How Can We Balance Living a Good Life versus Living a Long One?

Steven Kornweiss, MD longevity, values Leave a Comment

I was introduced to rock climbing in college, and a decade’s long fascination with the sport ensued. I don’t do much climbing anymore, but I still see climbing as the ultimate metaphor for life. Professional climbers and mountaineers are fascinating individuals who make some of the best heroes, for within their career lies the compelling dichotomy between living well and living long.

The Alpinist

A few months ago, I watched "The Alpinist," a documentary that follows Marc-André Leclerc. Marc-André is a pure and brilliant Canadian climber who combined elite level performance in rock climbing, ice climbing, and Alpinism to become one of the most accomplished climbers in history. If you enjoyed “Free Solo,” the movie that chronicled Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite, then you’ll love “The Alpinist”. Alex Honnold has called Marc-Andre “the best alpinist of a generation.”

In “The Alpinist," Marc-André is seen free-climbing (without any safety equipment) on some of the world’s hardest ice and rock pitches.

Marc-André has been criticized for the incredible risks that he takes. In the film, he addresses these criticisms humbly.

“I know it’s dangerous. I’m not deluding myself [into thinking] that it’s not dangerous to go soloing, but I probably just have a different view of everything. To me, it’s not really an unacceptable risk.”

Marc-André Leclerc‌

What is an unacceptable risk?

We tend to think of risks in the affirmative. By that I mean, we tend to consider the consequences of doing something, but we often forget to calculate the consequences of not doing something.

I think Marc-André understood this. For him, the consequence of climbing and dying was less important than the consequence of not climbing. To him, not climbing would mean to lose the central purpose of his life, and therefore, his happiness. Either way, his life was at risk, just in different ways. The question for him was this: “would I rather live passionately and plunge into nothingness, or would I rather live a life of restraint and regret, and die never having lived?”

“The Alpinist” is primarily a documentary about Leclerc’s climbing, but it’s also an emotional exploration of this issue. I loved this movie, and cannot recommend it highly enough. If you watch it, I’d love to hear how you felt about it, and whether it challenged the way you think about your own life.

Fred Beckey

Another larger than life climber who you’ve likely never heard of is Fred Beckey. A few days ago, I finished watching Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey. For most of his career, Beckey was completely unknown outside of the mountaineering community. He’s still unknown to most.

But, Fred Beckey is now considered one of the best mountaineers in history, with roughly 1,000 first ascents to his name. He climbed 40-50 peaks annually for most of his life, from age twelve until his early nineties. Despite living out of cars, tents, and in the wilderness for much of his life, and having little education, he meticulously documented his climbs and published multiple guide books that are considered some of the best in the climbing world.

In the movie, Fred is seen hiking and climbing rock faces at the age of eighty-five. He’s sleeping outside and shaving at the side of a stream. He’s got a flip phone, and he’s calling friends in the middle of the night to plan new climbing trips. His ambition was alive and well even in his ninth decade. What was responsible for Beckey’s longevity?

“All of us kind of look at Fred going–God, how can we get a piece of that?–How can we get that fountain of youth that lies within Fred Beckey? I don’t really know what it is other than just his spirit and his mindset, because if you watch him eat, he eats like $*@#. He eats tons of fast food. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t smoke, but he’ll hang on to a piece of food for weeks and pull it out of his backpack and eat it.”

Todd Offenbacher from Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey

Even though I watched this movie alone, I was laughing out loud, smiling in awe, and tearing up by the end. Beckey is just an unrepeatable character, and the fact that he was so fit at such an old age is a lesson in longevity. I do think that the single-minded pursuit of one’s central purpose is an essential ingredient in living a good and long life as Beckey did.

“This Man Died from Living Too Much”

Beckey and Leclerc are heroes. They show us how to pursue and achieve our top values. They also make us carefully consider our approach to life.

They challenge us to think really hard about what we value most in life and how best to pursue it.

Even if most of us don’t encounter much danger on a daily basis, we must still consider the balance between living a full and good life as against living a long one. Living well and living long don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but sometimes these two values clash with one another.

Consider the common decisions we have to make with regard to our diet and our exercise, our travel, or our personal approach to avoiding infectious disease. Doing or not doing things in each of these arenas has risks and consequences. We have to consider both sides of the “risk-coin” with regard to any value we want to pursue, or any action we want to take.

It all comes down to value hierarchy. What do we value most? What is our central purpose in life? It’s important to have answers to these questions, or else it’s impossible to know which risks are acceptable and which are not.

These mountaineers have this incredible passion for a particular way of life that, counterintuitively, allows them to take life-threatening, yet rational risks.

Perhaps their attitude is best summed up in the words of my favorite novelist, Ian Fleming, through his character Darko Kerim:

“But I am greedy for life. I do too much of everything all the time. Suddenly one day my heart will fail. The Iron Crab will get me as it got my father. But I am not afraid of The Crab. At least I shall have died from an honourable disease. Perhaps they will put on my tombstone ‘This Man Died from Living Too Much’.”

— Fleming, Ian. From Russia with Love (James Bond Book 5) (Kindle Locations 1862-1864). AmazonEncore. Kindle Edition.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Robby McCullough on Unsplash


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