France and America

Me and EiffelFrance is a lovely country. Paris, a delightful city. The attacks last week were a disgusting expression of an empty ideology that hurts its practitioners and its victims both.

The outpouring of support and solidarity that people around me have shown for France frankly caught me by surprise. It seems we’re past the old pettiness of “freedom fries” and francophobia. I say it’s an improvement. In the long run I think it’s our natural state to have these warm fraternal feelings for France, at very least because we Americans owe the French a great debt of gratitude for their assistance in the Revolutionary War. In 1919, shortly after the First World War, Woodrow Wilson urged the Senate to sign a treaty with France, declaring:

We are bound to France by ties of friendship which we have always regarded, and shall always regard, as peculiarly sacred. She assisted us to win our freedom as a nation. It is seriously to be doubted whether we could have won it without her gallant and timely aid. We have recently had the privilege of assisting in driving enemies, who were also enemies of the world, from her soil; but that does not pay our debt to her. Nothing can pay such a debt. She now desires that we should promise to lend our great force to keep her safe against the power she has had most reason to fear…. A new day has dawned. Old antagonisms are forgotten. The common cause of freedom and enlightenment has created new comradeships and a new perception of what it is wise and necessary for great nations to do to free the world of intolerable fear.

—Message of President Wilson Transmitting to the Senate the Treaty with France of June 28, 1919

We seem to be in a new age of needing to “free the world of intolerable fear”, and these nearly century-old words are strikingly relevant today. But the pro-French fervor in the air right now is concerning as well as inspiring. It reminds me strongly of the feeling immediately after the September 11th attacks. There’s the unity in the face of violence and madness, the cohesion around what makes our western culture distinctive, but there’s also the risk of overreacting and bumbling our way into quagmires.

It seems France is already proceeding down that road. Their first instinct now is the same we acted out in the United States after our national tragedy 14 years ago: to solve the problem by militarizing it. An attack on us killing X people becomes hundreds of attacks in a foreign land killing 100X people, inspiring a new generation of terrorists who will wish to avenge their dead comrades, wives, and children.

At Versailles 4 June 2007

In fact, last week’s attacks seem partly to be a consequence of America’s overreaction to 9/11. We invaded Iraq, then we got out, leaving a feeble government that provided fertile ground for the growth of the Islamic State—the very organization claiming credit for the attacks in Paris. And so we see violence begetting violence begetting violence.

We need to take the Islamic State threat seriously. We need to find ways to tackle the root causes of these attacks—to help people to stop wanting to attack us and our way of life. The terrorist attacks aren’t the problem—they’re a symptom of underlying problems of political oppression, economic stagnation, and deep-seated anger at bearing the brunt of various American and European imperialist projects through the decades.

But why am I telling you this? Isn’t this obvious to everybody, hasn’t it been for the last 14 years? Don’t we all realize already that neither we, nor the French, nor anyone else, can war our way out of this problem?

I hope it is obvious. Maybe military action will be necessary, but then again, maybe it does more harm than good. At very least it must be recognized for the worst-case option that it is. Every time we resort to it, we do so because we’re still losing the war of ideas.

Until we start fighting and winning in the realm of ideology, these attacks will keep happening, no matter the military hardware, nor the sweeping surveillance powers, nor the national security state we throw at it.

On résiste à l’invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées.
One withstands the invasion of armies; one does not withstand the invasion of ideas.

—Victor Hugo, “History of a Crime”, Conclusion, Chapter 10

Mount Timpanogos


I’m terrified of heights. For nearly all of my life this instinctive fear has kept me far, far away from yawning chasms, precipitous drops, and freaky precipices. But somehow, in recent years, I’ve found myself called by the allure of high places—their very horror makes them weirdly attractive, and they’ve become a challenge, a quest.

That’s how I found myself yesterday morning on a narrow, washed out trail hundreds of feet above Timpanogos Basin, pinned against the crumbling rock wall and fearing for my life. Along with my friends Daniel and Becky, I was climbing Mount Timpanogos, the massive 11,572 ft. ultra-prominent peak that looms over Utah County. (I didn’t know what that meant before so I looked it up and it’s really cool. End of brag.) The sun had not yet risen; my trusty headlamp illuminated the way before me. Daniel and Becky had just crossed over a completely washed out section of trail that so completely unnerved me that I would not follow:

The "trail"

The “trail.” Somehow it wasn’t helping me feel secure in my footing.

It didn’t matter that I had spent five hours hours climbing 3,000 feet of elevation gain over six miles. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t get the magnificent sunrise view from the summit, or even the saddle. I was terrified, and I was turning back. In the Inside Out-style emotional headquarters within me, this guy was calling the shots:


Just doing his one job: keeping me alive!

And so I turned back. I’ve done this many times. After my self-preservation instinct screams at me for long enough that my life is at risk, it becomes impossible to ignore. So I turn around. I leave the situation that so terrifies me.

It is the lot of the perpetually anxious to be overwhelmed by things that have little or no impact on other people. It’s our lot to turn around when the danger signals are too intense, but when nobody else is turning around. And it’s our lot to feel cowardly for doing so, to wonder if we’ve done the right thing.

But I believe it is the right thing. Because the agony of ignoring the self-preservation instinct is real. And because turning around and giving up are not the same thing.

I retreated down the trail a ways while Daniel and Becky pressed on without me. I felt beaten, but relieved. I took pictures. I watched a mouse scurry about looking for fallen bits of trail mix. I sat by myself in the dark and watched the stars. I felt the wind and enjoyed the night solitude.

It was peaceful. I felt serene. But somewhere within me a voice began calling. I realized I wanted to try again.

So I returned to the washed out section of trail. I took it at my own pace, in my own way, for my own reasons. And I crossed it, no problem.

