November 5, 2020

“We are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically, and to the rest of the universe, atomically.” – Neil DeGrasse Tyson

We are all indeed roped-up together on our journey of life.  We might have differing political views, but our diversity is what gives our life color in a world of boundless beauty and wonder.  With the 2020 U.S. Election still undecided, our heads are exploding given Covid-19, economic and employment uncertainty, social unrest – we’ve all seen psychologists and pastors on TV telling us to take a deep breath and stay calm while both sides amp up rhetoric and scream about voting fraud, counting, and rigging.

During the next few minutes as you read this, try to empty your mind for the moment of all the news coming at you from all directions, and give yourself a break from any reporting from Arizona, Nevada, Georgia or Pennsylvania.  (Hint – they’re still counting.) If you stay with me till the end, there will be a gift of perspective, and if you follow the journey and the link – maybe even some eventual tears of joy and gratitude.

Look, I’m right with you – no matter which side you’re on – nervous about the outcome and then the aftermath, worried about the second or third wave of the pandemic, and dismayed by the deep divides every time I see how close the voting results in many of the states are.  I’ve been saddened to see the worst of human nature, but much more often, by the determined spirit of homo sapiens to survive and make themselves and the world a better place though transformation.  I know a little about being tied-up to total strangers – and it was for real; our lives were literally in each other’s hands.

“The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it but the way these atoms are put together.  The cosmos is also within us.  We’re made of star-stuff, we are in a way, for the cosmos to know itself.” – Carl Sagan

We are a product of millions of years of natural selection and evolution.  Our DNA is in a direct line from our ancestors who hunted wild animals on the savanna in Africa but had the soaring imaginations to break free of the continent. And … in a cosmic blink-of-the-eye, develop interplanetary space travel.  Just let that sink in for a second.

We are all connected.  Each of us is really made from stardust – the remnants of the Big Bang.  99% of our mass is made up of six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, chlorine, and magnesium.  I don’t think any of them are Red or Blue.  Our brain is a wondrous work of art and science.  Approximately 86 billion neurons are in the human brain; there are between 200 and 400 billion stars just in the Milky Way galaxy for context.   Every new experience and memory creates connections between neurons, or synapses. Over 300 trillion synaptic connections are formed every day – new connections are constantly being created and old synapses no longer in use degrade and are discarded.  While the stronger connections formed earlier in life (prejudice, unconscious bias e.g.) influence our thinking, we are constantly evolving and learning creatures and we can discard our old ways of thinking.  We are all connected and if we are open to listening and learning, we can truly open up to change.

“Across the sea of space, the stars are other suns, we have traveled this way before and there is much to be learned.  I find it elevating and exhilarating to discover that we live in a universe which permits the evolution of molecular machines as intricate and subtle as we.”  – Carl Sagan

We are all roped up together. On my very first mountaineering experience – a glacier training and climb of Mount Baker – I got to witness first-hand how we hold each other’s lives in our hands on the shared rope of life.  Our rope-team was descending on a heavily crevassed blue ice-field after an unsuccessful attempt at the summit.  We had just completed training days earlier on how to “self-arrest” – how your responsibility is to jam your ice-axe in the ground in just the right position to save another rope-mate if they slip or fall.   When I heard “Falling!” I somehow remembered what to do just as another member of our rope-team had slipped and was heading headfirst into a very deep crevasse and possibly death.

When the rope went taught, Paula was able to stop literally yards from the giant crack in the earth, even as her water bottle tumbled in and was never to be seen again.   The universe decided a payback was in order the very next day.  As I was going around a deep, heavy, slushy snow corner – it was my turn to fall to certain death after falling off the edge of our trail and screaming my own “Falling!”.  Paula, who happened to be on my rope-team that day, saved my life.

Our climbing team came from different backgrounds and cultures; we were all strangers.  Before we met, put on our crampons, and tied ourselves together to a goal – our past was history.  Anyone who has ever worked on a massive professional project (think SAP integration) or been a PMP knows how difficult it is to keep personalities in check and focused on tasks at hand, while measuring and keeping longer-term objectives in mind.  With passion comes shouting.  That is not a bad thing.  What I importantly learned on the mountains was listening, empathy and understanding.  Yes, we had animosity in our expedition groups from time to time; but it was because we were holding each other accountable in the most unfeeling of environments and we cared.

Memorably on Denali below the West Buttress, our rope-team was called a “shit-show” by the expedition leader.  We were.  The four of us had been loudly quarreling for days over speed and pace and progress.  (Sound familiar?)  If you’ve never been on a high-altitude dangerous mountaineering expedition, being roped-up is a great opportunity for friction, conflict, and frustration.  Each and every step of the team-members has to be in perfect synch with the climber behind you and in front of you.  While, on Denali, with no Sherpa support, each of us carried about 60 pounds on our back and about 60 pounds in the sledge we towed behind us like a mischievous beast with a mind of its own.  Though I didn’t weigh much more than this, we equally divided group gear and food we would “cache-and-carry” each day.  We were responsible to carry our own load – but we’d always support each other.  At higher-altitudes, we’d have less than 50% of oxygen than we have at sea-level; rash decisions can be made and then lives, or limbs can be lost.  When the summit or end becomes so near that you can almost see it, feel it, touch it – on mountains and in life it can sometimes take determination, resilience, and grit to see the adventure through.  (Much like this endless election-cycle.)

That night after our “shit-show” day, Dan, our guide took us to the woodshed and said that if we did not get our act together and stop behaving like babies that we were going to be turned around.  All of our hard work, progress, money and dream would be gone like that – we had one day to make that hard climb up – we would succeed together or fail divided,   The four of us reassembled grumpily in our North Face tent, and after some tense words, we agreed to collaborate, no matter our differences in size or speed or ability – that we were going to look out for each other.  This meant some might have to slow down or speed up on the up-climbs, while others had to do the same on the down-climbs.

We came together in unity the next day, and we discarded the old neural connections about not working together – we had to reach down the rope and help each other – but we all pulled our weight and made compromises.  We got to high-camp in such good spirits as to have enough energy to saw the necessary ice-block walls to protect us from the cold and wind in the coming storm.   We summitted together as a team the next day and returned safely where those human bonds between us would never be broken.  (Paula and I would go on to climb the Seven Summits together over the following years, including Everest – we would always be connected.)

At this national inflection-point, let us embrace the beauty in our differences, knowing we’re roped-up together on this journey-of-adventure we call life.   Though the events of the day may be all-consuming, seeing things from the perspective of us being a tiny speck in one of hundreds of billions of galaxies can help us see, in the words of Carl Sagan, “we are, each of us, a multitude.  Within us is a little universe”.  Our little universe of trillions of cells has some decisions to make in the next days and weeks – we as people, as humans, as a nation, can join together to emerge from 2020 with hope, optimism and an understanding that we are all connected; biologically, chemically, atomically and increasingly, technologically.   Let us all take that deep breath, give gratitude for our existence, and that our connections with each other provide us an opportunity to find space to live in the middle, to find our common ground; that which unites us – the billions of neural connections that drive us to survive and to look out for each other as if our lives depended on it. Which they do.

Stand in the middle and enjoy everything both ways.  The tininess of us; the enormity of the universe. It’s all really there.  That’s what really gets you.  But you gotta stop and think about it to really get the pleasure about the complexity, the inconceivable nature. –  Richard Feynman

Bonus gift: Symphony of Sound, “We Are All Connected” (< 4 minutes)