Flags Over the 48

September 11, 2011

Every 9/11, on each the 48 peaks above 4,000 ft. in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, bands of hikers carry up an American flag to plant at each summit. Every hiker has his or her own reasons for carrying the flag or for making the commemorative hike. Today, I hiked to remember the ordinary men and women who lost their lives and to celebrate the transcendent American values that will never die.

Looking at the flag over Mt. Garfield on 9/11/2011

At the heart of American values is the idea that human beings are free and they should not be controlled by someone other than themselves.

Over and over, for thousands of years, the idea that human beings should be controlled has been proven false. When human beings are controlled, a special few determine the production and distribution of goods and these decisions are enforced by the judicial and police powers of government.

The more controls, the more poverty, and the more suffering a society endures. The more controls, the less innovative and the less successful an organization is. Many American do not understand that these are the consequences when freedom wanes.

Wishing for freedom is not the same as taking the responsibility for creating the conditions under which freedom flourishes and thrives. In his book Wow I’m an American, the great psychiatrist Peter Breggin writes, “In economics, as in everything else, human beings need to live by the values of liberty, responsibility, gratitude and love.”

Breggin offers his idea of the principles that make it possible for free markets to flourish and for people to live productive, meaningful lives. Those principles are “protect freedom, take responsibility at all times, express gratitude for every gift and opportunity and become a source of love.”

I would put it a little bit differently than Breggin. We are not a source of love; instead we allow love to be expressed through us, every time we get our ego out of the way.

Love is the basic energy of the universe, and we block the flow of energy every time we try to control others, every time we cower from our responsibilities, and every time we shrink from expressing our gifts. Freedom erodes each time we behave expediently to protect imagined comforts that we think will be threatened if we don’t go along with the status quo.

We insulate ourselves; thinking our circumstances special, we are relieved when the responsibility for renewing a free society falls heavily on the shoulders of someone else. When we think we can avoid responsibility, we are wrong. Without each of us taking responsibility to renew freedom, the American experiment will die.

If freedom does die here in America, it will be renewed in some other place at some time to come; for freedom is a transcendent ideal. But, why not renew our commitment to freedom today? Why not in America?


Martha’s Mile

September 21, 2009

Sunday was a glorious early fall day in the White Mountains. We opted to hike a pair of peaks that we had never hiked before: Mount Martha, named after the President’s wife, and Owl’s Head with its unique and sweeping view of the entire Presidential Range.

The view from the summit of Mount Martha is almost dead center on Mt. Washington ten miles away.

The view from the summit of Mount Martha is almost dead center on Mt. Washington ten miles away.

The mellow trail up Mount Martha and then across Martha’s Mile takes you through a col and on to Owl’s Head, a trail much less rocky than the typical trail in the Whites. Martha’s Mile, made gentle by time and footsteps, is in keeping with Martha Washington’s character. In the 1770s, Martha described herself as “steady as a clock, busy as a bee, and cheerful as a cricket.” Most agreed with her self-assessment. Abigail Adams praised her as “one of those unassuming characters which create Love and Esteem.”

When you’re hiking a mountain, if you’ve planned your hike well, there are few choices to make. Either you happily put one foot in front of another and enjoy the physical exertion, or you mentally struggle against what is. Either way, you’re going to the same place; but your mental activity will greatly influence your experience of the journey.

Off the trail, life seems to offer a lot of choices, but most of those choices are ultimately meaningless: LCD vs. Plasma, which television show to watch tonight, which new pair of shoes to buy tomorrow. We focus on these choices; and in the process, we lose track of our values and of our way of being of the world. Walt Disney’s brother Roy had it right when he said, “It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.”

In Martha’s time, the choices to be made were fewer; and for many, values ran deeper. Most lived and died in the same town where they were born. They had a couple of changes of clothes a year, they ate what was seasonal and locally grown, and they entertained themselves.

No, I do not romanticize those times. Even for those of means like Martha, life was much harder than it is today. Two of her four children died in childhood, and the other two died as young adults.

She played the part of First Lady well—always putting guests at ease—but playing her part was not her favorite thing to do. She wrote, “(I would) much rather be at home” and “I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else, there is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from….”

