hen I was nine years old my favorite pastime was climbing trees. I was a lanky kid who spent summers barefoot and running wild. Getting scraped-up and dirty was part of the adventure and a tree never disappointed.
Our acre-wide yard was peppered with woody giants, mostly sycamores and elms. They’d grown tall and wide long before I was born and their girth easily held my weight. I would pick my favorite and set my sights for the highest crook.
The first step in tree climbing is finding a strong handhold. With an extended reach I’d search for a tiny crevice and dig in my small fingers. Then, with my opposing foot, I’d find a bit of bark for a ledge and propel myself up. A bit of shimmying and belly scraping followed as I grasped and toed my way upward.
Once I stood in the canopy, I felt invincible. I had climbed and clamored above mailboxes, dogs, and passing cars to a vantage point way above my three-foot stature. I could see down the block, over fences and into other people’s yards. My world became bigger and so did I.
Climbing a tree was also a way to hide and escape, which is a necessary ingredient in any child’s life. In the leafy branches, no one could see me, and for a brief moment I felt invisible. I could flee the clamor of siblings and the cacophony of family life. My childhood angst would disappear and I was free.
I think back on that time because the feelings a simple climb generated were so profound. There’s nothing in my adult life that can give me such simple joy, which leads me to wonder why. It then occurred to me that I know too much.
But wait: Shouldn’t the knowledge that comes with adult thinking add to the enjoyment of life?
In theory maybe, but adulthood brings burdens.
Hiking in nature exhilarates and refreshes me — so long as I avoid thinking of invasive species, extinction rates, CO2 emissions and the melting arctic ice cap. Spotting a frog leap in a pond is a simple pleasure — until I remember amphibians around the world are dying in alarming rates of chytrid fungus.
The same process applies to news, which is intellectually stimulating — so long as I don’t think about fake news, hacking, politicians tweeting insults, and a president-elect who turns facts into molding clay. I also need to avert my eyes from bankrupt states, refugees clinging to life and a population whose emotional outbursts resemble a child’s tantrum.
Traveling to foreign countries has always served as a useful escape — if I’m blind to government persecuting a portion of the population or ignore the caged animals at the local market that supply the exotic pet trade. I also need to stay away from the reality that the military owns the hotel and ignore the local girl-women plying the sex trade.
Adult knowledge, which is also the state of knowing too much, quickly takes me out of where I am and produces a state of anxiety and guilt. Shouldn’t I be doing something to fix the world? There are so many problems. Certainly I should trying to make a difference.
Maybe in little ways I can. But these are big problems. The world is a complex place. It’s doubtful if my individual actions will make a dent. Hopelessness easily seeps in.
In times like these I recall my father’s aphorism: “Whatever you do, just don’t add to the madness.” He’d say. He served in World War II and knew madness first-hand. He spoke with full knowledge of human insanity and used this one simple line as an antidote.
These days I’ve been using it liberally, to good effect.
Which brings me back to my nine-year-old reverie and my place in the sycamore tree, an experience that squares with my father’s advice.
I can see myself standing tall and looking across the neighborhood with innocence and wonder. My arms and legs were scraped and bleeding but I felt exhilarated. It’s a good memory to escape into now that I’m grown up and know too much.