Editor’s note to issue 22 of Vertical Life. Download the issue here.
Community / cộng đồng / сообщество / Κοινότητα / 社区
When we try to talk about complicated things it can sometimes be easier to draw on foreign words that express concepts that are not easily translated into english. Their untranslatability frees us from exactitude, giving us room for allusion, interpretation and extrapolation. The gulf of imprecision also gives us somewhere to hide. But foreign words and their slippery concepts can also be wonderfully poetic.
The concept of ‘community’ is complicated. In issue 22 of VL (which you can download here) Jimmy Stephens finds that when he is travelling overseas. Spending time in the company of climbers can abate disorienting feelings of dépaysement (French – the feeling of not being in one’s own country). He talks about how sharing a cord at a sport crag or sharing beers with an alpinist can provide insight that far exceeds the shallow experiences of place common in travelling without purpose. Leaving aside the fact that travellers are propelled by many motives and some travel precisely because they want to step outside their communities and immerse themselves in that disorientation, using climbing as a vehicle for travel can combat saudade (Portuguese – melancholic longing or nostalgia for a person, place or thing that is far away from you).
Jimmy imagines that the reason for this is that there is a community of climbers that exists independently of nationality, one that is not bogged down in flags or language.
Here it is not so much that you climb that is important as there is something about calling yourself a climber that binds us together in a shared identity. This identity can be instantly communicated and easily drawn upon to create strong relationships in a short period of time. Being a climber is a vouchsafe. If you climb then you’re okay, you’re like me. It’s the promise of acceptance.
That we have access to a ready-made community who will welcome us in almost immediately is an attractive and compelling idea. It’s safe. Part of the reason that we can be so readily accepted is because we are invested. To varying degrees, from all-in climbing-tragic to the climbing dilettante, we are invested in the identity and want to be respected and liked by other members of the community. But that also makes us vulnerable.
Our identity can be taken away. When we are injured or, worse, when our psych wanes. Our identity can be a source of anxiety. Climbing can also be cliquey, it can be seen to reward power and success and that can be intimidating. Then there are those who suffer from imposter syndrome, the lurking feeling that you’re a fraud who is always just on the cusp of being exposed as a phoney.
Social media can amplify feelings of discontent. Though online communities can inspire, inform and connect us, it can also seem like everyone else is living a happier, better life than yours, ticking problems that you never will, smiling into a sun that will never smile down upon you, all this sending you deeper into the imposter’s shadow.
The German’s say fernweh is the state of homesickness for a place to which you have never been. I can see how climbing’s perfect constructions on social media can be longing for a climb you will never do. All of these are the antithesis of belonging, the opposite of community.
So climbing is not all back-patting and beer clinking. Communities can fracture, they can breakdown along ethical lines – to bolt or not to bolt – or they can be hijacked by strong personalities – Baxter vs White – they can be co-opted and bought out. We can be ostracised, we can ostracise ourselves, we can fight bloody, pitched battles over things that seem utterly irrelevant to those outside of the tribe. You’ve got to realise that you don’t need to be loved by everyone, that everyone can have an opinion but not every opinion should be important to you.
It’s possible to see modern climbing as a product of the lie of neoliberalism and its mythology of the person as ‘self-made’. That all meaning and value is centred in the individual. But neoliberalism is bullshit. It is associations that drive us. Loneliness and isolation are diseases. Forming groups is more than just putting out a sign that says ‘Community Here’. It is having someone to talk to who understands. It is knowledge sharing, it is safety, being motivated and being enabled, finding support, having a network. In seeing what others have done we get an idea of what is possible and that spurs us all forward to do more. And yet, it is also calling people out when they are behaving like dickheads, just as it is arguing for our position against others who have a different stance. Hopefully it is not fistfights.
Jimmy is right when he says that a community is not defined by geography alone, it’s also about more amorphous concepts, like shared experience. In a perverse way, it could actually be that it is easier for us to feel welcome in foreign lands than in our own. When we already feel like outsiders we may be liberated from feelings of inadequacy or from existing hostilities. We are open, we are not wedded to old divisions, not cemented in place by both what we think of ourselves and what others think of us. Home can bind us.
Maybe we all have a tendency to be blinded by existing structures at home. To be hemmablind, as the Swedes say, blind to the beautiful things and people that you see all the time, blind to home.
Or is hemmablind far more complicated? It can also mean that we are blind to the faults of our homes, unable to see the negatives. Traversing a foreign language is fraught with misinterpretation. It’s lucky that climbing is a language we can all speak.