I was reading a very interesting piece in the New York Times about predators and the role that fear has played in the evolution of the human species. The author vividly reflected on the nature of dying by being attacked by a lion:
It’s hard to imagine how terrifying such a death must be. To be asleep in bed and to wake to hear a rustling sound, to see an animal leaping, to feel its breath on your face — think of the sweat, the panic, the contraction of your gut, the pounding of your heart, the gasping screams.
In a number of regions of the world, this happens with amazing regularity and of course it happens all the time to animals. Her larger point was in regard to the problem of fear and what humans find scary as opposed to what they should find scary. Thus logically we should fear mosquitoes more than bears. However, the author points out, "But here’s the thing. Today, in many parts of the world, the human being most likely to cause your violent death is: you."
This in my mind leads to an interesting question. Why, given that humans have evolved to become masters of nature in so many regards, do so many seek to revisit the primal sensations of fear? And even more interesting what are the ways in which fear is sidelined, channeled, even erased in these situations?
Climbing is always a potentially lethal activity and yet there is the sense that the human mind can and does find ways of adapting to situations that pose mortal danger. Some are technical solutions, such as equipment, while others are more mental or psychological. As climbers, I think we are all aware that fear inhibits performance and can indeed represent a greater danger than the actual climbing situation presents. How did we get to the point where we could discuss with ourselves rationally entering a dangerous scenario and moving through it safely? It seems to me that there is an aesthetic question at the heart of the matter, that there is something beautiful that we seek in the midst of danger and that beauty consists not in the fear itself but in its successful banishment or at least suspension for a while. This behavior is not be primal, it seems to me, but evolved, like much of our human behavior, in a relatively brief time and reflective of the same remarkable traits that brought art and language into the world. Its higher purpose may ultimately remain a mystery.