Transcending Fun

“Life is all about having fun, at all costs.” – Some guy I met when I was 18 (who seemed far too preoccupied with having a good time and who also seemed way too old to be hanging out with 18 year olds.)

“There’s more to life than just having fun, Keith.” – Eric N., one of my best friends in high school.

One of my philosophies on climbing (and adventuring in general) is that the impetus for participation transcends the desire to have fun. Put more simply, I’m really not out there just to have fun. Fun is the byproduct of adventure, but it’s not the point. Not for me.

I became aware that I had the “transcending fun” mentality a couple summers back when I was paddling with my cousin Mike. Fifteen days my senior, he is my oldest adventure partner, going back to when we were taking our first steps together. Occasionally, our adventures take us beyond the back yard of one of our relatives (that’s a joke, but it’s also funny because it’s true in a way that would take a minute to explain). It was upon one such occasion when this story takes place, and I’m sure that in my head it is far more dramatic than it really was.

It was day two of an uneventful back yard paddle down the Fox River meant solely for the sake of “fun”. Just a couple days of easy paddling, drinking beer, smoking grass and eating snacks. Day one we paddled 12 miles from Burlington to Wilmot, where my parents live, then we camped in their back yard like we occasionally did when we were 12 (and like we occasionally did in our late 30s.) Day two was another boring and placid paddle from Wilmot into Grass Lake where we would pull out. Again, it was a completely benign and “fun” paddle followed by some snacks, a campfire, more beer, a tent (I think maybe a dog at some point) indoor plumbing, and breakfast ready and on the tale when we got up (thanks mom!!) and mom hugs before we set out. Awesome!

My mood that morning was a bit soured as I was in an incredible amount of physical pain due to a bad back, bad hips, achy joints and general chronic pain. So setting out the morning of day two, even though the day before was all kinds of fun, I didn’t really want to be doing it. I hurt and was hungry and tired because I was hung over from the night before. But again, it was “fun”. Fun can be a lot like sugar: It’s instant gratification. Sweet, easy to get. Feels good immediately and is usually short lived.

A couple hours into our paddle and the river emptied out into Grass Lake. Mike and I argued about which way to take, my way, which was the quicker, but more dangerous way as it cut across the lake where we would likely get capsized by the wakes of the great many speed boats piloted by drunken trailer dwellers, and Mike’s choice: the longer way along the shore which would be a harder paddle but was safer way (Mike’s choice). Mike’s reason won out. Reluctant to make a long trip across a windy lake even longer, I tossed my paddle onto the boat in front of me in vexation, lit a cigarette and sighed dramatically as I exhaled. “This is where it stops being fun” I thought.

As I took up my paddle, cigarette in teeth, I realized something incredibly important: “This was never about just having fun. This was about having an adventure.” You see, adventures, by nature, isn’t always fun. In fact, true adventure, high adventure, usually ain’t much fun at all.

The point of the experiences that take us out of our comfort zones and out of our safe places aren’t’ simply to have fun, it’s to discover. Walks in the park are fun, video games are fun, games of tag and hopscotch are fun. And sure hiking up a steep hill in the humid summer heat with bugs and a 30 lb pack and my best friends is fun as hell, no doubt. But I’m trying to do more than just have fun out there. I’m trying to live, and in spite what a lot of people would have me believe, I don’t think life is just about always having fun. I don’t mean to imply that fun isn’t important. It is. One thing you learn in a warzone is the importance of having fun. But fun isn’t the thing that gets me out of bed every day.

I was at the climbing gym with my sweetheart a while back when an acquaintance I ran into asked “how’s the climbing going?” I replied with too much honesty like I usually do: “Egh, not bad. One of those, low motivation, low self confidence days where I really don’t fee like I’m at my best.”

My cohort asked “But are you having fun?”  I replied with too much philosophy, like I usually do: “Today? Yeah, sure. But to me, it’s important that I show up even when I’m not having fun. Days like today, or where I’m depressed just not feeling it, It’s important I show up and climb anyhow.”

“See, I’m different. If I’m not feeling it, I just do something else instead. It’s all about having fun to me.” replied my cohort.

“I dig that.” I said, and I do. But, as Cousin Mike pointed out this past Saturday when we met up for a quick 12 mile jaunt down the Ice Age Trail “We’re out here to do more than just hike.” And that, I really dig.

 Many of the variables involved in climbing and adventuring are – be it by nature, default or accident – fun. But there is so much more going on in the moment that we can learn from. We can discover so much about ourselves, our connection with nature and humanity and ourselves. We can find doorways, neurological pathways into our deepest fears, and our deepest joys. We can rewire our system with what we discover on those journeys. You see, those road trips, those climbs, those camping trips and hikes and meditation on beaches and yoga sessions and what ever else are all vessels we use to sail our voyage of self discovery. And maybe the lesson I’m learning this morning is that the sense of self-discovery, those moments of universal and personal clarity and truth that I have on the rock are as inherent as the fun is.

Whatever your vessel, whatever your reason, direction or course, sail the fuck out of your waters.

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