Landslides, Summits and the Slavery of Death: Part III

ThorongLa

This is part III of III in the series Landslides, Summits and the Slavery of Death. If you haven’t yet, read Part I and Part II.

Four days ago I encountered the landslide area for the first time – the hour and a half of walking on scree, rocks falling from above and moving under our feet to brutal depths below.

When we reached the guesthouse at Tilicho Base Camp we played cards in the common room and drank from large mugs of masala chai. I was eager to hike to the Lake – at 5,000 meters, higher than any peak in Europe, but anxiety sat like a rock in the pit of my stomach as I considered what comes after Lake Tilicho – crossing back through the landslides.

I am afraid of heights. I haven’t always been. I used to love monkeys and, like them, climb fearlessly through trees in our yard. Maybe it is a natural development that occurs for some of us as we move beyond childhood – as we lose our sense of invincibility and face the reality of death. And that is the heart of the matter that the landslides between Shree Karkha and Tilicho Base Camp forced me to confront: not only my fear of heights, but my fear of what happens when I fall from those heights: my fear of death.

***

A little apprehension of death may be a good thing – it can signal respect for life. But a slavery to the fear of death is the common burden of all of humanity, and our bonds need breaking. This is the assertion that Richard Beck makes in his recent book, The Slavery of Death. He writes “Salvation is emancipation for those who have been enslaved all of their lives by the fear of death.”

Beck, a psychologist who explores the intersections of psychology and theology, describes two manifestations of anxiety that result from our slavery to the fear of death: basic and neurotic.

Basic anxiety is what most people have experienced throughout the history of the world: “Basic anxiety is the anxiety of biological survival…the anxiety associated with vigilantly monitoring threats to our physical environment. [It] is connected to the survival instincts we have as biodegradable animals in a world of real or potential scarcity.”

As slaves to the fear of death facing scarcity, survival becomes utmost, “our self-interest intensifies. And if the situation becomes dire, violence breaks out.” (Beck, 28)

But, says Beck, those of us who have lived in affluence, far from continuous threats to our survival are no less enslaved to a fear of death. It simply manifests itself differently, or using a psychological term, neurotically.

Neurotic anxiety “is characterized by worries, fears, and apprehensions associated with our self concept, much of which is driven by how we compare ourselves to those in our social world. Feelings of insecurity, low self-esteem, obsessions, perfectionism, ambitiousness, envy, narcissism, jealousy, rivalry, competitiveness, guilt and shame are all examples of neurotic anxiety, and they all relate to how we evaluate ourselves in our own eyes and the eyes of others.” (28)

Regardless of our economic, social or political circumstances, regardless of its manifestations, our slavery to the fear of death has the same consequences. Our pursuit of self-preservation and self-interest sets us at odds against those around us. It keeps us focused on ourselves, on our survival or our self-esteem and self advancement, and as a result – and this is the point – keeps us from love.

“Salvation, then, is being set free from this self-interest. The sign of our progress is the advent of love in our lives.”

When we are not enslaved to our fear of death – of bodies, of reputation or of a false self-identity – we are set free to truly love. And sometimes that love will get us killed.

***

This is the morning, the one we’ve been working toward. For thirteen days we have walked slowly, methodically, painfully throughout the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. The trip back through the landslide area that so terrified me the first time I found no less scary. And the whipping afternoon winds set me on edge. Of course, I’m alive to tell about it.

And now we are setting off for the summit. I’m not sure if you can call it a summit. It’s not a peak. Thorong La Pass is that – a pass between two peaks that lead us through the mountains to our descent on the other side. But it is our summit, our apex, the height we’ve been working toward, acclimatizing for, on which we’ve been setting our sights: Five thousand four hundred and sixteen meters.

This is the place where all paths converge. Since we began our journey there were days we saw few trekkers and were the only boarders at our guesthouse. But today we are all together on this path – those who took a jeep to the end of the dusty road, those who came from Tilicho Lake and those who by-passed it, those few who flew or helicoptered in a few days prior and those who, like us, started walking on the dusty road at the beginning of the Circuit.

