The Movement and the State

Bridging Two Forms of “We”

Image by Sam Gabel

I

When the Watergate scandal began to sweep over our culture beginning in 1971 and lasting until Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, an eerie phenomenon took place within American consciousness, a displacement of energy from the movement as an upsurge of liberatory and communitarian desire that had been “rising” for many years through a multiplicity of contexts (civil rights, women, LGBT, anti-war, the transfigurations of the counterculture) into what can fairly be described as a fixation on the State as the locus of political identity and political life. This displacement can be understood as a movement from here, in which a new sense of we was being born right within the collective consciousness and had been, growingly, for many years, into a there in which we returned to existing in an imaginary land, the State, ruled over by a president and a Congress and in which we each were designated as citizens outside of time, scattered across an externalized political landscape like so many leaves. One uncanny way that I experienced this displacement was that while I had for many years been feeling myself joyously uplifted by the rising force of the movement and the new and vital community this force was ushering me into, suddenly everywhere I turned people were watching television, watching the Watergate hearings, as if our political reality were out there—something to be watched—rather than within us as an internal and social-spiritual transfiguration of public space emulsifying the artificial and alienated culture that had produced the Vietnam War, the absurd hierarchies of race and sex, the hollowness of life as a performative script uncentered from our true Being and laid out for us as a kind of cultural prison that we had been sentenced to by virtue of our birth. Through the medium of the television set, I could feel those hearings vampirize the authentic community that we were becoming and return us to the separated, bloodless watchers of a political community outside of us that each of us was supposedly one of. “We” brought down “the President”. Or as everyone said at the time when Nixon finally stepped down, “the system worked.” And while Watergate did not succeed in itself in completely undermining the transformative energy of the social movements of the 60s, it did begin to mute that energy somewhat, to weaken its truly transformative power by returning a portion of that power to the State.

If we go more deeply into why this displacement occurred, we can see—and those of us who lived through it can actually recall—that our vulnerability to what we might call the Watergate trick resulted then and still results today from the movement’s lack of confidence in itself. At the time coming out of the 1960s, what I am calling the movement was creating a parallel universe, co-existing with the official inherited version of the culture, that was an emergent political community based on the joy of a new mutual recognition, a feeling of suddenly becoming present to each other in a new way that was more grounded and real that anything we of our generation had experienced up to that time. But we did not know how to name this new social reality and grasp it confidently in our reflection—we only experienced it, and even then in a somewhat tentative way, as in “Can this really be happening?”  And against that tentativeness of this new experience of what I am calling a parallel universe, a new political community, we also had inside of us our conditioning of our entire lifetimes, in which what was real was the President, and the Congress, and our dutiful roles as citizens of the State, all of which constituted “America”. That conditioned set of internalized images was, so to speak, laid down inside us as the truth of the world, taught to us implicitly in every interaction, summed up cognitively and reflectively in Civics Class in 7th or 8th grade, the official version of social reality in which “everybody” believed. So when the Watergate hearings came along, we were vulnerable to transferring our dawning authentic awareness that was tentatively being born, onto a familiar tableau that still existed inside us as more probably real and more probably solid than the possibly ephemeral experience of joy and oneness and communion that we in any case had yet been able to name and identify as an alternative pathway for us and for humanity as a whole to follow toward our greater realization as social beings. Seen through this lens of our understandable lack of confidence, as yet, in our own nascent movements, it was natural to be vulnerable to thinking that bringing down Nixon was itself a manifestation of our movement rather than a way of surrendering that movement and returning to the safety of our prior artificial conditioning. There were hints that we might have attended to—for example, the actual offense of breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters and then the secondary offense of covering it up was hardly worthy of the national celebration that broke out in response to the ultimate conviction of the burglars and Haldeman and Ehrlichman and even Nixon himself. Looked at dispassionately, the entire Watergate uproar was really much ado about nothing except for the excitement of solving the mystery so as to bring down the King himself, which showed how willing we were to be distracted to shift our focus to the King instead of treating the whole affair as a minor comedy compared to the immense significance of the transformation of the entire society that we were actually, deeply, beginning to try to bring about. But we could not be alert to those hints because we were not yet confident enough in the more profound change to which we aspired, what its true nature was, or how to confidently further its own development rather than being subject to being lured back into the conventional political community—the community of “the State,” that we were in a deep sense trying to leave behind. 

