Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote about the concept of “Internal Goods of Practice”. The idea has been quite useful to me in terms of: 1) examining my adventure, and 2) creating more quality within my adventures.
My backpacking is a “Practice” in much the same way that a dentist has a practice (i.e. a “dental practice”) and a Judo Master has a practice. The word “Practice” here refers to a set of skills that takes time to acquire and which a person can improve, get more skillful, or even excel at. A Practice, followed faithfully and diligently, provides opportunities to experience Quality and Excellence.
An internal good is a “benefit”, a felt-confirmation of a skill or of improvement. The “Internal” part means that it is something that is “inside” the practice, and is also something that can trigger an intrinsic reward — a reward simply from doing something well (Excellence), or from experiencing something good within the practice (Quality).
One important thing to note here is that the “good” can often only be felt when you are “inside” your practice … which means that you have to have a Practice in order to experience the “good”.
MacIntyre used the example of chess — he says that there are some actions and experiences and some displays of excellence that would only bring a smile to someone who knows how to play chess well.
A wise fly-fisherman once told me that “A good cast is its own reward”.
A good cast (even if it doesn’t catch a fish) is an event of quality that can be appreciated by a Master of that Practice.
— A stylized picture of Mike casting intrinsically in the Monashee Range, BC
A wise backcountry skier once said to me “Son, a well-executed telemark turn is its own reward. It’s one of those things that makes life worth living.”
— My Father, Mount Becher BC, early 1980’s
I have a backpacking Practice … one that is characterized by a lot of bushwacking (i.e. navigating in the mountains without man-made trails).
In my Practice there are goods (benefits) that are internal to that Practice. Many of these benefits can only be experienced from the inside of the practice. No Practice = no internal goods. And, it should be noted, that I have to be working diligently and deliberately within my Practice in order to experience most of these goods.
For me, an internal good can be a piece of equipment or clothing that is really made well (exhibits high Quality) or performs well. An internal good could also be an action that I take that reflects a high level of skill (Excellence). And an internal good could also be something in the wilderness environment that is particular to either backpacking in general, or to bushwacking (wilderness navigation) in particular.
In this post I am going to present 3 examples of the internal goods of my Practice. I will start with a simple one, and then move on to slightly more complex ones.
This is a picture of one of my favourite coffee cups. It's a double-walled titanium cup with folding handles. I love this cup! It allows me to keep my hands warm (but not hot) as a I drink the coffee. It's really well-made (in Japan), and I can actually sit and marvel at the cup ... even if it doesn't have any coffee in it! A well-made coffee cup is it's own reward.
Wilderness navigation (no human trails, just forests, streams, mountains, cliffs, ridges, etc.) is filled with internal goods of practice. Such as:
- figuring out a good route from A to B, then making it happen,
- finding game trails that make travel easier (the local animals always have good ideas about the best lines of travel),
- planting my foot on a piece of ground that no other human being has ever stepped on,
- getting to places that very few other people have ever seen.
Remote camping … in places that have no signs of previous human activity.
As strange as it may sound, I tend to smile when I haven’t seen any signs of humans for a number of days. No litter, no trees cut down, no firepits, no footpaths.
Please don’t get me wrong, I think most humans are “okay” … it’s just that I like to see what some spots on the Earth look like with no human “development”.
— Middle of Nowhere, Canadian Rockies, 15-day solo, Palliser-Tipperary-Marvel, 2010
When I experience the internal goods of my practice … I think of them as “small yesses”. That is, I experience a small “yes“. There is a rightness, an affirmation.
One of the main reasons that I go on trips is so that I can experience a large number of small yesses. And a series of small yesses can turn into a medium-sized yes. For example, a day of bushwacking that involves several sections of challenging terrain that I navigate skillfully (small yesses) can turn into a very memorable day (a medium-sized yes).
These yesses are existentially confirming. They point to “the good in life”.
And here’s the thing … When I experience “a large number of small yesses” and some medium-sized yesses, they start to form something greater than the sum of the parts.
At some tipping point the small and medium-sized yesses point to something beyond themselves. They portend to a much Bigger Yes. And I want to address this “Big Yes” in some future posts.
Teaser: If I can’t find the “Big Yes” in the wilderness, then I probably can’t find it anywhere.