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⚖️ Letter 130: The Pendulum of Pain and Pleasure

13 min

Surviving and thriving on the Kalalau Trail, 16 Life-Learnings from 16 Years of The Marginalian, Growing Sideways, Ceeds of Peace Workshop, Abraham Maslow, Guffaw

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Aloha fellow learn-it-all 👋

Greetings from Diamond, Head Hawai'i 🌺

Wow, what a week it has been since I last wrote you. I was embarking on my adventure one week ago today at 6 AM. Here’s one of the surreal shots from my trip on the Kalalau Trail in Kauai.

On the way to the airport, I set two intentions: empowerment and play.

More on the details very soon. Now, let’s dive into letter 130 from a learn-it-all. Enjoy!

❓ Question to think about

What’s it like to feel like life is a pendulum swinging between pain and pleasure?

🖊 Writing

Feeling bored out of my brain, I journaled alone in my tent on that Kalalau campsite on the island of Kauai, attempting to problem-solve my survival:

“Woof that rain is coming down even harder now. The clothes hanging on that tree out there are completely drenched. How can I turn this day around? It’s not like I can call a helicopter to airlift me home or an Uber on this whole island that can get me out of this mess…”

This was a journal entry from 9:34 am on Wednesday, October 19, 2022. Needless to say, no solutions were found. The longer I was alone in that tent, the more fear crept into my head with ferocious thoughts of doom and despair. Those droplets that summoned me from my slumber were just the beginning.

Nobody is out there to save me. I have to be my own hero. Thankfully, I wasn’t out there alone. I was with four other schmucks who ventured out onto this rain-ridden trail the day prior. We were all noobs to this trail. We were all in this together.

The pain that my panicked mind created is not how the previous day went.

Day One Pleasure

The previous day, it took the gang 10 hours to hike the full trail of 11 miles. Along the way, we saw gallivanting mountain goats playing with each other. My eyes could not believe the vibrant colors of the minerals in the rainbow rocks or the green leaves coming out of the most ginormous yucca plants.

At the scariest part of mile 7 with Crawler’s Ledge, I cruised through it without ever looking down. A fear of heights cannot be present if I never allow it to creep in, so I never allowed my imagination to go wild and picture the “what if’s”. We took breaks to eat the fresh juicy guava and went around expressing what we were grateful for. For me, it was for my boots, the clouds that provided sun coverage, and the constant sound of the waves crashing into the cliff walls.

We got to the campsite with 15 minutes of daylight to spare to set up tents and get a sunset swim in to rinse the mud and sweat and bug spray and sunscreen off. It made me forget about any pain I was in at that moment in time. It was blissful. We closed the night off with tea over a bonfire and stargazing of some of the most dazzling stars that my eyes have ever witnessed.

The end of day one was a stark contrast to day two.

Day Two Pain

I found myself on the cycle going from thriving back to survival mode. I was in the middle of nowhere with no fully dry clothes on a foreign island. I didn’t know at the time, but the camp was shut down due to flooding warnings of the river.

My tent mate Emily braved the rain with a purple poncho and headed down to the nearest waterfall a mile away to fill up the water filter. We were dehydrated and needed water to make the oatmeal for breakfast.

Every inch of my body felt like it was shouting at me. “You promised me a day to rest?!” My feet hurt to stand vertically up. I was scared of what the next 30 hours of my life would look like and whether I would catch my flight back home to Oahu. It was pure pain. The question “Why did I induce this in myself?” kept coming up. A year ago, I had never backpacked in my life. I would've never thought this was where I’d find myself.

Team huddle 1

Once the rain slowed down we the whole crew emerged out of our little homes. We huddled and discussed this conundrum we were in and what the safest option was.

There wasn’t much wavering of what needed to be done if we were to catch out flights home. We strapped on our packs, laced up our sobbing wet boots, purified several liters of water at the falls, and plunged ahead onto the trail all well knowing that the rain would make it sleek.

Luckily my 400mg of ibuprofen kicked in in the knick of time and I started the day leading the group. After just doing the trail the previous day I had no excuse for fear of getting lost.

I had a breakthrough as I was tiptoeing across the fast-paced river on the different rocks at the surface. My balance could actually be trusted. Such a huge success in my book! There was a moment after leading the group up a huge cliff that I looked down on and felt so powerful. Everything that I need to survive is strapped onto my back, and I am doing this thing!

Team Huddle 2

After making it three miles to mile eight, we huddled again to recalibrate about going further or staying where we were currently.

We all brought up the benefits and costs of either decision. The Crawler’s Ledge at miles 7 and 8 is known for being deadly. High floods make the most difficult part of the trail even more dangerous.

