Controlling the SwItches

Originally uploaded by Studio Antwan.
Annie Dillard wrote: “We are never more asleep at the switch then when we think we control the switches.” It is one of those phrases that jumped off the page and smacked me across the face more than once. It is one that I have used to do the same to a particular Canadian about a year ago.

The idea of who is controlling what is the core of the phrase.

This isn’t some Calvinistic, Owen Meany, predestination rant. Life is far too exciting to be as narrow as that.

I simply am reminded more than not that I am not in control, but I do a damn good amount of work trying to at least give myself the delusion of such. The most vivid of these moments was my second year as a Guide. It was my first trip at the helm and we were doing a route that not only was the longest, for the first half of the trip we were out of radio communication; not to mention the majority of the route was between 11,000 and 12,000 feet. One of our guys, Matt, woke up on day-three with a wicked cough – a flag for anybody familiar with Altitude Illnesses. Though he was coughing, he was very strong and normally healthy, so I didn’t jump to find out what the cough was…I was 90% sure I knew. As we started hiking, it was clear he was getting worse. I checked his vitals and he definitely had the beginnings of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema(HAPE) – in short, this is what kills guys on Everest, regularly, his lungs were filling with fluid. Matt was a big guy and I knew carrying him would suck for all of us. The trick with HAPE is that the only real cure in the backcountry is to descend. The bigger trick for us was our location.

We were about 2 miles from the Continental Divide – and thus 2 miles from radio contact with base camp – and about 8 miles from a decent drop in altitude the other direction. We could see the Divide, so we made the push, knowing full well Matt would get worse before we could get some real help – oxygen and an evac to the hospital.

We made it to the Divide, and knew we were in range for our radio to talk to base camp. Then things got interesting. Two separate thunderstorms were making their way, seemingly, towards our position. Matt’s lungs were heading towards the 1/4 mark of full - he was not getting enough oxygen. So we ring-up our base camp to start our evac. The storms have set-up camp next to ours and they seemed to have brought tons of lightening with them. The lightening strikes were so close and loud they were actually cutting out our transmissions. Base Camp wasn’t getting our vitals, but they could tell things were bad and getting worse. One strike was so close they heard us say, “Oh Shit!” and then static, a dead line.

We eventually got Matt off the mountain to a hospital where his chest x-ray was positive for HAPE – which means it was bad enough that the fluid was still there even after his descent, a rarity with HAPE. Matt went on to be a Navy SeAl a few years later, healthy as could be, probably under the command of my old roommate.

Even though we got him off and continued fine with the rest of the trip, I think I walked with a half- dazed, shell-shocked look on my face for over a week. There were moments when the tears would start to roll and I just let ‘em. Their source was a wrestling match with reality. I was not nearly in control as I was prone to believe. Two lightning storms and a 17-year-old kid with HAPE showed me that all too clearly. It was unsettling at a level unlike anything I would wish on my worst enemy. I had been living as if I controlled the switches…and thus was deep in sleep.

I grew up in Texas, in a family that could be the poster child for dysfunctional alcoholic codependence. Thus you can read: grew up with multiple layers of people acting like they had control, maintaining the illusion for propriety, and thus learned tons of ways to control environment. I was 12ish when my folks divorced. You can bet this added a whole new level to the feelings that things were falling apart and I had to take on my own control, that I had to watch my own back.

I found (in later years looking back) that I had this enormous flexibility and resilience, an endurance to do the hard things with little fear dictating the outcome – thanks to that upbringing and the way I am wired. What seems to be a constant, though, is the illusion I have tried to maintain that I control the switches of my life. Yeah, I get it in the big stuff I am not in control. I am talking about the little things, the way I engage the day, think about this or that, etc. God has been persistent in getting me to relinquish my illusion of control. In some ways, it started with the first strike of lightening on that treeless hill over ten years ago. It was, also, there all along the way growing up, enduring the divorce. It’s been there in the hurricanes I grew up surfing, the double-overhead waves in New Zealand. It’s there every time I get on an airplane. And still He nudges me, but at the internal level.

So, more than not I am caught with the request to give up control; each time it is as if he is digging deeper to let go of more. It is akin to being asked to jump out of an airplane and trust that somewhere between that moment and the ground, you will be given a parachute… but you don’t know for sure and you still are being asked to jump. What would you do?

After getting Matt off that mountain alive and watching the storms move away, the sun coming out, I was reminded of how many of my contemporaries in the Guide world operate out of the belief that they are the only ones making things happen or not. There is an arrogance that is cloaked in over-confidence amongst these guide-types, one that has to exist because in their world-view, they ARE in control. It takes a lot of extra energy and work to maintain such a thick illusion, to act so convincingly with such confidence. Yet, it is the ones who know their place in the scheme of things that have authentic confidence, and tend to move more freely.

What if when we try to control the switches we are only working frantically for nothing to gain? What if we were never meant for that kind of living and the one we were made for had a lot more to do with trust and freedom?

I still find my heart rate jumping as I make the push out the door and into the free-fall without a parachute….