Many years ago, my family was needing to purchase some supplies for an upcoming camping trip. So, we went to one of those giant outdoor outfitters in hopes of getting good prices on what can sometimes be rather expensive gear. Along the back wall of the store stood a 20-foot climbing wall. Now, twenty-something years ago, climbing walls like that were still a bit of a novelty and my oldest two kids, who were roughly five- and eight-years-old at the time, were all excited about giving it a try.
Being adventurous parents who encouraged such activity, we signed the necessary paperwork and watched carefully are our children were strapped into the harnesses and given explicit instructions to only climb to the blue line that marked the half-way point. The expectation on everyone’s part was that the climb was difficult enough, and the children were small enough, that climbing ten feet would be sufficient.
The kids started their trek upward and after watching for a minute, long enough for us to be sure they were reasonably safe, we went on about our shopping, happy that they would be occupied for a while. We were a few feet away, considering the merits of folding cots versus hammocks when we heard the annoying sound of an air horn declaring that someone had made it to the very top of the climbing wall. Looking up, we saw the smiling face of our five-year-old, sitting on top of the wall, smiling and waving.
To say that both we and the store’s employees were shocked that the child had scaled the wall so quickly would be an understatement. He climbed back down on his own as well, rather than being lowered in the harness. When asked why he hadn’t stopped at the blue line as instructed, he said, “It wasn’t that hard, really. Once I started, I just kept climbing.”
Of course, there was a mix of congratulations and admonition. While he had done something impressive, he had broken rules to do it. And then, I looked over at his older brother who wasn’t smiling. He had done exactly as he’d been told. He climbed to the blue line and then let the guide lower him. No one was congratulating him. I knelt down, gave him a big hug, and assured him that what he had done was just as important as what his brother had achieved. We emphasized that just because he hadn’t climbed to the top didn’t mean he was any less special. He had done well and had done it without breaking the rules.
One of the places where I fear we fail with our children and society, in general, is that sometimes we make such a big deal out of climbing mountains that we overlook the fact that there may be better alternatives to making that effort and potentially putting ourselves in danger. We all face challenges and struggles in life, but we don’t all have to treat them as mountains to be conquered. It’s okay to play it safe, to take a different path, or not climb the mountain at all. We need to re-examine what motivates us to climb mountains and take a serious look at the alternatives. Not only may it make our lives easier, but we may also live longer.
Everybody’s Climbing Mountains
The metaphor of climbing mountains as a symbol for overcoming the struggles and challenges permeates our society. For old farts my age and older, you’re likely to remember the final song in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, “The Sound of Music,” in which the Abbess challenges the Von Trapp family to “Climb ev’ry mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow until you find your dream.” The song is beautiful and many people have found it inspiring.
A little more recently, it was only back in 2009 that a young Miley Cyrus sang,
There’s always gonna be another mountain
I’m always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I’m gonna have to lose
Ain’t about how fast I get there
Ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side
It’s the climb
An entire generation of little girls took that song as gospel, and I have to admit that its lyrics are not incorrect. Mountains and mountain references are all over contemporary music. The Allman Brothers sang, “Everybody’s Got A Mountain to Climb.” In 1972, Aretha Franklin sang the gospel song “Climbing Higher Mountains” on her way to a Grammy award. John Denver sang on finding an epiphany in “Rocky Mountain High.” And Neil Sedaka mused that there always seemed to be “One More Mountain To Climb.”
Mountains have been important throughout history. For millennia, they were the ideal place to build a fortress because enemies were hard-pressed to get an opposing army close enough to do battle. Entire cities have been built in valleys surrounded by tall mountains because of the protection afforded by the lack of access. We look at mountains and see imposing structures of stone that form a barrier between us and where we want to go.
At the same time, mountains provide places of solitude for the same reason. Monks across the centuries have put their monasteries in the mountains so that they could worship and study in private with no interruption from external sources. As European settlers in North America pushed westward, many were quite content to settle in mountainous areas where they could clear out a small piece of land and spend the rest of their lives in solitude.
Mountains captivate our imagination. They challenge what we think we can do and in many ways have come to represent man’s determination to not let anything stand in the way. Mountains are those things we must conquer. We simply cannot stand the idea of there being a barrier we can’t find a way past.
But for every success story, there are plenty of failures.
When a dear friend, who is an adventurous person that enjoys caving and hiking and exploring on levels deeper than the average person, became engaged, she and her soon-to-be husband planned on spending their honeymoon in Nepal, climbing Mount Everest. They were going to begin their marriage by scaling the tallest mountain in the world together. Then, the pandemic hit, tourism to the country and the mountain was halted, and they had to make other plans.
Officially, there have been more than 300 people die attempting to climb Everest through 2019. Many of the bodies of people who died are still there, frozen forever because it’s too dangerous to retrieve them.
Climbing anything presents a certain level of risks, but the higher we go the greater those risks become and since mountains are the highest structures we have on this planet they also represent the greatest amount of risks. Studies of the causes of death in climbing accidents range from things such as anchor failures in toprope climbs to exposure, rappelling errors, not wearing a helmet, and getting off course, in addition to being surprised by the weather, getting caught in an avalanche, and inadequate protection.
