An Authentic Life

A friend of mine sent me a link to an obituary that appeared in the New York Times the other day, knowing, correctly, that I would love the story of the man who had died. His name was Charlie Porter and he was something of a legend in climbing circles. The obituary listed his many achievements: forging new climbing routes up El Capitan, making botanical and oceanographic surveys of the South American coastline, building boats and navigating the seas. He is described in the piece as "probably one of the great adventurers of the 20th century.”

Charlie Porter. One of the greatest adventurers of the 20th century. Have you ever even heard his name? Probably not and here's why: "(Charlie was) a reticent man who was not one to trumpet his achievements and who often set off into the wild by himself without so much as a camera or a notebook."

Charlie, 1975.

Charlie, 1975.

I'm wondering if perhaps we could all take a page from Charlie's non-existent notebook.

The other morning I was out walking the dog when I looked to my left and saw the sun as it rose just over the edge of a mountain in the distance called Camel's Hump. It was a big, bright orange glob making its way into my vision, and, I am most embarrassed to say, my first thought was, "Damn! I don't have my phone..."

I was outside on a chilly spring morning, with my dog, experiencing the beauty of a sunrise and I wanted to take a photo of the moment to share with the world so everyone could see that I had been out walking my dog and looking at the sunrise.

Something has gone woefully wrong around here.

Charlie Porter paddled a kayak around Cape Horn. He didn't take pictures of his adventure or write about it or share anything at all about it with the rest of the world. 

He did it. Period.

If you dig a little, the stories about Charlie just get better:

Rumor has it that in the 1970s a Fairbanks climber and his friends made the first ascent of three 10,000-foot peaks in the Alaska Range. When he went to climb the third one, his partner (Charlie) swore him to secrecy—to preserve, for a while at least, "a blank spot on the map." 

Sworn to secrecy. These guys accomplished something stupendous, outrageous, and then they promised each other that they wouldn't tell a soul.

I'm sure that there's something worthy about our ability, today, to share so much of our lives with each other, I just haven't figured out what it is yet. I'm as guilty as the next Facebook poster, but I think I might invoke the spirit of Mr. Porter the next time I'm in the woods or hanging out with my kids; I think I might think a little harder about what I do with the stories of my days. I'm worried, quite frankly, that we are all clogging up the air and each others' lives with too much information. I'm worried that we're losing the ability to do something for the simple joy of doing it. I'm worried that we're all forgetting that life is for living and not for posting. 

I'm hoping you might think about that today.

I can tell you, for sure, that the world does not need any more photos of your glass of wine or your feet or the weather. Those things are nice, they're fine, especially if you're selling glasses of wine or feet, in which case we might want to see what you have before we make our way to your shop, but if you're settling in for the evening with a glass of wine and then you prop your feet up and are feeling cozy and happy, put your phone away and enjoy the moment. We don't need to hear about it or see it; you need to live in it.

Writer Janet Fitch has pointed out, wisely, that "all our self-display is causing an odd diminution of personality—we're cutting ourselves down to mouth-sized bites," and reminds us that what is lost are the "dense private thoughts that are the seedbed of the self, out of which an authentic life can spring."

She's right. We are chopping our lives into little pieces of nothing, every time we take a moment in which we should be living and breathing and stop the flow to photograph it and post it and then check back every ten minutes to see how many people Liked what we did.

We are losing something essential in all of this madness: we are losing the ability to listen to our own lives. Theologian Frederick Beuchner says it like this: "Listen to the music of your own lengths of time, your own silences."

I'm wondering how many of us even know what our own silences look and feel like anymore.

So Godspeed Charlie Porter and thank you for your beautiful legacy. I hope today that just one person is inspired by the quiet, private pleasure you took in living your life here on this planet. You, of all people, had a million moments that would have garnered thousands of Likes in today's culture of relentless self-promotion, but you showed something we have all but lost: self-restraint. You enjoyed the adventure purely for the adventure's sake, and you let the stories fertilize the soil of your own existence. 

Amen.