When I was younger I had a friend who got a kick out of peoples’ suffering. Not poverty suffering or disenfranchisement suffering. Physical suffering. Embarrassment. Pain. It didn’t matter whether it was slapstick humour or genuine injury, she would end up doubled over in paroxysms of laughter every time. I loved hanging out with her because her mirth was so genuine and unaffected, so jovial and complete that it was almost contagious. Almost. But something in me always felt bad for the person with the pinched groin or broken leg.
I’m still not into schadenfreude. I’m convinced it doesn’t do it for me. It’s not nice and it feels wrong. Which is why I’m feeling a bit bad right now.
This morning I heard a story about someone’s misfortune and I laughed. Not a little, but a lot. Twice.
I feel mean, but I’m not sure how ashamed I should be. Because I still think it’s kind of funny and I need to figure out why. Am I a bad person? Or is it actually funny? You be the judge.
Any time rock climbing makes the news my heart sinks. It’s never good news and it’s usually a bit too close to home. The Australian climbing community is small and if it’s not someone you know, odds are it’s not far off. So you can imagine my dread when I heard the word ‘climber’ in this morning’s ABC radio news, read with the dispassionate deadpan of a journo in a city studio. My pulse started racing and I turned up the volume.
The report went a bit like this: “A rock climber has been rescued after 10 hours stranded on a rock climb in Western Victoria called The Squeeze Test.”
And I burst out laughing.
In the background the report continued with the news that the young man was doing remarkably well, concerns about crush syndrome were unfounded and he was suffering from hypothermia but his blood pressure was improving. So I let myself keep laughing for a while before I decided I should probably stop and think about why on earth I was laughing. This guy had experienced what was no doubt a terrifying, freezing night trapped between two unforgiving rocks at Mt Arapiles. The outcome could have been worse. It really wasn’t funny.
But I knew something that most listeners wouldn’t. I knew The Squeeze Test.
The idea of rock climbing conjures images of grace and courage, grand walls, ropes and hardware, proud cliffs and spectacular valleys. When most people think about rock climbing they think of grand, perilous journeys across intimidating vertical terrain. They don’t think of the squeeze test.
The squeeze test is a distinctly Australian rite of passage at Mt Arapiles in Victoria, and it’s pretty much what it sounds like. It’s a ‘climb’, for lack of a better name, which involves squeezing, contorting and wriggling through a bulging crevice between two hulking boulders, which have tumbled to the ground and come to rest in a grassy clearing. The boulders are dwarfed both in stature and status by the thousands of world-class climbing routes 100 metres away on Mt Arapiles. All they have going for them is a bit of tradition, and the tradition goes like this:
On your first trip to Arapiles you should probably go through the squeeze test. You will experience varying degrees of peer pressure to do this depending on who is trying to convince you. Afterwards you will feel silly and become part of an ongoing tradition of climbers doing silly things.
The squeeze test generally becomes a better idea after 9pm and after consuming vast amounts of your intoxicant of choice. It’s no surprise that this incident occurred at 10pm.
The injured man was a climber in an iconic Australian climbing destination, but he injured himself by getting stuck wriggling through a little crack between two diminutive boulders about 10cm off the ground.
So I think I was laughing for a few reasons. One, I felt relieved. Thank goodness it wasn’t worse. Two? Well, it’s kind of comical and a bit humiliating to find yourself wedged between two rocks, isn’t it? It’s not nice but I think it’s true. It’s also shocking and surprising and cringe-worthy without being tragic. Which, for some reason, is funny.
So maybe I’m not laughing so much at his misfortune as the absurdity of his situation. I’m not sure that’s any better, but it does make more sense. I’ve always enjoyed the absurd.
Anyway, I hope that the injured fellow is recovering well and receives nothing but support and eventually, when the time is right, a little good-natured ribbing over the incident.