Friday, October 9, 2015

The Soulful Sherpa

Emily Urquhart, Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family, and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes (Toronto: Harper Avenue, 2015), 124-6.

[M]y mother told a story she’d heard about a British traveler ascending Everest. He’d been barreling ahead despite his Sherpa’s advisement of a day of rest, annoyed by his guide’s refusal to follow suit. When the two men rejoined a day later, the British traveler had berated the Sherpa for his perceived laziness. “Be careful,” the Sherpa warned. “You need to rest to allow your soul the time to catch up with you. If you don’t, your soul might never rejoin your body.”

When I look for evidence of this scrap of overheard conversation, I follow a trail of contemporary legends. Some reference the British mountaineer, but in other variants the protagonists are wealthy Americans trekking in the jungles of Brazil who want to forge ahead but are warned by wise locals about moving too quickly for their souls to catch up. In yet another variant, Americans on safari in Africa are warned by the sage guide to slow down and wait for their souls to rejoin their bodies. The settings vary but the protagonists are interchangeably American or British. […]

[D]ecades later, I ask my parents about the legend, expecting the tale to have vanished, as ephemeral stories do within greater life narratives. Instead, they both know it immediately.

“Jakob Amstutz told Mieke that story,” my mother said. “He was a Swiss philosopher who taught at the University of Guelph. And it wasn’t Everest; it was a different mountain in Tibet.” Mieke, who is an artist and my mother’s closest friend, had been mentored by Jakob when she was a student.

“He was climbing with Sherpa guides, and they reached the summit and started heading down the other side,” my dad says. “The philosopher wanted to hurry down, and he felt the animals were rested and ready to descend, but the Sherpas said they needed to wait for the animals’ souls to catch up with them.”

“No, no, it was the Sherpas who were waiting for their own souls to catch up with them,” my mother says.

Variations persist in this retelling, and details are lost in time. I ask Mieke about the Sherpas and she tells me that Jakob Amstutz heard it from Carl Jung, who’d heard it from Walter Evans-Wentz, the American anthropologist who’d published an early translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Ultimately, the teller’s details are extraneous because the truth is in the story. It is a mindful warning: slow down or risk losing yourself.