“The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude.”
― William James
William James, the “Father of American psychology”, was indeed a superb man. He is especially great because of his story, early beginnings in life and how he transformed his circumstances in spite of having everything against him.
The early life of James was harsh, born into a wealthy family, great things were expected from him. When he was young he was temporarily blinded and because of it, became tone deaf. He also suffered from a terrible stomach condition that caused uncontrollable vomiting and adding to these, he had crippling back problems that made him had to stay at home for months on end. While crippled, he developed a love for painting, and during his hard childhood and adolescence, painting was the only thing he could and liked to do, unfortunately, nobody appreciated his art enough to buy it.
All the while, his brother Henry James was already a world-renowned novelist, following Henry’s success, William’s sister became a famous diarist. His father, disappointed, used his connections to send him to Harvard medical school, but the medical school didn’t really appeal to William. He said while visiting a mental hospital: “I feel I have more in common with the patients than with the doctors”.
After failing in medical school he decided to get away from everything and travel to Brazil in seek of adventure on an anthropological expedition.
Miraculously he managed to get to Brazil without dying in spite of his weak health. However, when he arrived he contracted smallpox and the team members left him there to continue with the expedition. James managed to return home to an ever more disappointing father and was on the verge of suicide for months. Before he made the final jump out of this world while reading Charles Pierce, he made a decision that would change his life forever. He decided he would hold himself responsible for absolutely everything that happened in his life for one whole year and that he would do anything necessary to improve his circumstances, he would hold himself accountable for everything, only after this he would leave the world for good. Good news, it worked.
William James little experiment made him the Father of American psychology and his book: Principles of Psychology shook the foundations of psychology and still does to this day.
Attitude, according to William James, is the single greatest definer of a successful and happy life.
“We don’t laugh because we’re happy, we’re happy because we laugh.”
― William James
Personally, I’ve had the opportunity to test this by myself, in the mountains.
Climbing a mountain is hard.
It requires previous training, proper nutrition and physical as well as mental stamina, lots of it.
If you want to climb a 19,000 feet mountain, be prepared to wake up 1 AM in the morning from the stinky refuge full of other alpinists that smell just like a man should smell after not showering for a week, get out of the cozy and warm sleeping back and change yourself into your climbing gear which includes: An underarmour shirt, a regular T-shirt (everything has to be dry-fit to avoid hypothermia), a sweatshirt, one big jacket, underarmour pants, hiking pants, snow boots, headlamp, wind-proof jacket, and gloves. Then get your backpack, which you already prepared the day before with crampons, trekking poles, ice ax, glacier glasses, peanuts, granola bars, avocados, lots of water and Gatorade, warmers for your hands and feet so you don’t get frostbite and a couple of beers to have in the summit (if you get there). Then it’s time to have a light breakfast of fruit, oatmeal, frozen Nutella sandwiches, and some cereal, then start the trek at 14 Fahrenheit in the middle of the quite and starry night, the chilly wind blowing into your covered face.
The trek starts at 13,000 so that means that you have to ascend 6,000 feet to get to the summit. Everything is colder and harder because of the altitude. When you ascend above 13,000 feet your body starts behaving funny, there is not enough concentration of oxygen and so your lungs have to work harder to process the oxygen which means that everything is more tiring.
The more you go up, the harder it gets.
Hydration and food intake is supremely important as well, you are always losing water in altitude because it evaporates from your body faster than in lower altitudes. The physical effort your heart and body are in is four times harder because of the lack of oxygen, cold and altitude, and so you are constantly losing massive quantities of energy. You have to be constantly eating, even though you don’t really want to.
Most people don’t make it to the summit, they are either underprepared or back down because they get altitude sickness and they start vomiting and having headaches or are simply too tired to continue. Sounds gruesome? I’m not going to lie, it really is a massive grind.
Despite all of these, the happiest people I know, are mountaineers. No doubt about it.
Well, I have my theories. In the mountain, there comes a point where there is no “backing down”. When you are high enough, you have to go through it or you can literally die, you are too high and the terrain is too hard for people to carry you without putting their lives as well in danger.
You also have all the reasons to be angry, sad, desperate and complaining but up there, a strong realization comes and enlightens you. Every single complain and every bad attitude you indulge in will only hinder you and make you even more miserable. Opportunity cost.
The way in which you choose to face the mountain is everything. No matter how tired, how fed up you are about it all, you can always choose to smile and this tiny realization makes all the difference.
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
You can see people laughing about the gruesome circumstances and their cramps and altitude sickness. Seeing it happen is so twisted and perverted and cool and so deeply stoic that you cannot help to laugh as well. I’ve seen a 67-year-old woman up there with the blizzard blowing in her face singing frosty the snowman to keep the attitude on good levels.
Mountaineers are, unknowingly, self-taught stoics. They just have no other choice but to practice it, and hell, they are good at it. They are indeed, miserably happy people.
The mountains have their own special way of teaching lessons. They are hard and indifferent, they don’t care if you die, in fact, they often kill people, and for this grim reason, they are such great teachers.
In the mountains, there is no room for error, laziness or whining. Either you take responsibility for your life or you die, or worse, kill yourself with others as well.
Responsibility and attitude, these are the lessons the mountains teach you.
Then you get to the summit.
The summit, getting it is truly marvelous, indescribable feeling. It is and will be one of the core experiences of your life, the hard work, the suffering and everything else is worth it once you get there, it is not only a mountain in the physical world but also on the mind.
This is the reason mountaineers get back to the mountains and to the grind and never get tired of them, they come to the mountains to find strength, to discover that the true power is always inside, never outside. They go back to connect with that inner and endless fire, a fire that permeates every other area of their lives and that lightens up everyone around them.
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back. ― Albert Camus
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