Thoughtful Thursday: Between a Rock and a Hard Place


My friend Swamp and I are currently reading each other’s “Top 5” books. Actually, I’m having a hard time narrowing it down to just five. I’ve given him my first one, which he is reading now: 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. As for my other four…right now it’s more like the other twenty. Our lists are not in any particular order according to rank, but the second of his that I read was Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston. You may remember his story being in the news a few years ago — he was hiking in Utah when a boulder fell and pinned his right arm. He survived for six days, but he ended up having to amputate his own arm with a pocket knife.

The story appeals to Swamp because he is also the survivor of a near-death wilderness experience, being lost for six days in the Amazon. (That story is one for another post.) I think on the surface he and Ralston have a lot in common — the outdoorsman personality, the near obsession with all things nature related and the very experience of nature. They even have the same favorite bands. But when you go deeper, Aron Ralston’s got nothing on Swamp in terms of spiritual evolution and enlightenment.

Ralston’s personality really comes through in his writing, and at times I was just as fascinated with learning about his psychological make-up as I was the smallest details of his ordeal. From my reading, I thought he came across as motivated by “inferior” qualities, as the I-Ching would say. I thought it was pretty admirable that he quit his high-paying job at Intel to move to Aspen, work in an outdoor equipment shop, and pursue his passion of mountain climbing. At the same time, though, Coocatchoo and I knew plenty of people back in Asheville and Boone like that, and we would call them “Trustafarians” or “Gear Heads.” I guess if I didn’t have to worry about money, I’d probably live a similar existence, hanging around in cool hippie towns and seeing great music and playing outdoors. But it’s hard not to be bitter when you know you’ll never get the opportunity. And you already had to abandon that life once because you couldn’t afford it.

The theme of every damn story he tells about his outdoor experiences is something to the effect of, “I could have died! And I almost did!” It seems that his pursuit of these extreme experiences came more from an intense need to “have a great story to tell his friends,” or impress people with his daring and bravery, than a true desire to nurture his consciousness.

To be fair, he actually admits as much a little farther into the book. He does admit that he spent a lot of time in situations where it was highly likely something terrible might occur, because he wanted it to deep down. I think it has to do with the larger concept of males in the modern, Western world having no real, accepted “rite of passage” into adulthood, and as a result many of them seek out one on their own. Add into that mix a natural proclivity towards thrill-seeking behavior, and you’ve got a great recipe for disaster.

He talks about a good friends’ response to one of his crazy tales: “Aron, it’s not what you do. It’s who you are.” He didn’t understand what the friend meant by that at all. He claims to have realized the true meaning of that statement while trapped in the canyon, fearing death was imminent, but I have my doubts as to whether he ever really got it, especially taking into account what he has done in the last six years since the accident — he’s become a motivational speaker and now makes his living by telling the story of his ultimate near-death experience, to a wider audience. He still doesn’t get it. It’s not about what you do or what you survived, Aron. It’s about who you are. I’m not sure about the extent of his spiritual development as a result of the accident. But we do know that he is still telling his stories — you just have to pay to hear them now.

I’ll end on a positive note with things I actually like about Aron. He loves Phish and got to meet Trey after his accident. He helped a prosthetics company design mountaineering attachments for amputees, and while that was undoubtedly for personal gain primarily, others are also benefitting from it. And he’s got a smoking body from the neck down.



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