Why do we do what we do?

It seems like a simple enough question on the surface, but this is actually misleading. Upon closer inspection it is much more complex, as layered as the earth beneath our feet. What does it even refer to? Why do we eat, why do we sleep? Because they are biological necessities.  But I digress.

I believe that most people go through the bulk of their lives doing what they do because it is expected of them, because it is the next logical step. Go to elementary school, go to high school, go to college, get a job, get married, get a promotion, have children, get another promotion, have grandchildren, retire, die. There is really no physiological reason to explain why so many Americans’ lives follow this trend, or one similar. For me it is clear that they do what is expected, but perhaps not only because it is expected. It is also comfortable, known, safe, secure. Humans seek comfort and safety above all things. Perhaps this is biological. I believe that most people never even stop to consciously examine or question the process. Put one foot in front of the other, check this box, turn left at the light, and the next thing they know: promotion, grandchildren, retirement, death.

For those who stop to contemplate these things, the result tends to be quite uncomfortable, a sensation strong enough to send most scurrying back to the road more traveled. But where does that leave those of us who choose to stay in this newly discovered, uncomfortable new world?

For me, it leads back to the original question. Why do we do what we do? Why do I do what I do? I strive to make decisions that I will look back on happily in my dying moments, and avoid the ones that would leave me with the dying wishes of most Americans: that I’d worried less, and loved and adventured more. I believe the key to this is embracing the discomforts along the way: the sideways glances from family members who know that you left a full scholarship to a prestigious four year university to bum on the beach and work at a bar in Florida. To shrug off the skepticism of those who gawk at your decision to walk away from a life of security working in the nation’s capital, to run away with your love to the West Coast, with no prospects, no money, and no chance.

We live this life because we embrace the discomfort and the lack of safety and security that the more comfortable, more traveled road provides. We seek out adventure, seek out stories to tell children when we are too old to adventure, so that they will be inspired to cast about for a road less traveled, one filled with peril and wildness and freedom.

If one can grow accustomed to the discomfort, grow to embrace it even, which many do, it might be easy to fall into another trap. Far too easy to glorify the narrow road, to take it to its very edge, which often lies near sharp rocks, crumbling cliffs, and waves that, in the blink of an eye, snuff out the very life of adventure that drew us to them.

So perhaps I have answered the question. At least as it pertains to myself, but if that’s the case, then a follow-up question begs to be asked: Where to draw the line? When does life upon the narrow path stray too close to the crumbling cliffs? When does the perfect wave brake too close to the rocks? Is a life of adventure worth losing for adventure’s sake? If not, then why adventure at all? If there is no risk, then surely there is no adventure.

In my late teens I gave up racing motocross. This may seem like a small thing to a stranger, but it was life changing for me. My first intelligent noise as a baby had been the sound of a motorcycle. I would make the sound and drag my father’s helmet, larger than I was, around the floor, begging for him to take me on a ride, using my entire single “word” vocabulary. All I ever wanted was a life on the road, racing. The first time I told my dad that I wanted to quit motocross I must have been about 17. I cried. The following years were tough, saying I was done multiple times only to come immediately out of retirement, unable to walk away from the only thing I’d ever known, the only thing I’d ever wanted.

Why did I quit? I often tell people that I quit because of the dangers, which were growing greater as the sport progressed. I don’t think this is really true though. As a child, people had asked if I was afraid of dying or becoming paralyzed while racing. I responded honestly that I only wanted to live because of motocross, so in the event death or paralysis, it was the only thing I would really lose. With age I lost this outlook, and seeing my friends get paralyzed, others killed, took a toll on me. I couldn’t justify the risk, once I felt the losses accompanying it outweighed it the reasons I took it. This tore me apart psychologically and, combined with a series of nagging injuries, took the fun out of racing.

And in the end, I think that is why I quit. It just wasn’t enough fun to justify the risk anymore, and in my 19 or 20 year old mind, there was no middle ground of proceeding along the same path with a bit more caution.

Now, as the mountains hold me captive, and I put my toes into the waters of mountaineering and alpine climbing, craving the life of adventure that has always called to me, I find myself again a bit closer to the crumbling cliff at the edge of the path less traveled. I try to keep my eyes more open to the world than I could as a child, where my world existed of motocross, or death. I must tread this path until it reaches its end, or my own. But I weigh each step closer to the ledge and the wildness it brings, against my love of the path, and my companions on it. I temper my eagerness with a respect for the cliff that I couldn’t know as a child.

I tread this wild path because my eyes are open to the fact that its joys and discomforts are what give meaning to my world, because I know that returning to society’s acceptable, comfortable path would be my death.

Why do you do what you do?

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