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Finding humility in the hills

Dear Editors,

Mountains have been teaching difficult lessons for as long as people have been exploring them. This was especially true last winter in the mountains of southern British Columbia, where more people died in avalanches than in any time in recent history. As a backcountry skier and visitor to a hut in the South Kootenays, as these mountains are known, I have spent a lot of time contemplating what lesson I could take from this. The conclusion I reached is this: When dealing with powerful forces and consequences, act with humility. I think this is a timely lesson for all of us.

President Bush recognized the importance of humility during the 2000 presidential campaign when he said, "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation but strong, they'll welcome us."

Yet for all the campaign promise, I think that as a nation we have forgotten a key part of humility, particularly in the face of our overwhelming military power: We cannot control everything. Spending time in the same mountains that claimed the lives of so many good people gave me time to reflect on the importance of this whether deciding if a slope was safe to ski, or promoting regime change on the other side of the planet.

I did not know the people who died in British Columbia and do not mean to judge them or their decisions in any way. However, their deaths, and the media coverage of them, served as the context for my trip this year. As I packed my gear, flew deep into the snow-choked mountains, climbed the ridges and skied the slopes, I was thinking about these people who lost their lives doing the same thing I was doing. I needed to make some sense out of their loss.

At the time, our nation's military was perched on Baghdad's doorstep, and Saddam Hussein was facing the last days of his regime. Today, his reign has ended and the U.S. military is trying to bring peace to Iraq. At the same time, we are beginning to turn our focus to other sources of instability in the Middle East. Acting with humility is as important today as it was a month ago.

Slowly climbing an avalanche-prone slope, one step at a time, provides plenty of opportunity to think. Basically, it is an exercise in faith. To ski safely in the backcountry, it is important to learn to identify the clues that the mountains offer about the snow's stability. But no matter how experienced a person is, there are always elements of uncertainty. This is why a bit of faith is required and why it is important to be willing to change your mind and revise your actions.

This willingness to reconsider is the crux of acting with humility. Commenting on the war in Iraq from his headquarters in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama asked, "What can we do when big powers have already made up their minds?" What the Dalai Lama recognized is that the U.S. administration was acting in an atmosphere that was not interested in debate, that did not welcome contradictory information and that was not open to reconsidering its long-since forgone conclusions.

When backcountry skiing, behaving this way is fundamentally risky and inappropriate. This is also true in foreign policy even more so as the military campaign in Iraq appears to be winding down. In effect, the U.S. has just skied a steep, avalanche-prone slope and lived to tell about it. Not every slope avalanches every time. However, if the lesson we take away from this experience is that ignoring input from our allies, acting unilaterally and squelching debate is the best policy, I fear we are setting ourselves up for a difficult lesson in the future.

I believe we can learn from the mountains. We must listen to new information, encourage debate and ask the difficult questions. In the end, our decisions always involve uncertain outcomes. The avalanche deaths this year serve as a tragic reminder of this. Yet for me, they serve as a lesson about the importance of humility. It is a lesson I believe we should all take to heart.

Brad Kahn, via e-mail






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