As part of my job directing a high school outings program, I coordinate a rock climbing club. There is a core of about six committed kids who show up every day we meet – three times a week after school – and then there is a loose affiliation of 10 or 12 others who come when they can, when they are not rehearsing for the play, practicing with their team, getting an early start on too much homework, or otherwise meeting the obligations of an over-scheduled adolescence. As a club, we divide our time each week between training on campus, climbing indoors at the local rock gym, and climbing outdoors at one of several nearby crags.
Perhaps not surprisingly, our club meetings are most well attended on gym days. There is a lot that’s fun about showing up at the gym, paying for our hour or two on the walls, hearing the music, stepping onto the padded floor, and looking around at a lot of other people struggling up routes, pulling hard moves, and falling off, and all of them in their struggles against gravity and themselves issue us a kind of kindred nod. It is a tacit affirmation that we are all here together, of common intent, and that we are doing the right thing. It is an easy family, membership bought. Come on in. You are one of us.
I don’t mind going to the gym with the Climbing Club – at least I tell myself that. I tell myself that it serves our purposes, keeps membership up, and it is a good way to get kids, many of whom would be more hesitant about climbing outdoors, into the basics of rock climbing, especially in the winter months when it rains a lot here. But going to the gym isn’t rock climbing. At best, it is good practice. At worst, its a kind of circus, a spectacle, a scene. And the problem is for young climbers just getting their feet wet in climbing and without the ability yet to distinguish between pulling plastic and rock climbing, it warps both sports –aggrandizing the one and trivializing the other.
And I have this conversation – or one like it – seemingly weekly with my students. I try to, anyway. They get it, but the tawdry pull of the rock gymnast is strong. It is a cheap thrill easily attained and anyone can do it. Most of the people at the gym – not all by any means – but most are there not to deepen a connection or to experience themselves in a new way. Most are there for the relief that escape brings.
And climbing at the gym is fun, no doubt. It’s like eating a pint of ice cream in one sitting or reading Harry Potter – rock candy – but it constitutes rock climbing only to the extent that soccer practice constitutes soccer. Or rehearsing a play constitutes acting. It is true that in practice or rehearsal you find yourself doing similar things and making similar decisions, and practice can be enormously satisfying, but it isn’t live, not in the sense we mean it when we say, “this one’s live.” And it is not what we live to do. But the comforts of a controllable environment make us forget that.
The difference between performance and practice, experience and non-experience is the live encounter. A live encounter brings one into immediate proximity with the thing itself, not its likeness, not its representation. It is spontaneous, intuitive, and raw, and the outcome of the live encounter always has an element of unpredictability. And the live encounter almost never takes place in a context of full control, a fully contrived environment.
Yes, I know. I hedged my bet. I wrote “almost never.” Is it possible for a live encounter to happen in a rock gym? It is possible. Does it happen? Almost never.
Why is the live encounter important to pursue and cultivate? Because of the relationship it creates in one to the infinite. Success and failure in a live encounter are never solely the product of one’s wits or strength, the determinable factors. In fact, success in the live encounter always brings with it a sense of good fortune, that one was, in part, fortunate to find oneself at the epicenter of success, that it didn’t have to happen that way, that the outcome was only affected by a confluence of forces, resultant of some unlikely combination of indeterminate factors. And in that is the sense of the infinite and one’s relatively small place in a system of limitless variation.
The live encounter leads to a sense of wonder and hope and belief that there is more to it than one can know. Any particular outcome becomes a slim chance that tries credibility. A miracle. And in the presence of a miracle, one has the sensation of participating in a system of limitless variation, of infinite possibility, like a stone face, the face of rock.
On rock – actual and real outdoor rock – the variations are infinite. The possibilities for holds and opposition and the forces one can exert to propel oneself upward are endless. A challenging route presents a dauntingly complex mental puzzle, which in the midst of the physical challenge of actually pulling the moves can be debilitatingly frustrating. There is topography of irreproducible minuteness that enables individual expression of unique and infinite variation.
And therein lies the paradox of the live encounter with rock – for there is paradox at the center of every live encounter. Rock climbing at once affirms both the individual’s uniqueness and his insignificance, two awarenesses, which, in more or less equal measure, combine to create humble confidence, tempered power, and a sense of one’s unique place in an infinite universe.
Not so on manufactured holds – though I have no investment in that idea. I have faith that it is possible to have a live encounter on simulacra. After all, the live encounter only requires spontaneity, intuition, proximity to the thing itself, and unpredictability of outcome, but for all of the times I have seen a student exalt in triumph at the top of a climb, coming down in awe of rock, I have never seen anyone in awe of plywood and plastic.