Choose uncomfortable enlargement this new year


In 1950, 11 French mountaineers set out on the French Himalayan Expedition to attempt to be the first people in the world to summit an 8000m+ peak. Nepal’s borders didn’t officially open to tourists until 1955, so, the group, which included a diplomat, trekked across India with over 6 tons of mountaineering equipment, and very much hoped to be let in. 

The next job was figuring out which mountain to climb, and how. A map and some intel they had brought from France suggested Dhaulagiri should be the focus. After a month of hiking up and down to reconnaissance viewpoints the equivalent altitude of Mont Blanc, the team realised the map was wrong and Dhaulagiri was impassable. 

Another two weeks were spent trying to find the next closest 8000 metre peak, Annapurna, among dozens of 7000 metre ones. By the time they set sight on Annapurna, and decided on a route, the group had just 12 days to reach the summit before the monsoon season was scheduled to hit.

Relentless and brutal and their synonyms are the only words that could describe the weeks that followed, recounted in the memoir ‘Annapurna’ by Maurice Herzog. Yet, the introduction, written by the then President of the French Mountain Federation goes as follows:

A flame so kindled can never be extinguished. When we have lost everything it is then we find ourselves most rich…

This is a special kind of luxury, and it has nothing to do with money. Money buys comfort. Enough money buys opulence. This kind of luxury, on the other hand, is intangible. It is an essence, a quality, and it cannot be bought. French Poet and Playwright Jean Cocteau wrote that luxury ‘is the reward of those who have no fear of discomfort.’

Discomfort doesn’t have to be so physically painful as a mountaineering trek, it can be as simple as facing the reality that life is finite, and there are only a few things worth doing:

...Pursuing the life projects that matter to you the most will almost always entail not feeling fully in control of your time, immune to the painful assaults of reality, or confident about the future…so we naturally tend to make decisions about our daily use of time that prioritize anxiety-avoidance instead. Procrastination, distraction, commitment-phobia, clearing the decks, and taking on too many projects at once are all ways of trying to maintain the illusion that you’re in charge of things. - Oliver Burkeman

And so, giving it is the end of year time famous for overcommitting, I urge you to consider the words of James Hollis when drafting your resolutions:

Choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable diminishment whenever you can.

You can do so by asking this question of every significant life decision: “Will this choice enlarge me, or diminish me?”

And maybe, one day, you and I will experience our own Annapurna:

“What an inconceivable experience it is to attain one’s ideal and, at the very same moment, to fulfill oneself. I was stirred to the depths of my being. Never had I felt happiness like this—so intense and yet so pure. That brown rock, the highest of them all, that ridge of ice—were these the goals of a lifetime? - Maurice Herzog