Monday, December 22, 2014

How climbing changed me: looking back on a year-ish of climbing

Hopefully this reads as "How I've changed over the last year" rather than "Why climbing is the best". I started climbing a year ago last fall, and I've wanted to write this for some time, but I have never quite felt inspired, so I decided to just start writing it and see if inspiration comes. Maybe I'll throw up a bunch of pictures of me climbing to round it off.

I've been thinking recently about how climbing has changed who I am. I suppose to a degree anything you do changes you. Our brains and bodies are molded by the way we use them, so it's natural that what we do affects the way we experience the world. But I am noticeably different because of climbing. Let's talk about that.

I miss those pants. 
This is one change I don't exactly love. I'm identified as a rock climber now. I've never liked being identifying as things. I just don't like being classified, so I sort of begrudgingly accept the title of rock climber. But it's true. I do it so often that it's what people know about me, and it's colored my life so heavily, that it's become a part of who I am. And to be honest, I love climbing. I might very well have been born for it. (I blame the monkeys we descended from.)

I've never had good posture, and it's still not great, but rock climbing forces you up onto your toes and makes you to think about how you hold your body. I still slouch when I sit, but when I stand, I stand-up straight and am constantly balancing myself as I move. If I open a door, I flag my leg out to counterbalance. If I reach for something, I turn my body so I can do it without pushing myself off center. I've always been obsessive about not stepping on street cracks, but now I also balance myself and consciously place my feet where I want to, smoothly avoiding them. (Yes, I'm almost 26 and I still avoid stepping on cracks. I just don't want to be responsible for any spinal injuries to my mother.) All this to say, I'm slightly-aware of my body position all the time. This is what I imagine life would be like as a cat. It's sort of a weird thing, but it does mean I don't stumble as often.

Body Image:
One of the first thing I noticed when I started climbing is the relaxed self-assurance that climbers have. There are always exceptions, but most climbers just seem comfortable in their skin. It probably helps that a lot of them have ridiculously toned bodies, but I think it also has to do with climbing itself. Climbing forces you to be aware of your body, to observe your feelings and respond to them, and then to forget about your body and perform. It sort of forces you into your body, and I think that's where confidence comes from, when there's no separation between who you are and what you are. Instead of looking at your body as this foreign material that you have to dominate, it's an instrument for you to use. You become aware of the feeling of your body rather than the external perception of it, and it causes you to dominate the space you inhabit, because you own it. Is that zen enough for you?

There's a big long article about how the objectification of our bodies (with girls specifically) is what inhibits both confidence and capability by making people concerned with the external appearance rather than the internal experience. I think that has something to do with it.

So for the first time in my life I have some upper body muscle, which is good for body image, but I also feel very comfortable with my body just because I'm so aware of what I can do with it. And that's nice.

It sure does make phone calls seem
more approachable. 
Rock climbing is tough. And that's cool. Once after I struggled to finish a climb, my belay-partner pointed out that even if it was rough, I'm doing something almost everyone in the world can't. It's fun to be good at something, and it gives you courage to tackle other things. When I climb up the side of a mountain and stand on top of it, it's easy to feel like I can do anything, and so when I have to face something else hard, I can remember, "this is tough, but I climb mountains."

In addition to the perspective, climbing has taught me how to deal with fear. Climbing is scary. There might be people who don't find falling at all scary, but in my experience, those people are the minority among rock climbers. (Maybe they don't last long.) Most rock climbers I know get scared, and many of them were once very afraid of heights. Part of rock climbing is learning how to master fear, and practicing that, and the way you master fear is the same whether you're making a move out above a clip on an exposed section of rock or talking to an intimidating stranger. For me, I take a deep breath, shake it out, let go of my fear and just act. It helps to sing a song while I'm at it.

This has been a big deal for me, because climbing is one of two things that scare me that I seek out on a regular basis (the other is dating girls), and I've had to learn how to deal with being afraid. Usually I deal with being afraid by going where I don't have to deal with being afraid, but there's something really empowering about recognizing fear and then dismissing it.

Speaking of fear, I have trust issues. This isn't so much an effect of climbing as a realization. Climbing has provided a very clear metric of trust. There are a limited number of people who I trust with my life, and I know who they are. I can count them on one hand. I know I trust them, because when I'm climbing and I'm about to do something, I don't second guess myself based on whether they're going to catch me. And this isn't an intellectual question: I don't climb with anyone who I don't think will catch me (I have before, it's terrifying. Never do it.) This is a deeply emotional, instinctual condition. Am I comfortable with my life in their hands? It's a good lesson about trust in general. If you're hesitating because you don't know how someone will react to something, you probably don't really trust them.

Pictured here: my foot. And Tyler
By the way, not looking down is terrible advice,
because you should be always looking
at where you're placing your feet.
Just try not to internalize what's beneath them. 
This is actually something I'm currently working on. Climbing somehow becomes a microcosm for all my issues. I always want to rest when things get hard. One of the biggest things I need to learn now in climbing is just how to push on through difficult times rather than ease off. When I'm climbing and it becomes tough, I have a tendency to just give up, relax, plan my next move, and try again. This isn't a terrible life-strategy in general, but it limits what you can accomplish when climbing. Sometimes you just have to commit, push on, and hope that there's something better up ahead, because this particular part is tough, so it's probably a bad place to stop. I'm working on that. One of the hardest climbs I've ever done I approached planning to climb until I fell. I finished it without falling. (This was cool, but the whole point was to become more comfortable with falling. So in that sense it didn't help much. Maybe in another year I'll talk about how I'm comfortable with falling, and how that's symbolic.)

On the other hand, I rock perseverance. I'm not sure how much climbing has changed this, but at some point in life I learned how to keep trying, and keep trying and keep trying. Bouldering particularly is an exercise in persistence. I've fallen off of problems dozens of times before I've finished them, and spent weeks working on a single problem. And I've gotten better. This is probably good for me, because I usually don't love taking on things that are challenging, because I like the feeling of being good at things. But the feeling of overcoming something difficult is even better.

This was sort of a recent realization, rock climber girls have become the default attractive body type for me. Luckily rock climbers don't actually have that weird of bodies, but I'm fairly certain most guys aren't primarily attracted to girls that could beat said guys in a pull-up competition. But at some point, girls with big biceps and steely forearms became the norm, so when I see girls with skinny arms I'm like, "That's weird. Why are your arms so thin?" I realized this from a stock image for an article about attraction that someone posted on Facebook (the second image below) and I've since became a little more aware of it.
Clearly a normally proportioned woman
An unfortunate*, skinny arm'ed waif
*Note, this shouldn't be read as a value judgement on differently proportioned girls. I just find it interesting how the girls you surround yourself with affect so strongly what you're attracted to. 

So that's how I've changed over the last year. It's been fairly positive.

Ooo, one more thing:
I want a climber kid. I've always thought having a little son would be awesome (for a long time, a dad pulling his son in a bike chariot summed up my life ambition), but now I have new, very specific excitement for parenthood: the ability to raise little monkey children.

Pictured here: little monkey nephew

Here's to climbing through another year.