(CW: suicide, violence, murder)
I recently told a friend who was going through a rough spot and feeling lonely that I think loneliness is actually a pretty healthy thing to experience. We spend a lot of time, as a culture, trying to avoid it at all costs; at the risk of sounding like a person who’d get parodied in a Tim Robinson sketch, I suspect this is why we all spend so much time on our phones.
It’s worthwhile to have to sit with yourself for a stretch of time devoid of being able to have what you want. In recent years I’ve made an effort to embrace my chances at feeling lonely, whether it’s hiking out to an empty stretch of woods with only elk and the fog for company or trying to make the most of months when my wife is in a different state for work. I have grown quite a bit from experiences like these.
But I want to draw an important distinction between loneliness, which is both necessary and healthy, and alienation, which is not. The consequences of alienation are manifold but I believe its causes to be few; if we want to narrow things down further, I think capitalism is at the heart of all of them. By alienation I am specifically referring to the deep and overwhelming dissatisfaction felt by people who have little moral or emotional connection to the work they must do in order to survive, to the people who live in the apartments and houses next to theirs, and to their physical community as a whole. (To some degree “community” barely exists as a functional idea anymore.) This is driven, in large part, by capitalism, which is predicated on both competition and relentless engagement with the demands of productivity. Our atomization is both a byproduct and a driver of this.
This feels like an important time to be making this distinction because of the horrific acts of violence that have cut through our national consciousness in the past few days. The profile of the shooters is at this point unsurprising; young white men who spend a lot of time on the internet are overwhelmingly represented in our rapidly expanding catalog of mass killers.
I find myself dissatisfied with the main reaction to that statistic, though. There is a tendency—an understandable one, please know—to stray toward tautology in the aftermath. To fall back on, as bedrock truth rather than as a consequence of something larger (and frankly more alarming), the idea that men are violent because they’re men, who are violent. This worldview is one I find dissatisfying, not because I’m defensive about the idea of being lumped in there with them but because it is not particularly actionable or resolvable. If “toxic masculinity” is the disease and not a symptom, there is frankly almost nothing to be done.
(Make no mistake: the culture of masculinity, men’s collective attitudes toward women, and the harm that women and non-binary folks experience at men’s hands should not be diminished. Nothing I will write here is a panacea for all ills or an all-encompassing explanation. Many of these behaviors can be combated, unlearned, and dismantled through lenses and practices other than my own. But to fundamentally change our culture and the violence therein will require a willingness to listen rather than just prescribe. Young white men are being radicalized toward hatred and violence, nationalism and racism, xenophobia and transphobia in the worst corners of the internet in droves. We can treat that as the sum total of truth or we can start interrogating what created the hole inside them that these poisons fill.)
The alienation of being a man in a late-capitalist society seems to create high-profile acts of two types: quite literally, fight or flight. We have seen the consequences of the fight response, the abuse and the massacres and the cultural toxicity. But I can’t help but see the flight response as the other side of the same coin.
My thinking about this is driven in large part by a probably-unhealthy fixation I have on people who die in the wilderness attempting difficult feats. I recently had cause to fall back into a black hole of stories like these when the second person died attempting a pilgrimage to the Into the Wild bus, the place where Chris McCandless—the ur-flight model for dissatisfied young men—met his end in the Alaskan wilderness. (Both people who have died trying to reach the bus have been women, ironically, but in the 25 years since McCandless’s death, dozens of men have had to be rescued attempting to reach it.) Part of me gets it, honestly: I read the book at 17 and watched the movie at 18 and for years considered McCandless something of a hero. Now I’m 5 years older than he ever got to be and I see things differently.
There is a through-line here from the death of McCandless to the deaths of Hayden Kennedy, Kyle Dempster, Justin Griffin, and Dean Potter, all of which I’ll get to in a moment. But ultimately it starts in the same place as all the rest: a howling, painful feeling of alienation, a tremendous dissatisfaction with society, and a desperate search for a community or outlet to salve it. It’s just that some men accept the possibility of self-destruction as their solution rather than turning that destruction on others.
Hayden Kennedy was one of the world’s best climbers before he died by suicide at age 27 in late 2017. Kennedy and his girlfriend, Inge Perkins, were skiing in Bozeman, MT when they inadvertently triggered an avalanche. Perkins was swept away and buried; Kennedy was not. Unable to rescue her, he took his own life.
Just a few weeks earlier, Kennedy had written a lengthy, gorgeous piece reflecting on why he was such an avid climber, and all the friends he had lost to the sport, including Dempster and Griffin. “I’m unsure what to make of it,” he wrote. “Climbing is either a beautiful gift or a curse.” Throughout the essay Kennedy struggled to make sense of why he felt compelled to keep going, and whether any of it was worth it. The line that got to me, and really cemented the thesis of this newsletter, was this:
And maybe one genuine reason to try to share our stories about days we actually send something, when we are alive and at the height of our powers, is to try to bring back what’s past, lost, or gone.
Perhaps by doing so, we might find some light illuminating a new way forward.
What was “past, lost, or gone,” in Kennedy’s case, was any belief that the regular world off the mountains held much meaning. He wrote at length about the exhausting tedium of working as a house painter and light-fixer for six months out of the year, the pointlessness of wage labor that must be endured to fund any sort of attempt at reaching the sublime, the meaningful. He wrote about finding community on the long drives to impossibly high walls of rock, and up on the walls themselves. It was only by risking everything that he could fill the void that he felt society had created within him.
So it was for his friend Kyle Dempster, who disappeared while climbing in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range, one of the toughest places on earth to ascend. So it was for his friend Justin Griffin, who died descending a peak in the Khumbu region of Nepal. So it was for Dean Potter, who was one of the world’s premier wingsuit jumpers until he was killed doing just that in 2015.
I don’t mean to reduce the efforts of these brave people to pure alienation—reading stories of the nigh-impossible feats they achieved in the wilderness, it’s hard not to feel as though at it’s finest moments climbing and mountaineering are aimed toward the anagogical, making way for deep and spiritual interpretations of why people do what they do. But I can’t help but see reflected in all of this the same basic driver as the violence mentioned above: a systematic emotional disenfranchisement spurred by the survival necessities of capitalism. (I can’t help but notice that so many of these men also leave behind partners, women whose own lives were upended in an instant. We should be careful not to draw too many conclusions but I confess that this is one facet of outdoor extreme athletes’ lives I have never understood.)
So how do we repair this? What is to be done? I don’t claim to have all the answers. But I felt heartened to get a hint at a few this past weekend in Atlanta, at the Democratic Socialists of America’s national convention. Over 1,000 delegates from all over the country were there to debate and vote on the priorities and projects of the organization for the next two years. And in those conversations I got a chance to see what a political project aimed at rebuilding community, the notion, and communities, the object, might look like. I got to hear from Sara Nelson, architect of the flight attendant strike that ended the government shutdown, who reminded us that solidarity is a more powerful force than any other in achieving political gains in a rigged system. I got to hear from Linda Sarsour, who dared us to be brave enough to meet the billionaire-bankrolled tide of fascism head on.
We still have each other, and some of us are still here, fighting.
Thanks for reading, as always. Feel free to pass the link along if you think someone else would like it.