After the Revolutionary War, Martha wrote: “The difficulties, and distresses to which we have been exposed during the war must now be forgotten. We must endeavor to let our ways be the ways of pleasantness, and all our paths Peace.”

All our paths Peace! What a beautiful thought. I’m not sure why Martha capitalized Peace. Did she recognize that Peace was something she allowed to live through her? Did she know that Peace is not something any of us creates?  How many of us forget these simple truths. We spend our day rehearsing grievances—real and imaginary—about life. We are like the hiker who mentally curses the bugs, the heat, and the exertion and then wonders why the hike was unpleasant. In truth, those hikers are few; they simply give up the activity. But, we all have our miles to go and our life’s journey to complete.  And just like Martha and her Mile, there will be some stones and rough spots; but our values can see us through.

The Last Day of Peter Shintani

July 14, 2009

Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire is infamous as the home of the worst weather on earth; many have perished hiking in its subarctic climate.  On average, the wind exceeds hurricane force on more than a hundred days each year, and storms can develop quite suddenly and dramatically. That being said, the mountain can be hiked safely with some training and preparation.

The first time I climbed Mt. Washington, I took a misstep on a wet ledge and began an out-of-control slide. Fortunately, the angle of the ledge tilted toward the sidewall into which I slammed. Rather than dropping off the edge, I regained my footing; incredibly, I was uninjured.

This June we hiked up a trail on the other side of Mt. Washington. About two hours into our climb, the trail crossed another wet ledge. A couple hiking ahead of us was tentative; they invited us to go first. I decided to crawl across on my hands and knees while grasping the sidewall. Seeing me crawl was enough for the other couple; they wisely decided to turn back. I say wisely because both my wife and I had already noticed that they did not seem fit enough to complete the climb.

Peter Shintani perished climbing Mt. Washington approximately one week before our hike. The day we climbed, search teams and helicopters were scouring the vast and rugged terrain in an attempt to find him. Peter, a Canadian, had a lifetime of outdoors experience and was 70 when he died. He had planned to summit Mt. Washington one year ago, but had had to abort his climb. When he began his hike one day this June, the morning sky was clear. By the afternoon rain had arrived; a half inch of rain fell. The facts that are known suggest that Peter was probably above treeline when the rains came in. I know from experience how wind and rain hamper visibility on a mountain; it is easy to lose your way in a storm.

A helicopter searches for Peter Shintani

A helicopter searches for Peter Shintani

The search teams did not know which trail Peter took up Mt. Washington; after days, the search was abandoned. His body was found in July a couple of hundred yards off the Lion Head Trail—the same trail we hiked in June.

The area below the summit where Peter's body was found

The area below the summit where Peter's body was found

The morning of his fatal hike, Peter observed the sunrise and wrote about it in his journal, which was later found in his car. We can assume that Peter had no idea his death was imminent. In his book The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer asked this question: “Do you realize that what you’re doing at any moment is something that someone was doing when they died?”

Singer encourages us to reflect on how our priorities would change if we understood we would die within a week or a month. As we ponder our priorities, he asks this question: “If that’s really what you would do with your last week, what are you doing with the rest of your time?”

I love to hike in part because of the physical challenge, in part because of the views and the beauty of nature, and in part because of the unpretentious community that forms and dissolves each day on the trails.

The views not far from the summit of Mt. Washington are spectacular

The views not far from the summit of Mt. Washington are spectacular

But mostly, I like the honest day’s work doing something that I love to do. It is an honest day’s work; even when I’m exhausted, I must continue to put one foot in front of the other in order to complete my task. When I’m distracted by my thoughts—my ego’s views about this and that or ruminating about the past and future—I subtract needed energy from the physical task at hand. A strenuous hike limits the wanderings of my mind. To be sure, there are things other than hiking that I regularly do, such as teaching, where my ego’s noise fades to the background. But, for a host of other activities, my attention is divided.

To live with our attention divided is not to live at all. Yet, we can choose otherwise. I have no idea how Peter Shintani lived his days. His last day though was unexpected; he probably thought he had many more years of life ahead of him. If we could ask him, he might tell us that his end came too soon.

