Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Secret Self

Simpson’s telling of his adventure with Simon Yates is characterized by the instincts that took over the two men’s actions when they were in mortal danger on the mountain. Simpson, particularly, experienced this in the form of the voice that he described speaking to him with forceful directives, getting him to keep moving. Of course, this voice in his mind, practically speaking, can’t know anything more than what Simpson knows, since it’s clearly operating from the same source as the rest of Simpson’s mind. However, this part of Simpson’s mind was far more valuable / useful to him than the part that was singing old song lyrics. For lack of a better term, I’d call the voice Simpson’s basic instinct, and I’d say it kicked into high gear and became an ever-present entity almost separate from himself only when Simpson detected the extreme danger he was in.

Without that other self giving him directions, Simpson would probably never have made it out of the crevasse. It speaks to the astonishing capabilities of sentient beings to survive that Simpson’s brain separated into the rational/capable and the adversely affected pieces of its own accord, effectively separating Simpson from the mental damage that was happening to him as a result of his condition. I call this instinct a secret self because it only emerged in that time of life-threatening danger, and as soon as Simpson no longer had to put forth effort to preserve himself, that othered self disappeared. The moment Simpson’s brain registered the fact that he was about to be rescued by his friends, however remotely that understanding occurred in the depths of his mind as he was dying, whatever instincts had been driving him until then quit: “Something which had held me up, kept a flicker of strength pulsing, had evaporated into the storm.” (pg 188)

Interestingly, though, the voice that Simpson had recognized as a removed piece of his own mind had faded away once he had reached the river bed, before he came within reach of rescue, even though he reported that he was unable at the time to consciously realize where he was, or remember any inklings as such. “The voice had left me hours ago. I was glad not to be bothered by its interruptions. /Instinct made me turn my course from side to side, as if I recognized the jumbled stones, saw familiar patterns in the darkness, and followed a subconscious compass bearing.” (pg 185-186) I interpret this fading away of the disembodied voice partially as a result of the extreme exhaustion, exposure, hunger, and other physical damage that Simpson was succumbing to, and partially because Simpson was continuing to move along the river bed towards the tents without requiring the prodding and poking of the voice. It is as though the basic instinct part of his mind was carefully assessing the rest of his mental faculties the entire time, and carefully calculating the most effective method of getting him to safety and succor. On the mountain, down the glacier, and along the lakes Simpson required another person with unquestionable authority to tell him to keep moving, so that’s what his mind created for him. And once Simpson was in the river bed, following a route he seemed to know without knowing he knew it, continually, without quitting, his mind allowed the othered voice to fade out and let the more subtle, non-verbal instincts take over. This seems especially likely considering the fact that Simpson recalled feeling relief and peace at not hearing the prodding voice anymore – it became more important not to hear the voice, so he didn’t hear it, but kept moving.

I experienced this to a much smaller degree when sea kayaking in Alaska several years ago. I was feverish with an allergic reaction to the sun, in addition to dehydration and exhaustion, but I kept pulling on the water steadily, actually making much faster progress than the people I was with despite their healthier conditions. A piece of me was somewhat delirious, repeating Staind lyrics over and over in disjointed snippets, but the part of me behind the wheel was calmly rational and somehow distanced from the rest of my physical and mental condition, allowing me to know to keep moving, where to go, how to best angle my paddle, etc. The mental determination and stamina I discovered in myself on that trip was astounding and life-changing, and I found Simpson’s remarkably similar experience to be both moving and relatable. I think it is this experience of the secret self that brings adventurers back to the edges of the map – because that self is the most valuable and best part of us, and yet it only comes out in extreme situations. 

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