One thing that never fails to astounds me is how far the boundaries of possible human experiences extend. The label “beyond good and evil” is certainly overused these days, but lets try to take the idea seriously for a moment: What do experiences look like that are so totally incomprehensible that you can’t even begin to speak about them, let alone chart them on a mental map. Think of the comfort zone model for example:
Most of us, myself included, spend almost all of our lives well inside our comfort zone. Some of us, some of the time, are forced (or venture voluntarily), into the stretch zone. And, on rare and misfortunate occasions, we might find ourselves pushed into panic—say when we’re caught in a car crash or in the midst of a natural disaster.
But how does one’s ordinary perception of life compare with, or scale up to, the most extreme human experiences?
Take armed conflict as one of the most horrific examples: At this moment in history, we’re flooded with eyewitness reports coming out of Ukraine, where Russia is waging a brutal war of aggression. We hear what it’s like to kill and to be killed. We learn about atrocities committed against civilians and soldiers alike. About unspeakable crimes against humanity. We see the photographs, the smartphone videos; we hear the audio recordings. But somehow, to me, none of these accounts can convey what it must really feel like to be there on the ground and to live through any of these things. The problem is, I think, that people like myself, who are so deeply entrenched in our comfort zone, lack any frame of reference for these types of experiences. It’s like the blind man, who has no mental concept of “color”, trying to grasp the difference between “red” and “green”.
I, like many others, am both fascinated and repulsed by these extreme edges of human experience. In the vain hope of coming a little bit closer to understanding them, I’ve read countless books and articles by and about people who fought in the nastiest battles in history. Who survived Soviet gulags, Nazi death camps, or lifelong internment in North Korea. Who perpetrated some of the most atrocious war crimes ever committed. But also of people in this day and age, who voluntarily run ultra marathons, cycle across continents, or climb the tallest mountains.
For context, I do a little bit of running myself. I enjoy the occasional ride on my road bike. And I love hiking just as much as the next guy. But can you even put a Sunday morning jog anywhere within the same coordinate system as trudging up and down breathtaking mountains for days on end, without sleep, in pouring rain? Can you begin to compare your ordinary bike ride with a three thousand mile journey from one end of the continental US to the other? Or a walk up the gentle slope of a grassy hill with an expedition into the death zone, in solidarity, during an ice storm?
I don’t think that we do these outstanding experiences, or the people who had them, enough justice if we try to understand them as mere “differences in intensity” compared with our own, ordinary affairs. But we can, nevertheless, be astounded by them. We can, at least conceptually, study them, explore them, map them against one another. And when we do that, both the similarities and the differences between such accounts begin to blur in weird ways. Just like black holes bend space and time in ways that render Newtonian physics completely meaningless, these experiences shred any yardstick we’re trying to apply to them.
You could, for example, try to make a distinction between “voluntary” and “forced” exposure. One would think that it would make a big difference whether you deliberately forfeit the comforts of a modern-day existence for a brief period of time, say to engage in an extreme sporting event, or whether you’re conscripted into a brutal war against your will. But when you dig into any of these stories, you find that in the moment of the extreme experience itself, the protagonist is often completely oblivious to the reason why they’re doing what they’re doing. Rationally speaking, the ultra runner could stop and return to the warmth of their home any time, whereas the soldier on the battlefield can not. But it is exactly the extremeness of the experience itself that obliterates such rational thought on the runner’s part. In fact, it seems as if both of them would undergo some form of what psychologists call “ego-death” and what is often referred to as “no-self” in Buddhist scripture: A complete loss of that sense of “I”, “me”, or “mine”. What’s left is a sort of pure, non-dualistic experience in which there is no distinction between what’s experienced and who’s doing the experiencing.
Our intellectual tools crumble in similar ways when we attempt to distinguish solitary from group experiences. There should be a difference, shouldn’t there, between confronting one’s deepest fears alone on the icy slopes of Mount Everest and in the overly crammed trenches of Verdun. But both of them share the quality of truly life threatening anguish which, if some of the more gruesome stories can be believed, is sometimes even oblivious to who’s life it is that hangs in the balance. That, maybe mingled with a bit of “ego-death” and a sprinkle of irrational altruism, gives you the heroic stories of soldiers sacrificing their own lives for the benefit of their unit, or their friends, or simply the person next to them. Sometimes it seems, under such extreme conditions, saving a life even takes priority over saving your life. So much to the idea that at the core, humans are mere egoistic strivers for self-preservation, homo economicus, always out for maximum personal gains in exchange for minimum investment.
So, what is it exactly that’s so intriguing about the boundaries of human experience? I think it’s exactly their ineffability that fascinates me. Their “beyond good and evil”-ness. It’s one thing to read, listen to, or watch accounts of such things. It must be something totally different to experience them. But however fascinating, astounding, or admirable they seem, the jury is definitely still out on whether they are enviable. Arguing from a global, utilitarian standpoint, it should of course be our goal to increase the amount of time every person gets to spend inside their personal comfort zone. There can be no doubt that we should work to extinguish war, disease, famine, and all other sources of material discomfort from the meu of possible human experiences. But then, from a local, personal, individual perspective, should we also aim to retreat into affluent contentment at any cost? Should we thus strive to be Epicureans, or even straight-up Hedonists? The answer, to me, is pretty clear: The extreme experiences discussed here are not desirable in the ordinary sense of the word. They’re the domain of a small, either determined or unlucky, group of people. But this should not preclude us from venturing at least a tiny bit outside of our comfort zones every now and again. After all, there is some truth to the saying that life begins at the end of your comfort zone.