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We can see this same confusion-of-being occur when social movements arise, rise “up,” burst forth to assert their empowered presence into an inert pre-existing situation characterized by injustice and oppression, and then seek to institutionalize that rising presence in the form of legal victories within our present legal system. Consider, for example, the civil rights movement, a great, embodied movement of Being itself, a moral uprising originating in the black churches of the South, discovering and then affirming itself through the spiritual uplift of prayer and song, and then marching out into the streets and other public spaces, calling for an end not simply to “discrimination” based on race, but for an end to dehumanization in all forms, to recognition of one another’s essential humanity, to a bringing into being of an egalitarian mutuality that would realize the moral bond that ought to exist among all human beings and that would fully realize our desire to fully see each other and be seen by each other as inherently loving social beings. This is the “Call” that the civil rights movement as an upsurge of moral being made upon the whole of humanity and that carried forth the vibrant moral energy that had the capacity to reach me, a white 10 year-old playing in my upper-middle class apartment in New York City in 1957 and happening to catch sight of the marchers and voice of Dr. King on my television set, as a something-higher that I should somehow be aspiring to and that would be the basis of my own fulfillment.

But when that movement subdued itself so as to enter the heavily choreographed “legal arena” to assert that its call for the bringing into being of this kind of loving community should be binding upon the whole of society, the movement found itself arguing for a legal equality that drew its meaning not from the movement but from the State. And the distinctive thing about the State was that it manifested a consciousness without movement, whose participants were converted from full-blooded moral-beings-in-action here into separated and disconnected monads out there in a mental picture called “society”. Just as the Watergate hearings absorbed the living energy of the 60s into an official tableau watched on television, so the legal processes leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 absorbed the moral and communal uprising of the civil rights movement’s loving call to authentic and loving community into a decree of mere nondiscrimination based on race in public accommodations. Without meaning to minimize its immense historical importance in the long-term struggle against racism (as well as its very important impact on daily life for African-Americans), the Civil Rights Act nevertheless also defined equality in a way indifferent to its loving foundation. This is to say that the victory in the realm of collective consciousness that we call the State, made possible only by the moral force of the movement making its call upon the whole of humanity including the Nation, was also to some extent a defeat to the degree that it linked this victory to the restoration of the mutually separated, mutually distanced, mutually-protected-against-each-other world.  Under the new law, social justice means that you can remain disconnected monads shielded against the threat of each other’s vibrant presence, but you must do so without discriminating on the basis of race.      

There is a tricky paradox here. For when your own moral effort is “recognized” as just, and is then returned to you as a legal victory, but the consciousness embedded in the legal victory links the victory to the erasure of the moral and loving mutuality that brought the victory into being, the effect of the legal decree is like the effect of a funny mirror in an amusement park. The victory that you yourself sought and morally demanded and brought about is reflected back to you in its collective binding aspect as something that resembles what you were calling for but lacking the soul that was the very basis of the call. If fully ensouled, the State would be transfigured by the movement, and non-discrimination based upon race would embody the actual transcendence of racism itself: paranoid dehumanization and inwardly-humiliated racist grandiosity bathed clean in a sea of mutuality and love.  But the State that we have inherited from prior generations and that we today reproduce in our own lives can do no more than reconcile the moral pressure felt by all of us from the force of true movements for social justice with the social alienation, separation, and fear of the other that caused the injustice in the first place. 

And even more, because those of us in these movements have not yet become fully aware of and confident of the loving truth that our movements are giving rise to, we can be tricked by our own legal victories into adopting the State’s meaning of those victories as our own.  When the movement sees itself in the legal mirror that it itself has partially brought into being and won its victories within, the movement can actually partially lose itself in that mirror, defining its objectives as, for example, “eliminating all forms of discrimination” in a competitive, self-interested and mutually fearful world rather than bringing into being a world that would realize equality as a manifestation of love across our racial and all other differences. Thus the labor movement partly lost itself in defining its aims not as creating egalitarian workplaces reflecting cooperation and collective self-determination (but rather as often seeking merely higher wages and safer working conditions); the women’s movement partly lost its way in defining its aims not as fostering empathy and care and transcending the violence of patriarchy (but as assuring women could “break the glass ceiling” and be present in political offices and corporate boardrooms); and the environmental movement has partly lost its way in defining its aims not as restoring a sacred relationship to the natural world (but rather as reducing carbon and methane emissions while leaving unchanged the objectification and exploitation of the animal and plant kingdoms). These legal victories were of course “good,” and we should celebrate them as markers of objective progress in the long effort to truly humanize our world, but we must also recognize the way that they to some extent have coopted the essence of our great and loving aspirations and returned them to us in a manner quite consistent with the very social alienation, separation, and fear that at the deepest level they were intended to overcome.

