Navigating Our Relationship To Risk

I took our kids, ages 12, 10 and seven, to see “Free Solo,” a riveting, beautiful, white-knuckle documentary about the free climber, Alex Honnold, and his attempts to free-climb El Capitan. Just to clarify, the film is about a human being who attempts to climb a 3,000-foot vertical wall of granite with no ropes – just using his hands, feet, fingers and toes to make the climb. My palms get sweaty just writing about it.

The film is an extended meditation on and exploration of risk. As it demonstrates repeatedly, Honnold and his free-climbing peers recognize that a single mistake will likely result in death. There is nearly zero margin for error. As far as risk/reward equations go, it doesn’t get much more absolute on the downside than that. (To underscore the point, at least twice in the film Honnold and other climbers list fellow climbers they’ve known who have died.)

I brought my children to experience this film because I find something admirable, attractive and counter-cultural about this kind of relationship to risk. I wanted them to see that most of us (“us” being anyone in an independent school, and certainly my kids) live the most sheltered, bubble-wrapped lives in history. What we consider risky – whether physically, socially, intellectually or financially – barely registers on the risk Richter scale compared to what these people choose to do, and what most humans throughout history have faced with no choice. And yet we’re the ones experiencing an epidemic of anxiety and depression? What are we getting wrong? I want my kids to develop some perspective about their own lives in context and to begin to ask themselves what they are going to do with and about the incredibly comfortable situation into which they’ve been born.

Obviously, free climbing El Capitan (or any of the other rock faces depicted in the film) is an extreme example. But its extremity is both helpful and instructive.

First, and most starkly, Honnold and other free climbers in the film love life and living in ways we should pay attention to. I would argue that they are more alive – more tuned into what gives life fullness – than most of us.

Second, they seem to live very simple lives (in the best sense) – streamlined, no extraneous stuff and relationships – with clarity of purpose (setting up and executing the next climb). They’re human, as the film makes clear, with complications in relationships, but they’ve stripped life down to essentials in a way I’d like to emulate. (Honnold – unmarried, no kids – takes this to an extreme; he lives in a well-equipped van and wrestles later in the film with more traditional forms of domestic life. I want to see the sequel just to see how this thread plays out.)

Third, they’ve reconciled themselves to the reality of death in a way that leads to freedom. Though this isn’t something we read about a lot in educational philosophy, it made me wonder if we should be finding ways to integrate it into high school more than we do. The ways in which humans in various societies have grappled with the reality that we all die is fascinating and instructive. The primary ways we in the developed west do that today is to figure out how to push off our last breath to the latest possible date as if more of life is unequivocally better. Few of us today can say, “O death, where is your sting?” We spend a lot of energy afraid of the sting rather than finding peace and meaning in the face of it. What is it that Shakespeare knew that allowed him to put these words in Caesar’s mouth:

“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard.
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”
(“Julius Caesar,” Act II, Scene II, Line 32)

I want to be more like that than someone who chases the elixir of life. That’s what “Free Solo” depicts – a healthy, balanced relationship to death. It’s instructive to watch Honnold’s approach to his climbing attempt given what I’ve described about his willingness to risk death regularly. You might think he’s a daredevil who thinks he’s untouchable. Far from it. He approaches the climb with scientific precision. He writes detailed notes about each move – each finger hold, hand role, toe placement. He memorizes these steps both on and off the mountain (he practices with a partner using ropes and harnesses multiple times leading up to the attempt). It’s safe to say that I’ve never approached anything as intentionally as Honnold approaches his free solo attempts.

Finally, the film depicts another way in which Honnold lives out the relative peace and clarity of purpose that he’s achieved. He gives away 30 percent of his income (no idea if that’s pre- or post-tax, but it’s ridiculous regardless) to help build solar roofs in impoverished areas. Thirty percent! Who does that? Someone who has found contentment and equipoise – without thinking that those will only come once the bank account reaches a certain level. I wanted my kids to see Honnold’s radical generosity, too.

See the film. As one friend said, see it on as big a screen as you can find. I won’t tell you whether he succeeds or not. Most importantly, ask yourself what you can learn from the main character. I’ll be asking how we can integrate its lessons in the 24/7 boarding school environment. No, I don’t think allowing kids to free climb sheer rock faces is the answer. But we need to do a better job helping them establish a healthy relationship to real, positive risk – which at our school, might involve spending a night in a tent in Connecticut in January, being kind to the kid who ends up on the receiving end of a joke, trying out for the play when you’ve never acted before – and determining what the necessary preconditions are to making that happen.