip and I was fearful, insecure, and lost in my own head the entire time. I eventually completed that approach, but it had taken a lot out of me and I didn’t enjoy one bit of it. I walked away feeling like I hadn’t accomplished much because, despite having actually completed the approach, the entire experience had been dominated by fear. Two years before that it was the same story, again on day two. So as I waited for Dave to come down this time, I thought I was disappointed that this had developed into a pattern and that there were no signs of improvement. In fact, this time was worse: I was bailing without having even tried.
Then the chatter was back, always the reliable distractor. Excuses rolled across my mind like tumbleweeds: “I could have done this if I had prepared for it.” “Next time I will definitely make time to practice on easier scrambles and work on my mental game.” “I just need to put in the time to train up to something like this.” And that’s when a rogue voice rose up above the chatter: “Training?! The ladder is right there! The ‘training’ you think you need is in front of you. The mental game is at the top of that climb. You are choosing not to do it.” I realized that I was not disappointed in what was happening; I was disappointed in how I was handling it.
I was disappointed in myself. And what a punch in the gut that was.
I looked up to the edge of the cliff hoping to see my friend climbing down because if he’s already on his way down I can tell myself that the ship has sailed, that we are bailing and it’s out of my hands. But he was still out of sight, off somewhere checking out the sights before grabbing his pack and climbing back down to walk with my sorry ass back to the rental car.
I looked to my right at the first rebar handle. By then there was no more chatter, only the one voice. “Just go.” I look up again, and again there is no Dave at the edge of the cliff. The rebar feels slippery, polished by years of use and erosion, as I pull myself off the ground.
“Hey, Dave,” I shouted.
“I’m coming up.”
After a beat, “Okay.”
When I got to the top of what was ultimately an uneventful climb, Dave asked what made me change my mind.
“Disappointment,” I said.
“I wasn’t disappointed.”
“No, but I was. And I hated that more than I hated the fear.”
We continued on our approach, shared stories, got lost, walked some more, and eventually found the routes we came here for. It was a fine day.
The Antidote to Abuse Is Not Neglect
There are those who would argue that the antidote to a culture of high expectations and self-flagellation in the face of failure is a culture of unyielding self-acceptance. That the antidote to the tendency to expect too much of ourselves is to not expect anything at all. I call this toxic self-acceptance: the philosophy that our shortcomings are an inextricable expression of who we are as individuals.
If being too hard on ourselves is abusive, not being hard enough is neglectful.
One might be tempted to think that these are equally bad, but I am convinced that toxic self-acceptance is worse. After all, the entire premise of being too hard on oneself is predicated on the fundamentally empowering notion that one could be better, that we have the capability to improve. Toxic self-acceptance ignores that potential altogether.
I’ll take wrestling with my demons over the self-defeating notion that there is no point to fighting them in the first place.