II

If we now go more deeply into the experience of deflection from the movement to the State, we can recognize that there are really two quite different consciousnesses involved in the process of what we might call becoming-deflected. When I am drawn into the movement consciousness, I somehow cross a spiritual bridge from self to other that had been both blocked and invisible, and discover a new sense of being-here-with-one-another that relocates the ground of my very socialness in a radiant bond of mutual presence with others. The African-American community that had been scattered into being a collection of isolated and oppressed “individuals” emerges from the church as a single garment of mutuality, to paraphrase Dr. King—the very Being of the separated has through song and moral uplift crossed the bridge into an elevated mutual recognition suddenly empowered to make a great moral claim upon the scattered population outside the church and across the world. The wage-workers that had experienced themselves as reciprocally disconnected monads “under the boss’s thumb” come out of the union meeting deciding to “button up,” and when they do all wear their union buttons at work the next day, arise together to claim a new collective presence, a union of collective spirit announcing that a new “we” had been born. Women emerge from the spark of all-women consciousness-raising groups held in small apartments to discover a new strength, through each other, to dissolve the weight of pontificating male authority that they themselves had been subservient to as the very “who” that they were, or seemed to be, for generations. In all of these cases a new consciousness is born by rising up through a surprising mutual recognition to a new ground on which the whole of human consciousness itself could realize a new level of connection and transformation. Each of these particular “bridge-crossings” from self to other incarnate a new and tentative universality realized through each particular, pointing humanity toward a possible new and loving world.

But because the near-magical incantation of this new consciousness is new, came out of “nowhere,” and did so by a making of the invisible bond between us and among us visible, we human beings have not yet got what we might call a grip on it. The vast legacy of humankind has been evolving toward this elevated awareness through episodic and often unpredictable cultural spirals (or “revolutions”), but if we think of our own time, for example, the cultural weight of the reification of materialism as the motivation of all life (Darwin’s emphasis on mere survival, Marx’s on struggle over the means of production, Clinton’s “it’s the economy stupid”) and the reification of science as the means of knowing the world (if you can’t taste, touch, smell, see or feel it, it’s just a matter of opinion), makes spiritual knowledge of the rising longings of the soul made manifest in our great social movements something very difficult to hold onto. To take a non-movement example that I often refer to of the seemingly ephemeral nature of this elevated awareness, during the massive Loma Priete earthquake in San Francisco in 1989, people everywhere emerged from their reciprocal isolation to help each other, direct traffic at street corners, gather for dinner by candlelight (the power was out for days), watch the news of the effects of the Bay Bridge’s collapse on battery-powered tv’s on street corners. Everywhere, the invisible bridge from self to other was suddenly appearing and being crossed. But because this sudden love of all humanity for each other was so magical-seeming and could really not be named, the community gradually succumbed, after about two weeks, to the fictional hope that we could “return to normal”. Return to normalcy, the very death knell of the magical oneness that had arisen out of the sea like Atlantis, was announced by the Mayor and welcomed by all, supposedly, as we all secretly, resignedly, returned to reciprocal isolation. As the Bay Bridge was repaired, the spiritual bridges gradually disappeared.

