Sunday, July 31, 2005

A sense of balance 

It’s late February 2002. I’m making my way up the Allt a Mhuilinn towards Ben Nevis in the company of twenty or so others on the final day of a Scottish winter mountaineering training course.

The walk up the valley to the foot of the mountain proper is long and not too steep, so we’re spread out along the track in groups or two or three, passing the time chatting. The path is almost wide enough to walk two and sometimes three abreast – almost but not quite, so feet occasionally find themselves hopping over boulders or tussocks of grass at the path’s edge. That wouldn’t necessarily matter, but the wind is blowing sleet across the valley so hoods are drawn tightly round faces and vision is restricted to a tunnel. The path ahead is clear enough, but what lies to left and right, or at my feet, is out of sight.

One moment I’m walking along at the edge of the path chatting to one of the instructors; the next, a blurred image, predominantly white with scatterings of green and occasional grey-brown flashes across my field of vision; arms flail wildly to assist feet, working under the influence of a blind instinct of their own, to find whatever purchase they can, sufficiently near to a spot that is directly under my centre of gravity to keep body approximately upright. But only approximately – centre of gravity is not quite where is usually is, owing to the weight of a rucksack packed with winter mountaineering gear; the white and green and grey-brown patchwork swirls and twists and sweeps again in a new direction, and feet continue their involuntary dance across a floor that wildly tips and dips with every step. Brain is taken initially by surprise, but although much of its processing power is channeled into the immediate matter of maintaining balance, another more detached part gets to work processing the incoming information. Out of the erratic green and grey and white kaleidoscope it notices an occasional element that it recognizes – here’s a grey rock, there’s green grass, there, further ahead is… white, but there’s nothing in between - and so it begins to piece together a coherent explanation, rapidly followed by an evaluation and an action plan. I tripped, stumbled off the path and am now careering down quite a steep slope which steepens further before falling over a low drop to reach the stream. Now would be a good time to regain control and stop.

That out-of-balance feeling, not quite sure what it is that’s flashing past, never able to be still long enough to make sense of the surroundings, ever struggling to maintain sufficient balance and always on the point of falling over, is pretty much what the entry point to this month of July felt like. Somewhere around the beginning of the month, at around this blog’s second anniversary, I changed its name from “older and growing” to “older, but no wiser”- at that time, the old name felt such a pretentious lie that I couldn’t bear to see it there staring back at me from the top of the page, mocking me, daring me. Who did this guy think he was?

Today though I’d almost feel comfortable reinstating the old title, if not as a statement of fact, then at least as a declaration of intent. It’s been quite an eventful month, one way and another, and rather to my surprise I find I’m leaving the month in a frame of mind quite different to that in which I entered it. That out-of-balance feeling hasn’t gone away altogether, but its power seems markedly diminished.

Human beings being what they are, it’s tempting to look for explanations, to identify some significant causal links – to be able to say “Ah, so that’s why…”. Someone once said we’re ‘why and because machines’: the inquisitiveness that may have kick-started our intellectual evolution and has certainly sustained it, has us forever asking why, and that question creates a vacuum which we also seem driven to fill. Finding answers feels good; it fosters the illusion that we understand, that we’re in control, and if we’re not careful we mistake plausibility for veracity, just to avoid the discomfort of that vacuum and to fulfill our need to believe that we are masters of our own destiny.

So it was that I nearly fell into the trap of trying figure out what has changed over the past 31 days, to be able to say – “I feel x because of y”. The rough draft of this post had a long list of contenders, both for causes and for effects. But what use is that? It’s all conjecture, I couldn’t actually do anything with the knowledge, and it’d be wrong anyway because people and the world are much more complicated, interconnected , non-linear and downright unpredictable then we give them credit for.

Anyhow, all that analysis stuff is backward looking and I’d rather be moving forwards. I’d just better watch where I put my feet – balance may be regained, but there are still boulders out there.

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