Time is short for all of us. If we truly understood this, would we spend one precious moment of our life reading another article about Sarah Palin’s future, or Jon and Kate’s troubles, or Barack Obama’s greatness? Would we polish the grievances we carry in our mind as though they were precious gems to be hoarded? Would we watch hours of nightly television, while consuming snacks laden with corn syrup? Would we be waiting around for the government to create opportunities for us to use our inherent genius?

Now, this is not a call to accomplish the spectacular. The world, Helen Keller said, “is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.” If it is not our calling, we need do nothing that draws the attention of the world to us. Yet, through our simple, honest labor doing something that we love—or doing something mundane with love—we make the world a better place; and our life is happier.

Mary Oliver ends her poem “The Summer Day” with these evocative words:

Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Ghosts of America’s Past: Part 2

February 8, 2009

In his book Water Bears No Scars, David Reynolds writes:

Anyone who has spent years working in a garden or in the fields knows impermanence intimately. We see the cycle of seasons, the coming and going of insects, droughts, freezes, rot, the seeds that sprout or die, the life cycles of plants, the bountiful harvests and the lean. It is all change. There’s nothing that can be counted on with certainty to be exactly as it was last year.

Living in a rural area, I know the kind of change Reynolds speaks of—it is simply more palpable here than in the city. In January, I begin to notice the more direct rays of the sun; by August, the first hints of fall are seen in the forest. Unencumbered by city lights, the cycles of the moon are visible out my window. On the nights of a full moon, so bright is the light that you can almost take a hike safely in the forest. There is no escaping the fact that we control very little in life; in the city, there are in-training many “masters of the universe” who think otherwise.

It was in the summer of 2003 that we took our first hike to Bridal Veil Falls in the White Mountains of New Hampshire:

The forest was at the peak of its vibrancy, but already the days were getting shorter.

The forest was at the peak of its vibrancy, but already the days were getting shorter.

A week ago we returned for a snowshoe hike to the Falls. My children are now almost six years older—so many memories have come with those years—and although the forest has gone through seasonal cycles, in geological time, less than a second has passed.

Bridal Veil Falls in mid-winter.

Bridal Veil Falls in mid-winter.

It is too difficult in winter to approach Coppermine Brook and find the plaque that actress Bette Davis had placed on a rock in memory of her second husband. The story behind the plaque is that she deliberately got lost on the trail so that a local man, Arthur Farnsworth, would be sent to find her—already she was smitten by him. I remember it was a fun treasure hunt to find the plaque that summer:

“A Grateful One” is Bette Davis; “The Keeper of Stray Ladies” is her second husband; Peckett’s was a local resort.

“A Grateful One” is Bette Davis; “The Keeper of Stray Ladies” is her second husband; Peckett’s was a local resort.

Davis loved the local life in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, and felt comfortable in a community without the pretense of Hollywood. The happiness that she found seemingly ended abruptly as Arthur died three-years after they were married.

All of us have known loss, some more than others. But most Americans alive today have known decades of uninterrupted, increasing prosperity. The normal cycles of economic life have been unknown to us; like a society that has somehow lengthened summer beyond its normal time, we have forgotten that winter is a normal part of life.

For decades it was as though giant grow-lights were placed on America’s gardens. Many thought that winter had been abolished by omniscient policy makers. Yet, the signs of change, the signs of rot, were there to see amidst the artificial boom.  Among those who were blind then, are those who still cannot see today. They think the answer is to get stronger bulbs on the grow-lights; as they do just that, they burn the incipient seeds of spring.

Part 1 of this series

The “Night of the Living Dead” Economy

July 9, 2008

Yesterday Ben Bernanke announced that the Fed is “considering” allowing Wall Street firms more time to draw emergency loans. The unprecedented loans to Wall Street began in March when the Fed loaned money to JPMorgan in order to bailout Bear Stearns. On Monday, the Senate advanced a $300 billion dollar housing bailout bill. On Sunday, my family and I hiked our first high peak of the summer season.

Am I mixing my blog posts? What could my hike possibly have to do with the Fed’s loans and housing bailouts?