We are the first to set out in the pre-dawn blackness, but over a hundred more will follow – and most of them pass us – on the way up to and down from Thorong La Pass. The air is thin and chilled. We are wearing all of our layers and we finally break open the hand-warmers to hold inside our mittens. Almost all of our path is now covered in snow. After an hour we reach a tea stall, but we do not break for tea. We take the hand-warmers out of our mittens, and stuff them inside our boots to warm our frozen toes. We drink some water, eat a Clif Bar and carry on.

Ridge upon ridge we climb as the sun breaks dramatically over the mountains behind us and lights our way. Each ridge above us looks like it will be the final one and each time it is not. We turn regularly to take in the splendor of the sun rising over the mountains behind us.
Way to SummitNearly three hours in we stop for breakfast: Chapati-Omelette, the closest thing we can make to a breakfast burrito, that we packed away last night. It is salty, buttery, and has never tasted so good. Forget the cold buckwheat pancakes.

How much longer to the pass? One hour? Two? We drink our Glucovita-enhanced water and carry on. Only 15 minutes later a few dozen people who have passed us are milling about. There is a small building and a plaque covered in prayer flags where people are taking pictures.

Apparently this is it. This is the top. We get closer and the plaque congratulates us on our successful ascent to five thousand four hundred and sixteen meters. We made it: Thorong La pass.

For fourteen days we have walked, ached, strove, carried on, always with our sights set on Thorong La – the climax of our journey; and it all feels a little, well, anticlimactic. Sure, it’s beautiful, but not the most stunning of sights we have seen in the last two weeks, or even this morning. And now that we’re here, well… here we are, then.

The chain-smoking Australians are here. One of them stands by the plaque, takes off his jacket, takes off his fleece, takes off his shirt, drops his pants and his underwear down around his ankles, covers his junk with one hand and puts his other fist in the air while his buddy snaps a photo.

Colorado asks Becca to take his picture and does hip thrusts in front of the prayer flags.

Some people sit inside the building to warm up with tea or soup. I’m already over it and want to begin the long way down – we still have to descend 1.6 kilometers in elevation today – another four to five hours, and Francois tells us it is difficult and desolate. Up to the top we strove for 14 days; after a few minutes and a few photos, we start walking down, feeling a little let down.

Thorong La Pass

***

A few days ago I faced my slavery to a fear of death manifested in basic anxiety of falling off the cliff. Today we see the results of our neurotic anxiety of death: the striving for the summit.

Beck argues that it is our slavery to the fear of death that spurs our self-interest. Afraid of death, we do all we can to avoid it, to hide it, to push it back, to pretend it doesn’t exist, to conquer it. We pursue immortality through building up riches, making a name for ourselves at the top of the ladder, grasping at money and power and reputations and comfort to give our lives meaning. In our fears we build walls and fences to separate us from our neighbors. Neighbors become competitors in the game of survival, in the race to the top, in the pursuit of fame or simply ‘making something of ourselves.’ Our neighbors become our enemies. In our fears, we close ourselves off, we become self-focused.

Of course, what we find at the top is not what we were looking for – the meaning, the legacy, the immortal life of glory. No, at the top we tend to find a photo op, maybe a decent view, and a guy with his pants around his ankles, holding his junk and thrusting his fist in the air. This is what our striving for immortality amounts to. It is this life of fear that we need saving from. In his death and resurrection Jesus is victorious over death, bringing salvation to all people. And this is what salvation looks like: a life free from the slavery of the fear of death, a life free to give up all our riches and striving, power and glory, self-interest and self-advancement, a life free to love others. Often this will get us killed. But everyday it is in the small deaths and small acts of love that we find life.

It is perfect love that casts out fear. And freedom from fear that looses us to truly love.

It is only in giving that we receive
Only in forgiving that we are forgiven
Only in dying that we find the life abundant

-Adapted from a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi


We took a pilgrimage, not to a church or shrine or temple but to the mountains. For 23 days we walked in the presence of some of the world’s most breath-taking scenery in the Annapurna region of Nepal, completing the full Annapurna Circuit and a few side-treks. These are a few reflections written along the way, after hours and days of walking and breathing and sometimes contemplating.

 

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