On our flight home from our Spring Break, I watched Free Solo which just won the Oscar for best documentary feature. The film captures the story of free solo climber, Alex Honnold. Free soloing is a form of mountain climbing where the climber doesn’t use any ropes, harnesses or other protective equipment as s/he climbs alone. Free soloists climb to incredibly dangerous heights using only their hands and feet. In Free Solo, Alex climbs El Capitan, a 3,000-foot granite rock in Yosemite National Park, becoming the only person to make this without ropes.
A good part of Free Solo captures Alex and those who care about him talking about the obvious fact that one small error while free soloing can lead to a horrific injury or death. Tommy Caldwell, a legendary climber and one of Alex’s friends explains it this way: “I’ve spent 20 years of my life climbing El Cap, but I’d never do it without a rope…There’s no margin for error. Imagine an Olympic-gold-medal-level athletic achievement that if you don’t get that gold medal, you’re going to die.”
At one point in the documentary, Alex himself says: “If you’re seeking perfection, free soloing is as close as you can get. And it does feel good to feel perfect, for a brief moment.” Many of us like the feeling of being perfect. But, is Alex’s concept of perfection – of climbing a 3,000-foot rock without any protection – one that works for us?
I should point out that an MRI was performed on Alex’s brain. It showed that his amygdala was inactive. The amygdala is the part of the brain where our response to fear begins. Once the amygdala is stimulated by a fearful threat, it activates our fight or flight response. Alex’s inactive amygdala suggests that he either doesn’t experience fear or experiences it in a way very differently than most of us do.
For those of us with active or very active amygdalas, striving for perfection while ignoring our fight or flight response would not only be impossible, it would be foolish. While fear can often limit our potential, being afraid to climb a 3,000-foot mountain without a rope makes a lot of sense.
Judaism teaches us that “a tzaddik (a truly righteous person) falls seven times and rises” (Proverbs 24:16). If a tzaddik falls seven times, imagine how much us regular folks have to fall and pick ourselves up during our lifetimes! If we have no rope to catch us, we will only fall once and have the inability to rise up after the fall. This one fall not only knocks us out of the game of life, it also knocks out the tzaddik. This leaves no one.
We’re going to fall a lot as we go about our days. This captures a fundamental Jewish concept: we shouldn’t be seeking perfection, we should be seeking opportunities to fall, as falling allows us to rise up stronger.
Alex says that free soloing feels good and gives him the ability “to feel perfect, for a brief moment.” Judaism, on the other hand, teaches that it’s finding the strength to pick ourselves up after a fall, this is what feels good, empowering and enlightening. Our job is to make certain that we have the tools around us, the support system in place to help us get back up each time we fall. To free solo through life, according to Judaism, this is no way to live. It is a way to die. And Judaism says our job is to “choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) Still, I encourage you to watch Free Solo!