I have been hiking the White Mountains of New Hampshire for well over 20 years. The peak we hiked this past weekend, Mt. Tecumseh, is one I have hiked perhaps 7 or 8 times. The first time I hiked Tecumseh I was a much younger man; I was literally twice as fast as I was this past weekend. As so often is the case, my physical prowess peaked long before my emotional maturity did. With hiking, emotional maturity means that you understand your limits, you plan appropriate hikes that stretch you safely beyond your current limits, and you have the discipline to commit to the training that is needed to accomplish your goals. With my emotional maturity still growing, I have been able to accomplish hiking goals that I never even thought of when I was younger and much stronger.

On Sunday, at the half-way point, I noticed how comparatively “slow” my wife and I had become. I was at a choice point, I could allow my ego to concoct a story about my declining abilities. I could get lost in my thinking and ruminating about the days when I was faster. Of course, doing so would take me from the present moment, slow me still more, and ruin the enjoyment of the day.

It is easy for the ego to rail against what is; but wisdom lies not in the voice of the ego but in the intelligence that is beyond. I can panic and as a consequence overtrain and risk injury, or I can exercise in prudent ways that will maximize my years on the trails. I can go to the doctor and demand some miracle drug or injection, or I can take time to maintain a healthy lifestyle and a healthy diet. I can overlook my current abilities and plan risky hikes that put me and my family in danger, or I can continue to enjoy the mountains commensurate with my abilities for many years to come. No matter what I do, the stark truth of life is that no measure I take will produce any guarantee.

So what does any of this has to do with the economy? Plenty. Collectively as a society we are like aging hikers who demand that the doctor shoot us up with inappropriate remedies to maintain our youth. When an athlete’s body is artificially maintained, the inevitable decline is even worse. Similarly, when we demand to be bailed out of any losses, which are normally produced by a vibrant free-market economy, we guarantee that we will no longer enjoy the benefits of freedom. And the more we try to stave off loss through artificial means, both the severity and the length of the resulting decline will increase.

Is this hyperbole? Consider the sad case of Argentina. In 1900, Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world; it ranked 12th in the world in GDP per capita. In little over a century, Argentina has fallen all the way to 72nd. What happened? The collective will of Argentines turned away from principles that promote prosperity and instead embraced an ongoing series of fascist and socialistic dictators who promised to deliver what is undeliverable—namely, a centrally planned economy that never suffers from declines.

Is Argentina on the road to recovery? Hardly! The current president of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, recently increased effective taxes on farmers to 75% and limited farm exports. Since a third of the Argentina’s work force is employed in agriculture and half of Argentina’s exports are agricultural, the country is certain to suffer from further devastating declines.

An economy that never suffers from declines is no more possible than a human being that never suffers from a bad mood. In a dualistic world, bad moods and economic declines are inevitable. Both, however, can be “treated” gracefully; and mental and economic health can quickly return. We can learn to recognize thinking patterns that are generated by the ego; we can learn to drop our resulting problematical thinking. This does not require elaborate interventions; it just requires a willingness to do so.

Human beings, due to periodic episodes of collective excessive optimism and misdirected signals caused by Fed policies, create economic cycles. Markets have a self-correcting mechanism, but only if they are allowed to operate. Instead, we are spending enormous amounts of money trying to maintain that which has failed us. In doing so, we postpone our economic recovery and create conditions for even greater declines.

If we demand that we never have bad moods, or that we hike at the same speed in our 50s as we hiked in our 30s, or that we never suffer economic losses, we will choose what is counterproductive. David Whyte in his book The Heart Aroused observes:

It takes tremendous energy to keep up a luminescent front when the interior surface is fading into darkness. In some ways we are constantly preventing our own rebirth into new cycles and greater lives, and instead work twenty-four hours a day keeping a wraithlike image of our former selves alive long after its time has past. This “night of the living dead “syndrome is just as true of an organization as it is of a person.

I know I don’t want to be a “night of the living dead” hiker—a hiker who can no longer enjoy the mountains because he demands that he always gets stronger. But I am afraid we are choosing to have a “night of the living dead” economy—an economy where all failures are outlawed, and as a result, success is nowhere to be found.

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