What takes place internally in the collective consciousness when this kind of return to normalcy occurs may properly be called a slippage, in the sense that the bioenergetic, psychospiritual “substance” that had been holding us together gives way to the gravitational pull of the legacy of fear of each other, congealed in the weight of our bond with and loyalty to prior generations, pulling us back toward separation. In just the way that a fabric can first begin to fray and then begin to unravel and then give way altogether, so the confidence holding together the new movement-generated political garment can begin to weaken at its weakest points and inwardly we can all start to slip away from each other until “we” finally let go altogether and don’t exist anymore as a real “we,”, except for sharing the memory that has been laid down in each of us that will provide some strength to support the risks of future climbs. When I say that this slippage takes place internally in the collective consciousness, what I mean is not that each of us individually comes to doubt that, for example, the earthquake community transfigured and transcended the normal community of “being San Franciscans,” but rather that the doubt that we can sustain our community spreads through us socially or “inter-subjectively” from one to the other like an unraveling fabric. And when the media actually announces that “the Mayor says we have returned to normal,” all at once we each get the impression that everyone else has, so to speak, deserted us, to use a dramatic but emotionally accurate term. Or to shift back from the earthquake example to the civil rights movement, when “the law” announces on behalf of the community as a whole that the movement has succeeded because discrimination in public accommodations has been prohibited, it seems necessary to put the aspiration to love across our racial differences on the back burner. The we that had affirmed the necessity of a loving and caring world has apparently, according to the law, given way to a we that defines our own victory as a return to separation, but without discrimination. “Hurray, the system worked”—meaning a) there is a “system” that is a fixed thing that “we” are each a part of and together constitute, and b) “it” worked in a way that purports to be exactly what we were calling for with all of our moral voice (but isn’t).

Grasping this slippage as a weakening of Being itself, we can describe what takes place in precise terms as follows: in the movement’s rising, you and I and others extending outward as a vast and forming interhuman latticework come into a mutuality of presence, thrilling but tentative in its newness, that because of its newness has not yet come to know itself in reflection. The power of this presence temporarily emulsifies the images of self and other that had previously encapsulated us and allows us to suddenly stand in true relation to each other in a mutually centered experience of true mutual recognition—suddenly the bridges between us become visible and we spontaneously cross them and we are here. But co-existing within each of us and both and all of us is the density of the selves we have always been—thick, learned, seemingly eternal and designated in reflection as real because they always had been communicated to us as real, like a thing. In other words, the way we have been conditioned-in-separation initially through the family and then the schools and life on the street and in the workplace and then in the new families we were creating have been installed within our sense-memories as images to which the word “I” has been attached, declaring that image-self to not only be what has been cast onto me, but also to be who I really am. The movement has revealed this conviction to be false—that that other self is not who I really am but only a collection of images cast over my outside—but because this spiritual awakening anchored in true and sudden interhuman recognition of one another has been so new and fragile and not yet able to be understood and named in reflection and intentionally reproduced as a way forward for life, because of that ontological fragility, we cannot yet resist the pull of the legacy of our conditioning, that lifetime of accreted absence internalized as images of self and other, to which we are loyal and which also declares itself to be real. 

This world of the inherited images of self and other collectively internalized not as images but as apparent realities to which we have pledged unconscious allegiance are what I mean by “the State.” As a collective political identity, being in the State means apprehending oneself as “an other for the other” among a collection of others that calls itself “We”, as in “We the People.” In this state of otherness, we are not actually ourselves, but rather are observers in a hologram, in which each of us is also one of the observed, one of the people “in” an abstraction, “American society”. Withdrawn into ourselves, we think we are “out there in the group,” one of the citizens of the State in the United States of America. But actually we are merely watching this as a spectacle because our true being is locked within, sealed in its separation from others because those others are also manifesting themselves as withdrawn others-for-the-other. And within that internalized mentally-pictured tableau, I “am” this or that role within the accretion of absence (since we are actually collectively withdrawn from each other until some circumstantial spark, the earthquake or a rising social movement, lifts us from our absence into each other’s presence). Within this other-directed world of the State, we do of course experience actual emotional connection to others to the extent that the fear of prior generations is partly counterbalanced by the residue of true human contact that forms the erotic subtext of the community.  But we nevertheless—in this condition I’m calling the State—inter-exist predominantly in the realm of images of self and other in which we are substantially derealized while pretending to be real: derealized in the sense that, for example, we have no difficulty killing each other in massive numbers such as the 80,000,000 people “we” killed in World War II. 