Morale was low. The whole group was leaning towards staying there to camp until me and the other leader Eric said we could hike at least one mile further to see how the trickiest mile of the trip would be. There were two hours of daylight left, so we could equally plunge ahead to camp at mile six or go back to camp at eight.

I sided with a bias for action because usually my fear only gets worth with time. We agreed to ‘sus’ out the ledge and see how it was. We all agreed that it would be okay to chicken out and go camp at mile 8 if that meant that the terrain would be drier the next day.

We plunged ahead knowing that if we waited longer we’d only get more anxious overnight dreading the sound of any more rain coming.

The ledge was certainly muddy and traction was hard to come by. I had constant flashbacks to where I’ve wiped out while skiing on the poorly groomed “mountains” of Michigan where it is pure ice and your ski losing control gliding down the ledge. After practically hanging off a cliff hanging on by a tree root and support from my walking stick, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Why the heck did I choose to do this for fun? Is it really worth risking my life to go on this hike?”

Five tricks I learned:

  1. Never look down. Similar to surfing waves, you go where your eyes look.  I looked up and saw the roots that I could grab onto while looking up. I saw my friend moving ahead of me.
  2. Slow down. Survival is not a race.
  3. Breathe more intentionally and deeper instead of allowing for shallow panicky breaths.
  4. Place your walking stick in a place of leverage by spearing it down on the inside of the closer arm to the mountain.
  5. Have a mantra so fear doesn’t mesmerize your: “I am nimble like a moutain goat”

After getting through these technical parts, out of nowhere a stream of sunlight came through the opened clouds after the whole group made it to safer terrain. The world was smiling and rewarding us for making it through the hardest part.

We made it to the campsite at mile 6 beyond grateful. We feasted to celebrate. The invention of camping charcuterie with ritz crackers, jerky, and spreadable cheese. The textures were decadent. I’d never been more grateful for some instant mashed potatoes.

The first foreign person we saw all day, Adam stopped by our campsite that night and shared, “You know despite its beauty, this place isn’t like Disneyland. Hawaii is the state with the highest rate of missing people.” Oh yes Adam, you don’t need to tell me this twice.

Sleep was hard to come by knowing that there was more pain to come.

Day Three: Pain and Pleasure

When I woke, the complaints could go on forever from bug-bitten swollen ankles, sore feet, tight calves, tense shoulders, and exhausted arms. But then there was the wondrous experience of the bird with the blue tail and yellow chest that kept following me around and greeting with its beautiful song.

When we started onto the trail, we were so ready for the destination. We kept a fast pace with limited. The breathtaking views never let me snooze. Jawdropping each time. When we made it to the trailhead where it all began, I took the most glorious shower outside for the first time in four days. The cold water was immaculate. The Universe was in the group's favor when we all found rides while hitchhiking to the airport since the bus was running behind.

Three lessons on the pendulum of pain and pleasure

  1. Don’t let expectations get in the way of your reality. It was supposed to be a beautiful trip throughout and it still was in ways that I couldn’t see in the present moment until after.
  2. Mental resilience starts with the beginning you can overcome what you set out to do.
  3. Make decisions together and hear the voice of everyone. When in doubt, talk it out and share your fears and what you are afraid of. When you pull fears out from under the rug, they become less empowered.

On this trip, I felt the perennial polarity of bopping back and forth from being pleased I chose to go on this adventure to immense regret wishing I was back in society with shelter and plumbing among other conveniences. A year ago I had never backpacked in my life, and my past self would be in disbelief at these mischievous choices and siding with the group that wanted to plunge forward.

I am sore but I feel stronger. I feel restless and raw but I am more resilient. I was scared but I trusted the group that we would survive. In the abundant beauty, there was much boredom.

In the grand scheme of it all, I’d say this trip caused more pain than pleasure. And yet now that the trip is over, I would still love to hike the Kalalau trail again. The little glimpses of pleasure were worth the cost of suffering and feeling what life was like with pain in survival mode.

I had fun and felt pain, but most of all, I feel empowered.

📖 Reading

Last week writer Maria Popova’s dropped 16 Life-Learnings from 16 Years of The Marginalian. Math time: 16 years times 52 weeks per year. That’s 832 issues. At 130 issues for me, I am only 15% of the way trailing behind the size of Maria’s portfolio size. That is mindboggling.

Her story inspires the heck out of me. She started Brain Pickings in 2006 with an audience of seven friends. That’s all it took to motivate her. She came to America alone from Bulgaria in her late teens and was intimidated. Her wonder and sharing of an assortment of ideas is what saved her mental health while dealing with depression:

I dispatched my ledger of curiosity — a brief digest of interesting, inspiring, or plainly wondrous things I had encountered on the internet, at the library, or in the city, from exquisite sixteenth-century Japanese woodblocks to a fascinating new neuroscience study to arresting graffiti on the side of a warehouse.