I continued up the path a ways, but soon found myself confronted by yet another disintegrating trail segment that I could not stomach. So again I stopped. Again I turned around.

I went down to the basin. I watched the dawn first simmer on the horizon and then roll over the valley:


I explored. I saw what seemed to be moose, but which turned out to be a hunter’s horses. I talked with him about mountain goats and the whereabouts of Emerald Lake. I watched a noisy squirrel drop pine cones from from the tree tops down to the ground. I saw this:

Timpanogos Basin

It was marvelous.

But in full light of day a voice seemed once again to be calling to me. I had to try again.

Back up the trail I went, back up toward the saddle. In the darkness my fears had filled the information vacuum, making everything seem more dangerous than in reality. But in light of day, my fears had less power over me. I could see that the slope beside me wasn’t completely shear, but often was somewhat gradual. With this encouraging observation I was able to advance up the trail much farther than previously. But again, at some point I encountered the limit of my appetite for risk, and I turned around.

I’ll say it once more: turning around and giving up are not the same thing. Sometimes we need to retreat and regroup. I turned around because my anxiety level was intolerable, and I would not have been a safe, surefooted hiker. But I returned again and again because the challenge remained, and it beckoned to me. I’m proud of that fact.

Ascent to saddle

My progress can be seen here. The red indicates my best estimate of the trail route as it climbs up to the ridge. The numbers 1, 2, and 3 indicate my three turnaround points.

Each time I returned I made it farther than before. I didn’t reach the summit, but I achieved what for me were great things. I believe that the following helped me:

  1. Familiarity. Some things are frightening largely because they’re unfamiliar. It’s easy to overestimate the risks of things unknown. The first time I faced the washed out section I couldn’t pass it, but the second time I did so easily.
  2. Going at my own pace. Knowing that nobody was waiting on me to make that daring leap ratcheted down my anxiety level.
  3. Knowing more. When the sun came out, true information about the lay of the land replaced fearful speculations about what might lie in the dark.

Though I’ve previously blamed my childhood anxiety on my family environment, further reflection leads me to believe that mostly I’m just an anxious person, and that there’s nothing wrong with that. Anxiety is natural—everybody has it, and it helps to protect us against dangers. People’s sensitivities to anxiety vary widely, from the stupidly reckless who really have no fear, to the anxious overwhelmed whose lives are dominated by it. We’re all on the same spectrum, and one person’s shameful cowardice is another’s prudent caution. I’m not sure how much we can change our temperament, but I believe we can learn to work better with how we’re built, whether by reining in our dangerous risk-taking or by finding ways to dare things we never believed we could.

Hiking Timpanogos was incredible. For me it was a truly intense experience. Magnificent. Terrifying. Beautiful. I’m so glad I made the attempt. I’m grateful for the patience of my friends, who helped me to achieve far more than I would have on my own. Which leads me to:

  1. People. You don’t have to face your fears alone. And that makes all the difference.

I found myself thinking about courage tonight, and found a quote that I liked a good deal:

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.
—Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius

I guess I related to it since I’ve gone through periods in life where just putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward seems to require immense courage. However, I’m not satisfied with a quotation until I have a solid reference to the original—unless I can convince myself that someone, somewhere is actually being quoted, rather than the quotation just being made up by some dude on the interwebs. Seneca’s “Letters to Lucilius” was a good start, but we can do better than that.

I was able to get a longer version of the quote from this American Scholar article. It runs:

I saw not my own courage in dying, but his courage broken by the loss of me. So I said to myself, “You must live.” Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.

But the article gave no more information about the source. Yet somehow I was eventually able to discover the following:

The full name of the source is “Moral Letters to Lucilius” (“Epistulae morales ad Lucilium”) and the quote comes from Epistle LXXVIII (78). Here it is with some context, from the 1920 G. P. Putnam’s Sons version translated by Richard Mott Grummere (also available on Wikisource here):

That you are frequently troubled by the sniffling of catarrh and by short attacks of fever which follow after long and chronic catarrhal seizures, I am sorry to hear; particularly because I have experienced this sort of illness myself, and scorned it in its early stages. For when I was still young, I could put up with hardships and show a bold front to illness. But I finally succumbed, and arrived at such a state that I could do nothing but snuffle, reduced as I was to the extremity of thinness. I often entertained the impulse of ending my life then and there; but the thought of my kind old father kept me back. For I reflected, not how bravely I had the power to die, but how little power he had to bear bravely the loss of me. And so I commanded myself to live. For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live. (Seneca, Ad Lucilium epistulae morales, transl. Richard M. Grummere, 1920 ed., Epistle LXXVIII, pp. 181-182)

So young Seneca had once been so ill that he contemplated suicide, yet the thought of his elderly father and the grief it would cause him led the adolescent philosopher-to-be to press on and find a way through his darkness.

Here it is in Latin for good measure and for the fond memories of my Latin 101 class that transcribing a few lines will bring back:

Vexari te destillationibus crebris ac febriculis, quae longas destillationes et in consuetudinem adductas secuntur, eo molestius mihi est, quia expertus sum hoc genus valetudinis, quod inter initia contempsi; poterat adhuc adulescentia iniurias ferre et se adversus morbos contumaciter gerere. Deinde succubui et eo perductus sum, ut ipse destillarem ad summam maciem deductus. Saepe impetum cepi abrumpendae vitae; patris me indulgentissimi senectus retinuit. Cogitavi enim non quam fortiter ego mori possem, sed quam ille fortiter desiderare non posset. Itaque imperavi mihi, ut viverem. Aliquando enim et vivere fortiter facere est.

There. My bogus quotations detector is now satisfied. And hopefully this post makes it easier for future searchers to determine the validity of the quote.