III

The dilemma posed by the mutually withdrawn nature of existing in the State as our political community was revealed to us on a daily basis during the presidency of Donald Trump. During those four years, “President Trump” as he was called within the State consciousness would engage in daily acts of lunacy, the most extreme of which might have been recommending injecting bleach to treat the coronavirus, but also using his twitter account to rave about, say, all Democrats hating the Jews, or insulting his political opponents with demeaning nicknames, or threatening to start a nuclear war with a foreign leader one day and then scheduling a “majestic” media-fetishized lunch with him full of pomp and circumstance and deemed to be “wonderful” the next, or indifferently caging children at the border, or on a regular basis seemingly firing staff while entrusting important matters to seemingly random family members. During this four-year period, quite a long time, “we” were in a state of continual upset—enraged, impotent, depressed, hopeless, wringing our hands. But what these emotions really reflected was our double-experience of being on the one hand withdrawn from one another and unable to act in concert, paralyzed by our separation engendered by our mutually withdrawn condition, and yet also cemented together inside the false “We” of being one of the citizens of “the country” of which Trump was the president. While “we” were existing wholly within the State as our political community, each of us suffered our existence in perpetual otherness not emanating from our center, the center of our actual collective being, but rather unified from the outside through our other-identity in the State. We were condemned by our separation to be included within an imaginary collective being run by an off-the-rails person whom no one could do anything about. One of the most extraordinary facts accompanying this collective situation was that for four years “President Trump” was the sole person in possession of the nuclear codes with which he could have theoretically killed every person on the planet. While it may be that the Joint Chiefs of Staff or some other military group had a secret plan to prevent this from occurring, even if this were true it only points up how much “mad” behavior was permitted short of such a catastrophe on a daily basis because “we” all existed together, as a “we” committed to the president’s legitimacy through his election by “the others” via the Electoral College, and yet utterly isolated from each other and so unable to change our situation. The bridges connecting self to other, here, there, and everywhere, as loving moral beings, were all drawn up, and in their drawn-up state left each of us to be surrounded by a moat of separation, the separation of universal otherness masquerading as a We.  Thus condemned to our separation, we could do little but bemoan “our” situation on a daily basis with a kind of resigned depression suffusing our moral environment. To the extent that we identified our communal existence with being-in-the-State, we were all “trapped in the same We” as Trump and his supporters, and could seemingly do nothing about it. If you were from New Zealand, you might have been appalled, but you wouldn’t have been depressed because you wouldn’t have been American, wouldn’t have been trapped in the same We.

There is a way out of this debilitating situation, however, and that is to realize that our collective existence as a political community is not defined by our position “in” the State, that this position as “the citizen of the country” in which our we-ness is defined by the collective act of annual voting is merely an artifact of our historical conditioning-in-separation. If we instead grasp our collective existence as an expression of the great international movement upward of our collective Being itself, that great moral force within humanity and perhaps the universe itself that is evolving toward loving mutuality and affirmation and presence to one another, then we recover ourselves from being lost out there in the State and experience ourselves as perpetually here together on the side of the movement, exerting ourselves toward elevating each other into being…exerting ourselves into elevating each other, through mutual recognition, out of our withdrawn space that is the legacy of our alienation, and into each other’s presence that is the grace of our redemption.  The foundation of this kind of movement-identification is the historical force of all the movements that have preceded the present moment whose moral integrity supports us from underneath our collective Being itself and is manifested in the present moment in millions of particular incarnations across the world. And our own neighbors across the hall, wherever we are, or next door if we live in a separate house, are secretly longing for us to help lift them into this reciprocity of presence that will rescue them from their own isolation.

If we can enter this rising psychospiritual field, which supports us as a rising historical force whose legacy includes in just the last two hundred years the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the LGBTQ movement, the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, and so many other incarnations of the great upward force of love for one another manifested in an infinite number of particular forms, then we can refrain from losing ourselves in the internally contradictory and paralytic “we” of the State, and make ourselves present to each other as the transcendent We that we long to be in our hearts. From this, two things follow:

