A risk with promise

We are often cautioned nowadays about demanding too much from our vacations. Expectations for a major reappraisal of one's life, some experts say, can be the cause of subsequent depression. Perhaps, then, I was fortunate: I began my recent vacation with no particular expectations at all, except to get away from the old routines for a while. Nevertheless, I had hopesm, as I always do - the hope of finding out something about myself that I'd never known before, of finding an experience that would lure out of me some unexpected talent, some special strength or peace. Maintaining these hopes has always seemed to me worth the danger of disappointment. They give us a sense of possibility, the scope of a grander vision; they allow us to maneuver through daily hardships. It may be that because such hopes are a risk with promise, we cling to them all the more tenaciously - something like a rock-climber clinging to the small holds that enable him to maneuver on what seems to be a sheer cliff face.

Rock-climbing is on my mind right now. Having dreamed on and off about doing it for a number of years, I got my chance on a sheer stone wall during my vacation. That experience alone fulfilled some of my incautious hopes. But I also discovered something more. Although I'd made no plans for this discovery - indeed, prior planning would have been impossible - I see in retrospect that I'd been hoping for such a discovery without realizing it. I found that a good friend, whom I hadn't seen in some time, could by a word or action shake me into a keener, stronger sense of my own identity.

I was sprawled in one of the old family armchairs in Allen's apartment, tired from several hours on the road. I hadn't seen Allen in a year and a half, and then only briefly. He had been on his way to the Far East, planning to spend six months in Japan, Hong Kong, China, Nepal, India, and Thailand; he had come down to San Francisco, where I put him on the flight to Tokyo. Now I sat with him again, taking in the view from his sixth-floor vantage - the city of Portland, the Willamette River.

It might seem remarkable for a young man like Allen to have the time or the resources for a six-month tour of the Far East, but Allen's life has been far from ordinary. He lost his father before college, his mother shortly after his graduation from college. The oldest of four children, he and another brother kept their parents' business running; at the age of twenty-two he was vice-president of a small steel company. He evinces the combined compassion and daring, the strong warmth, of one who has survived great hardships.

''What would you like to do while you're here?'' he asked after I'd had an hour or so to rest.

''I'd like to try rock-climbing,'' I said, with a rather vague sense of what I was suggesting.

''Fine,'' said Allen. ''We'll do it right after dinner.''

And so we did. At about eight-thirty that same evening (the summer sun sets late in the Pacific Northwest) I was hanging out over a sheer fifteen-foot-high wall, the rope in my hands the only thing keeping me from falling. I was officially ''rappelling.'' I had to take a few deep breaths, but I managed to avoid being petrified - partly because Allen's instructions had been clear, confident, and even amusing.

''Remember the three basic rules of rappelling,'' he'd said to me just before I went over the top. ''Don't let go of the rope, don't let go of the rope, and, finally, don't let go of the rope.''

As I started down the wall, the more serious meaning of those words became clearer and clearer. For the first time, I actually heldm my life in my hands. My right hand - my ''brake'' hand, which would arrest my fall should I lose my footing on the wall - protected my life as it never did during my usual activities. I was utterly responsible for everything I did on my descent.

Such a realization is marvelously head-clearing. It encourages decisiveness and confidence, rather than confusion or uncertainty. Although it didn't take me long to reach the foot of the wall (it was, after all, only a training wall), I got a strong dose of this confidence by the time I was back on the ground. It was a funny feeling - vast, in a way, and hard to explain. But I felt as if, suddenly, I had a better idea of what it meant to be decisive - to know what I wanted and didn't want to do, to know what I really thought, and what I didn't think.

This may sound a little odd - don't we all know what we think? But I have spent a geat deal of my life being a very accommodating person, so much inclined to please others that I'm sometimes not even able to articulate what pleases me. And while it's important to treat other people well, it's a dangerous habit to allow their pleasure, their expectations and desires, to define your own. It can be a kind of enslavement, an unhealthy self-abdication full of confusion and uncertainty.

Allen looked over from the top of the wall, grinning. ''Wasn't that great?'' he said.

''Terrific!'' I announced. It was terrific; but perhaps what was best about it was my certainty that, if it had been otherwise, I could have said so. As I watched Allen rope up for his own descent, it dawned on me that one of the reasons I valued his friendship so highly was its clarity. I knew I could trust Allen to say what he meant, for he never tried to be accommodating simply for the sake of pleasing other people. His life had already demanded too much for him to be willing to disregard himself. He was kind yet forthright; therefore we inevitably had disagreements. But those disagreements revealed a mutual underlying trust, a kind of decisive compassion through which we better represented ourselves to each other. The straightforwardness was inseparable from the friendship.

That was a kind of revelation. But, as with some of the best revelations, it was distinctly quiet - no trumpets, no cries of ''Eureka!'' In the silence of the evening, I heard Allen's feet tapping the wall as he descended; I heard an occasional birdsong; I heard my own breathing. My pleasure was the pleasure of a clear head, a restoring sense of what it meant to be keenly alive.

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