“It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.” Neil Young
“I’d rather be ashes than dust!” Jack London
Both of these sentiments hit me hard this morning, in a good way, while driving up Little Cottonwood Canyon, heading for Snowbird much earlier than I expected. Much earlier than I expected because when I woke up I was wondering which reason not to go skiing today would seal the deal and convince me to call it off.
Leaving the Salt Lake Valley behind and gaining elevation quickly along the canyon road, I allowed my eyes to drift upward, watching in wonder as the unique microclimate of Little Cottonwood drove waves of snow and wind-driven white-out bursts of near-zero visibility in powerful monochrome swirls bouncing between the soaring granite walls on either side of the steep roadway.
I didn’t feel very alive I woke up today, but climbing into these mountains, I suddenly felt very, very alive. And right then, in a beautiful cadence with the moment, Neil Young’s lyric from “Hey, Hey, My, My” came through the speakers, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.”
First thing this morning, when not feeling very alive, I hesitated and equivocated about the decision to ski (or not) today. Reasons to opt out were easy enough to find…too much wind today, too cold today, the canyon road might close due to avalanche mitigation activities, and I had a thousand other things that needed attention, and maybe I ought to just throttle everything back and not ski because I’m supposed to be taking it kind of easy this ski season to protect my recently surgically repaired knees after tearing both ACLs up here at the top of Little Cottonwood (at Alta) last season.
My surgeon said this ski season is a “blue square” season and to stick to groomer runs, you know, that early morning corduroy you hear about in ski marketing, and anybody who’s been there knows blue squares and corduroy runs are not what you’re really looking for when you drive up to the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon on a storm day, like today.
So I definitely could choose from lots of readily-available reasons to bail on skiing at Snowbird today.
And among all of those reasons, the ACL caution flag reason actually made sense. Nobody would argue against it, really. You know, safety first and be smart, and sensible stuff like that. But…this got me thinking about the endless balancing act we all face every day between risk and safety. And it got me thinking about what we might lose out on in life if we let that balancing act tilt too far toward safety all of the time.
“Safety first!” seems to occupy a special status in our collective consciousness. It sometimes seems like a no-questions-allowed credo of the age. I agree it’s easy to agree with it. It just makes sense. Or does it?
Do we really want safety to be our highest value? Do we want to adopt safety as our highest guiding principle? Driving up Little Cottonwood Canyon this morning, my decision was already made to ski on my reconstructed ACLs instead of opting out and sitting in my recliner catching up with email, I already felt confident my decision was right. But hearing Neil sing, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust,” while climbing ever-higher and closer to the lifts and the big terrain, I felt a surge of invigoration and gratitude kick in.
It hit with crystal clarity: Safety is not the main thing in life or the only thing in life, or the most important thing in life. On the contrary, to live full lives, we must walk a line not primarily between safety and danger but between safety and growth. Now, obviously, but I’ll state it anyway: Safety does matter. When faced with obvious danger, like a cliff instead of a skiable line, chose the skiable line. That principle applies to everything in life, to every choice, and we must weigh safety versus danger in our choices, and to do otherwise is stupid. I’m confident that we’re all on the same page with that.
Life also calls us to walk that edge, to hear the call of “Carpe Diem,” to find the razor-sharp balance between going just a little farther into the realm of the unknown, the challenging, the uncomfortable, the intimidating, the energy-requiring willingness to engage motion instead of stasis. Life calls us to overcome inertia and the countless paths of least resistance tempting us with false promises of comfort and ease.
Because when we walk that edge and venture into the realms of energy-expending challenges, unknown or uncharted paths, zones of discovery, and motion instead of stasis, we often (almost always) find a surprising of exhilaration, increased confidence, mental clarity, positive outlooks, creativity, gratitude, and renewed energy far greater than any energy we expended to overcome our previous stasis and perhaps something else that holds us back…our fear.
Listening to Neil sing, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust,” reminded me of a quote evoking a kindred spirit, one I learned a long time ago but needed to embrace once again, penned by Jack London, one of literature’s great writers about adventure, struggle, life, and death, and what it means to live to the full. “I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” (My emphasis added on “use.”)
Now, a note of gratitude and a quick sidebar about why the decision to ski or not ski at Snowbird on this storm day today even happened: A few days ago, my son invited me to ski at Snowbird, today, when he and a couple of his friends would be there. They wanted me to join them. When my decision time arrived this morning, thankfully, it occurred to me not to let this moment in time slip away, a moment that might not reappear. Whatever my readily-available rational reasons might be, including cautions about my ACLs and admitting that stuff made sense to a point, something bigger overrode it all. The bigger call to live. The bigger call to capture this moment in the mountains right now with my son and his friends. The bigger call of (cliche or not, it’s powerful) Carpe Diem, the bigger call to take some measured chances and risks, to make some no-guaranteed-outcome choices, to make the most of every opportunity to spend time in memorable, meaningful ways that are different from normal routines, and inject adventure into the day. All of that stared me right in the face this morning when the moment came to choose either motion or stasis. I’m thankful I chose motion. I’m thankful for the conversation with a friend just prior that inspired me to make that choice. It turned out to be a great decision. We skied powder. We skied steep Snowbird terrain. We skied through really bad visibility and flat light and high winds. It never gets old, that kind of skiing. It felt very, very alive, and this evening, it still does. And so do I.
A final reflection: Skiing is not the main thing in all of this. I believe motion turns out to be the main thing in all of this. And the main question to ponder everywhere and always turns out to be: How, in this next moment, can we find opportunities to choose motion over stasis? That’s the main thing.
Spoken so well by the ancient philosopher and theologian Saint Paul, speaking before Areopagus in Athens about our relationship with life, with existence, with the world around us, and most importantly, with those who live in this world with us, with those we love, and with God, “In him, we live and move and have our being.”
Motion. Choose motion over stasis. Don’t rust.
Keep moving! I will, too.