Friday, January 6, 2012

Cliff Walk

What does it mean to be brave? Is it different from being fearless? Being brave means facing our fears and not letting them overwhelm us. Fearless means one is afraid of nothing. We can only be fearless in increments. There will always be something that terrifies us. However, it is possible to be brave in the scariest moments and in the horrible face of what terrifies us.

Over the holiday, I was rereading Don J. Snyder’s 1997 memoir, The Cliff Walk: A Job Lost and a Life Found (Little, Brown and Company/Back Bay Books). Snyder was a successful English teacher at Colgate University in upstate New York when he received his pink slip. The experience changed his life in dramatic and decisive ways.

Snyder’s journey follows his departure from Colgate and details his emotional climb through anger and arrogance, his shortsighted immature approach to the crisis. He is 41 years old, married with three children under the age of seven with a fourth child on the way. Not a good time to be adrift and unemployed in America. (Is there ever a good time?) He applies to universities and colleges literally all over the map, but fails to find another teaching gig that meets with his criteria.

After several late night sessions making endless lists of job prospects and his dwindling resources, Snyder decides to relocate his family to Maine, and they begin to draw on his retirement and meager savings to survive. He proceeds through a number of misadventures, both comic and disturbing, while trying to skate over the thin ice of his collapsing future before he is forced to face facts. The episodes will make the reader cringe, and Snyder is painfully honest, often painting himself in a less than positive light. He bottoms out and takes a physically demanding job as a day laborer in construction at far less pay than any teaching position. His is frigid, exhausting work through the bitter coastal Maine winter, but he is transformed by the experience.

Snyder’s story is one of redemption, and the book contains moments of ethereal beauty. It is a story that moves from fearlessness born of denial and ignorance to bravery and resilience. For most of the book, Snyder seeks to avoid retrospection; he is immature, stubborn, and childlike. But his life forces him down the path to salvation and maturity.

His story reminds me that we suffer our way into wisdom and knowledge. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote, and although he was speaking of the tyranny of an oppressive monarch, he could have been speaking of the human condition. Every day, in every way, we are tested in this crucible of life.

When we are young, bravery comes more easily because it is born out of ignorance. Young people relish their invincibility; every generation believes they will live forever. And then someone dies, or a war begins, and the illusion is shattered. We become older, more aware of the risks, the high percentage of failure, the fragility of human life.

We seem to want to ignore the signs around us. Things are not that bad, we tell ourselves as we race to the malls for the latest sales. It is all about instant gratification, getting what we want now, rampant materialism. But homeless ghosts wander our streets. People have been so demoralized that they have stopped looking for work. Our government is locked in partisan politics, with ego and party taking precedence over what is right for the American people.

Where is the deeper understanding? Where is our humanity?

We clearly have not suffered our way into wisdom, which means we face more difficult days ahead. On the edge of a chasm, we can claim to be fearless, but the sentiments ring shrill and hollow. To summon true courage to face our fears we first must admit we are afraid. We must be realists and dig deeper to find a way to deal with a rapidly changing world. We must embrace change and accept that impermanence is a part of life. Empires fall, the wind shifts.

I know in this new year there will be pain and suffering because there is always pain and suffering. We must accept the consequences of our lives, even when we did not have a part in creating the situation. Things happen, and we must deal with the fallout. This scares me and makes me wonder if we have the strength and courage to persevere. There is only one way to go: forward. Against the odds, against what fears may come, we must endeavor, every day of this new year, to be brave.


  1. Thank you Paul, for writing so thoughtfully about my book.
    Don J. Snyder

  2. Mr. Snyder, it is truly an honor that you read my review and took the time to comment. Your book changed my life both when I read it the first time, and again when I reread it in 2012. Thank you for sharing your pain and difficult journey with your readers. I have more to say, but I'll save it for an email.

    Take care.


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