I was in Colorado, and watched with a friend there when Aron Ralston appeared on David Letterman in 2003, after cutting off his right arm, which had become pinned, as the saying goes, “between a rock and hard place”. He’d broken the bone, severed his own arm, rappelled down a 65′ canyon wall, and begin the 17 miles back to his car, when he was seen by a couple from the Netherlands, leading to his evacuation six hours after he’d amputated his arm.
Other than that Letterman interview nearly eight years ago, I’d known nothing of Aron’s story, until Saturday night, when I attended “127 Hours” (R – for language and blood). It was hard to ponder how a movie about a guy stuck in a canyon could possibly be a candidate for best picture, or best actor. One guy, stuck in a canyon for five days? It doesn’t seem to be much of a story; until you see it.
Beautifully written, and exquisitely crafted, “127” isn’t about canyoneering, it’s about community. It’s not about having the machismo to self mutilate, it’s about being self aware enough, vulnerable enough, to know that the people in your life are more important than the mountains in your life, that your tribe is your real source of strength, not your exercise routine.
And here’s the irony: It was love, born through vulnerability, that gave him the strength to do what needed to be done, to cut off his arm for a chance, not just to live again, but to live differently, more abundantly.
We don’t think like this much in our culture. In these parts, courage isn’t born out of vulnerability; it’s something you “muster up”, something those blessed with extra testosterone are able to express, while the rest of us stand in the shadows, as we envy the fighters, with all their strength and confidence. We exalt the one whose big ego exudes certitude, and whose certitude exorcises all everyone’s doubts and fears. Wishing we could be like them, we try to ‘toughen up’ somehow, to become “real men”.
Maybe we need, instead, to go a little deeper into the canyon. Maybe we need to acknowledge we’re stuck, or lonely, or afraid, to really lean into it. Maybe we need to recognize just how priceless our friends, parents, children, spouses are – realize that in our beautiful, broken world, the significant relationships with which we’ve blessed are worth everything: worth our time even when we’re tired, worth our honesty in confession even when we’re afraid, worth our affirmation and encouragement even when we don’t feel like we’ve much to give. Yes, even worth cutting off our right arm, just for the chance to love again, or maybe to love fully, for the first time.
It’s not just a message for men, but in this age of masculine crisis, it’s a message of great value for men. Sure, ride your mountain bike if you like. Carry your leather-man tool and reach for summits. It’s no problem. But recognize, I hope, that your real humaneness, courage, even your maleness, will be born, ultimately, not out of machismo, but honesty and vulnerability.