First, we should understand electoral, legislative and other efforts within the (for the time being) false-we of “the State” to always be both an effort to accomplish practical goals, such as universal health care, and transcendent movement goals such as manifesting truly caring about each other’s health. We should resist the mistake of allowing the condition of mutual separation in the State as a scattered collection of citizens to define the meaning of our own aspirations within the movement—a mistake which in the case of universal health care would mean setting up a mere “system” of insuring the repair of each other’s physical bodies. As one incarnation of the movement toward a loving world of which we are each a rising expression, universal health care is an aspect of the realization of love for one another and our parents and grandparents and friends and truthfully all of humanity. While the actual carrying out of this care for one another may take the form of an insurance program mediated by money, its meaning need not be defined by the flat concept of health insurance, but rather can and should be evoked and carried out as something that brings us together as a loving community. Or to put this slightly differently, the electoral and legislative effort can and should embody the evocation of the transcendent meaning that animates it, rather than allowing the meaning to be defined by the reproduction of separation and reciprocal otherness that is the image reflected back in existing State-consciousness. Like the civil rights victory that doesn’t address our separation but only banishes racial discrimination from it, the achievement of universal health care, if it is not reflected back to us as the realization of our interhuman bond, may simply return us—in the legal mirror that is like the funny mirror at the amusement park—to the very condition of mutual otherness that we are trying to overcome through achieving it. It would still be a good thing in the sense that it would institute a program that objectively manifests our obligation to repair each other’s physical bodies, but it would also place us in the paradox of converting the bond of true social caring for one another into a mere externalized “government program” as if that’s what we intended and wanted.

Second, we should understand that over the longer term our aim can and should be to transform the State itself so that the public manifestation of our political community in day-to-day life, embodied in our understanding of the government, is also a manifestation of the sense of community being born in the movement. This is to say that over the long term we can and should aspire to transforming the State itself so that we no longer conceive of ourselves as discrete citizen-individuals “watching” the collective as a hologram outside of us from our reciprocally withdrawn spaces, but rather experience and understand ourselves as interconnected beings working to realize our love for one another through the ongoing practice of our political community. We may then come to see ourselves as gradually, across generations, building a bridge from the “we” of the movement that is being born to the “we” of the State that is itself being transformed by that birth. This second larger objective can only be accomplished through the work of the first—through the collective building up of a new collective consciousness of who “we” are that enters our reflective awareness through the meaning we publicly give to each electoral and legislative victory. An example of this effort is the work of the Project for Integrating Spirituality, Law, and Politics, which on the one hand advocates for transformative approaches to law, like restorative justice and transformative mediation, incorporating the goal of mutual recognition of one another’s authentic humanity through law; and on the other supports the expansion of liberal rights-victories in the existing socially-separated State paradigm while giving these victories of labor, women, communities of color, and sexual minorities a loving and communitarian meaning. The Project’s longer-term goal is the transcendence of the liberal model of the socially-separated We altogether, but this longer-term objective requires holding this double-consciousness infused by the loving energy of the movement as a way of doing the actual work over time of crossing the bridge from one “we” to another. In this way, eventually, we may succeed in evolving the State itself into a manifestation of the interior bond with one another that is discovered through the movement’s rising, which will represent the movement finally becoming confident of itself with sufficient moral certainty to make its interior loving bond non-coercively binding upon itself through the political self-reflection of the State. 

At the same time that we pursue these two interrelated idealistic goals, we must be aware of the inevitable tension between the transcendental aspirations of the movement as a rising force of human connection and the State as a legacy tending to reproduce our separation. While we must constantly evoke and advocate for the universal transcendent meaning of our particular social change and social justice efforts, we should not expect our elected representatives to instantly bring about the realization of that transcendent meaning so long as success within the State arena—which is the arena of partially alienated consciousness—requires the support of those who have not yet embraced that transcendent meaning (including many of the representatives’ own constituents). To the extent that we succeed in building a movement that publicly manifests our love for one another as a political force and as at the heart of the meaning of our political actions, to that extent we can call upon our own candidates and representatives to evoke and stand for those higher aims. But to the extent that those candidates and representatives can only win victories by straddling the transcendent and the practical, we should continue to support them and their efforts while always working to help them elevate their discourse and transformative intentions. The bridge from the we of the movement to the we of the State won’t be built at all if we don’t understand the necessity of fundamentally transforming the way we are reflected back to ourselves in the way we evoke and represent our political community and the meaning of our own political activism, but it won’t be built in a day in any case and so our long-term strategy must make room for the indirection that a mountain climber practices in climbing to a summit that she cannot proceed to directly. One always places one’s anchoring pick that is the source of one’s leverage at the summit, but force of circumstances including the force of resistance to the climb requires intuitively grasped sidesteps and pauses to assure success in getting to the top.

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