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Finding humility in the
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.
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
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
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
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.