While having her full college course load and four jobs, she still muscled up the resources to take a coding class at night to create her own “ugly as a newborn aardvark” website.

Nine of my favorite takeaways from Popova’s piece:

  1. At year 7, she began a public diary of her lessons, that acted as a Russian nesting doll for her present self “containing and growing out of the irrevisible selves we have been.”
  2. Say “I don’t know” and seek understanding instead of trying to be right with your opinion. Be patient with which convictions you harbor instead of jumping to have one since expected to have one.
  3. Never chase only the extrinsic motivator of prestige. Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.”
  4. Actively daydream and seek out boredom. “The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations.”
  5. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.” Stand true to who you are.
  6. Celebrate instead of being the critic. It is more generous this way even though it is against the default behavior.
  7. Presence > productivity. “Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, ‘how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’”
  8. Be patient and recognize blooming may take a while. “The flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.”
  9. Be intentional in choosing joy until it is automatic. Make it intentional to choose even if it is uncomfortable at first. “Joy is not a function of a life free of friction and frustration, but a function of focus — an inner elevation by the fulcrum of choice.”

🎧 Listening

I had such an aha moment listening to this on repeat yesterday. It is quite sad. Yes, I did cry. Here are the lyrics that struck me the most:

Spent my savings at a Lulu, now I'm suffering in style
Why's pain so damn impatient? Ain't like it's got a place to be
Keeps rushing me

But I ignore things, and I move sideways
Until I forget what I felt in the first place
At the end of the day I know there are worse ways
To stay alive
'Cause everyone's growing and everyone's healthy
I'm terrified that I might never have met me
Oh, if my engine works perfect on empty
I guess I'll drive

And if all my life was wasted
I don't mind, I'll watch it go
Yeah, it's better to die numb
Than feel it all

Kahan has self-deprecative humor in his songs. I glossed over that and disagree with the last lines about it being “better to die numb”. I’ve noticed that I have an avoidant tendency where if I notice something I do not like, I try to suppress it and do something else. This is robbing me of the human experience though.

It’s like how my first time journaling about my emotions lead to confusion when I was 10 yo witnessing the unfamiliar feeling of grief and extreme sadness when my grandpa (Dziadzia) passed away from a heart attack.

I’m still not quite sure what the best approach is because I don’t want to wallow in certain things that are polar opposite to my positive outlook on life, but I also don’t want to numb them. If you have any tools or thoughts here I welcome them.

Side note: I did some light Googling on the phrase growing sideways and it can be defined in meaning a plant redirecting from insufficient sunlight or a child becoming gay. I interpret the lyrics in this song to mean stagnation and a lack of progress or growth like others.

🔎 Word to define

Guffaw: a loud and boisterous laugh

Etymology: 1720, Scottish, probably imitative of the sound of coarse laughter. Compare gawf (early 16c.) "loud, noisy laugh." The verb is from 1721.
Related: Guffawed; guffawing.

🌟 Quote to inspire

“In any given moment we have two options: to step forward into growth or back into safety.” -Abraham Maslow

📷 Photo of the Week

It was an honor to co-facilitate at the Ceeds of Peace workshop this past weekend. The non-profit’s mission is to plant seeds for the next generation of peacebuilding leaders. The event had 90 participants (20 of them virtual) across Hawaiian educators, counselors, parents, and community members.

Bronson Chang presented his vulnerable story on failure and how to redefine it to what he's found where it can inspire new projects like the one we are currently working on with HOPA Journaling. I swooped in at the end to introduce myself as the lead for this project as Bronson is on sabbatical as a new father.

I'll be sure to share the workshop video once it's live. I am jazzed about the survey and audience feedback from this presentation. A bright future ahead 💫

🙏 Shoutouts

I appreciate you reading this!

If ideas resonated, I’d love you to leave a comment, reply to this email, or send me a message on Twitter @JenVermet. If you forgot who I am, I welcome you to my online home.

Never stop learning 😁

Mahalo 🌺


PS- If you missed last week’s letter, I wrote about Living a Fluid Life that You Love.

PPS - If you are interested in listening to all the songs I’ve mentioned in these letters, I’ll be adding them to this Spotify playlist: Jen’s Jams

If you’re reading this because someone shared this newsletter with you, welcome! I’d love it if you subscribed:

👣 Footnotes

On the curse of self-knowledge:

Some of my favorite things:

On the questions we ask ourselves are critical:


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