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Ruminations of a Feisty Old Quaker

Here, hold my beer

Five days ago - on June 2, 2018 - two rock climbers fell to their deaths from a pitch a thousand feet up the face of El Capitan, the 3000-foot-high granite wall that guards the entrance to Yosemite Valley. Most people may have skimmed right past that item, but as a former climber myself I tend to follow news like that, and this one grabbed my attention. Despite its impressive verticality - which draws climbers from all over the world - El Cap is really pretty safe. The standard routes all have fixed bolts and well-established belay points; printed guides describe what to expect on each route, down to the individual holds. Beginners can get into trouble, but experienced climbers rarely have any difficulty, and according to the news reports these two were experts. They had been climbing together for twenty years, since meeting in college, and they had climbed that face, together and separately, multiple times. The weather was perfect. What happened?

It was down toward the bottom of the third account of the accident I read, on the New York Times website, that I finally got a clue. The two men, the article said, were "using a technique called simul-climbing in which both climbers are attached by a rope and move at the same time to go at a faster pace."

Simul-climbing. Climbing without a fixed belay. A thousand feet up the west flank of El Cap. Oh.

And suddenly my mind flashed to the old joke - the one which points out that the last words spoken by people who die too young are usually "Here, hold my beer."

I am not suggesting that the two climbers who fell, Jason Wells and Tim Klein, had been drinking. I am suggesting that Wells and Klein were taking unnecessary risks - the kind of risks taken by people who are far too confident of their own skills. Alcohol inflates confidence, but it's not the only thing which does that. Climbing with an old friend, in great climbing weather, on a familiar route, can do it as well. Hey, conditions are perfect! We both know this route like the backs of our hands. We know each other's moves like they were our own. Let's simul-climb! What could possibly go wrong?

Accidental deaths are not a proper target for sarcasm - no one should be ridiculed for a mistake, especially a fatal one - so I'll stop right there. I want to spend the rest of this post anyway on a much larger topic, a topic of which risk-taking due to overconfidence is only a small part: the universal, all-to-human fear of being wrong. That was a major factor here. Either Wells or Klein could have called off the simul-climb at any point; but if either had done that, it would have been an admission that it was wrong to start it in the first place. As soon as you've said the equivalent of "Here, hold my beer," it becomes far more difficult to back down.

This has implications well beyond extreme sports and alcohol-fueled machismo. All of us face our own "Here, hold my beer" moments multiple times each day. Every time a choice is made, that fear of being wrong is lurking somewhere in the background, preparing to wreak havoc. The choices may be minor (Which shirt do I wear this morning? What should I order for lunch?) or earth-shaking (Should I take that job? Should I ask her to marry me?), but they all trigger the same response: What's going to happen if my answer isn't correct? It's far too easy to blow that question out of proportion. Usually we keep things in perspective - smaller choices, smaller worries - but I've known people who could agonize for hours over which brand of toothpaste to buy. It is simply too uncomfortable for them to be wrong.

Ways of dealing with the fear of being wrong tend to fall into two classes: perfectionism, or denial. We either try desperately to avoid making mistakes in the first place, or we refuse to admit we've made them even after they have become perfectly obvious to others. In perfectionist mode, I can labor for 15 minutes over which piece to move next in a puzzle app on my tablet; in denial mode, I've been known to drive several miles down the wrong road even after it has become obvious that it's heading the wrong direction (our family joke at times like that is that the destination must be "just over the next rise"). In my climbing days, I was able to deny and perfection-seek at the same time: I could exercise far too much care in route finding and in the choice of the next hold - care that slowed the whole party down - even as we continued toward what I had already realized was almost certainly a dead end which would force us to back up sooner or later and try a different approach.

Anyone can fall into either mode at any time, but people do tend to group their reactions around one pole or the other. This can explain a great deal of otherwise inexplicable and/or downright annoying behavior. Commitment-shy people are usually perfectionists, for example, but it's not the potential partner's failure to be perfect that drives them (much as it might seem that way) - it's actually the fear that they will make the wrong choice, thereby demonstrating that they, themselves, are less than perfect. Shy people in general are mostly perfectionists, not so much afraid of interactions with others as they are afraid of saying the wrong thing and making an ass of themselves. Cult members, on the other hand, are usually in denial - not necessarily when they join the cult, but certainly when they stay in it long after enough evidence has been presented to them about its nature to persuade any reasonable person of its folly. The same goes for abused spouses who return to their abusers. They are not necessarily either stupid or masochistic; they are at least as likely simply to be unable to deal with the realization that their original choice might have been wrong.

And now we come, as everything must in contemporary American life, to politics. What does the "Here, hold my beer" syndrome have to say about that?

A very great deal, as it turns out. Donald Trump is an almost deliciously perfect example of denial, not only because he appears to be constitutionally unable to admit that he has ever done anything wrong, but equally - more than equally - because of the way he makes others react to him. Consider how many of those on the Left who failed to vote for Hillary Clinton continue to insist that it wasn't their votes that were at fault for Trump's election, it was the Democrats' failure to nominate Bernie Sanders; consider also how many of those on the Right who voted for Trump continue to insist that their vote was the correct one, even as Trump tosses them to the wolves while casually violating virtually every campaign promise he ever made. Those are both classic examples of denial. So is the behavior of the current Republican-led Congress, which has failed to hold Trump accountable mostly because, well, he's a Republican, and if they tried to control his actions they would have to admit that nominating him was wrong. They have handed him their beer, and must now carry through with their plan, even if it kills them. People in the center constantly ask why those on both the Left and the Right seem to vote so consistently against their own interests: well, there you have it. If you cannot admit you are wrong, then you cannot admit your vote was wrong; and if you cannot admit your vote was wrong, then you must continue to vote the same way, because to change will be the admission of wrong-doing you have been trying so desperately to avoid.

It is possible, though not easy, to combat the fear of being wrong. The hardest step is the first: deciding to start. It is hard because taking that step is, in itself, an admission that we have been wrong about something. We go into defensive mode as soon as that suggestion is raised. That is natural, but it is not always wise. Doubt can be our friend: all great advances in human knowledge have come because someone doubted the conventional explanation and was able to come up with a better one. Your doubts are there for a reason. Listen to them.

After that first step it gets easier, but not by much. The key, as with everything, is practice. Perfectionists must practice letting go of tasks before they are perfect; those in denial must practice making decisions based on evidence, rather than on what is the most accurate continuation of their past actions. Especially as you begin the practice, you will fail. That's OK. We all fail; the world doesn't end. That is actually what this post is all about.

OK - time to stop writing and hit "Publish." Here, hold my beer.

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