In an age where we can just as easily fly over the mountains or drive around them, what is it that possesses us with the need to continue to climb, to prove our ability to conquer, to exert our dominance over nature? Are we doing it for the adrenaline rush? Or is there a more spiritual push that compels us upward? And are we any less human if we politely say, “no thank you,” when asked to join someone on a climb? Where do we get this need to scale things?
Religiously Influenced Perspectives
I think one of the reasons mountains are such a strong emotional reference is their place in religious folklore. Mind you, I’m not necessarily referring to actual scripture, though there are plenty of mountainous references there as well. It’s the pseudo-religious tales that get us. Who hasn’t seen comics of someone climbing a mountain, looking for the wisdom of a sage yogi, only to be disappointed with the advice? Booming voice references, mountain pilgrimage references, and others dotting the background of popular culture skirt around the fringes of religion without getting too factual.
When we look deeper into religious texts, though, we see they place a lot of importance on mountains. If we get past the whole Muhammed and the mountain thing, which is a variation of a Turkish tale retold by Francis Bacon, we find the Quran talks of Allah having set the mountains to stabilize the earth. Yet, in other places the Quran says the mountains will disappear, completely vanish, referencing how nothing is permanent. In another place, the prophet describes the Rainbow Mountains in China without having ever been there. Mountains throughout Islam stand as a reference for the towering strength and power of Allah and through time have become objects of worship.
Within Buddhism, the metaphorical references to mountains are myriad and often come paired with parallel references to water. Zen masters may refer to themselves as mountains, meaning that their education and learning are never complete. Ancient texts also refer to “verdant mountains” as walking on water and giving birth. These are not literal references, but metaphors for growth, change, and impermanence.
Hindus believe that Shiva lives on Mount Kailash and the name Pavarti, who is Shiva’s spouse, means “daughter of the Himalayas.” The North Indian mountain range holds many places of pilgrimage for faithful Hindus and there are other mountains throughout the country that hold religious importance as well.
Within the Abrahamic tradition, though, one of the earliest and strongest stories of the importance of mountains comes in the account of Abraham taking his son Isaac into the mountains to be sacrificed to god. While this story seems barbaric by modern terms, that a deity would even dare to suggest that a life must be taken to appease him, it was a common religious practice among the desert nomads several millennia ago. Of course, the “miracle” of the story is that just as Abraham is about to kill his son, he looks over and finds a suitable lamb stuck in a thorn bush.
In the Xian gospels, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a “high mountain” where he meets with the prophets Elijah and Moses, and his clothes become “whiter than any laundry could bleach them.” When Peter suggests that three tabernacles be erected on the spot, the conversation is interrupted by a voice from the sky declaring Jesus to be the son of God and that they should listen to him.
What all these references have in common is that they establish mountains as a place where one can commune, either literally or spiritually, with something or someone greater than ourselves. Mountains separate us from daily life so we can focus and think on things bigger than ourselves, to ponder our challenges, our humanity, and the impermanence of life. As a result, from the earliest days of these religions, thousands of years ago, people began making treks not only to specific mountains but almost any mountain, struggling through the harshest of conditions, in an effort to somehow sanctify themselves and become closer to their deity.
Over time, we lost much of the spiritual connotations to mountain climbing, looking at the activity more as feats of personal achievement, trophies of our own strength and determination. In a way, we’ve used them to turn ourselves into our objects of worship. We don’t climb mountains because of deity, we climb mountains because it shows how strong and cool we are.
At the end of the day, though, we’re still faced with the question: do we really need to be climbing any mountains at all?
Is There REALLY A Mountain?
I should probably make clear at this point that I’m not harping on those who climb things for sport or personal enjoyment. Within the boundaries of reason, it is safe, builds physical strength, and allows one to obtain a different perspective on the physical world. I’m not denigrating that aspect of climbing in any way.
What I think is dangerous, though, is how we transpose the metaphor of mountain climbing to how we deal with personal struggles, that we are somehow better people because we made it to the summit, we suffered through the ordeal, and we made it back alive. As a result, we go charging into situations that might have been avoided entirely had we taken a moment to find alternatives.
Within the realms of existential thought, David Mark and Barry Smith postulate that there is no mountain. They make an interesting argument that “individual mountains lack many of the properties that characterize bona fide objects” and “ mountains are not picked out as constituents of reality in their own right at all; rather they are just parts of the field of elevations whose gradients direct the direction of runoff and influence the intensity of erosion.”
In other words, the things we think are mountains are really nothing more than hills marked by years of erosion. What kind of erosion? Anecdotal tales of someone who supposedly approached this same hill and struggled. Those who stand at the base of such a hill with the attitude, “I’m not sure I can get past this.” There’s also erosion in discouragement of those who have never seen the hill at all but say things like, “I know I could never get over that.”
We’ve all likely heard the phrase “making a mountain out of a molehill.” The references in literature go back more than 350 years. When it comes to life’s challenges, I fear we make this error quite often and I know this as much from personal experience as any external reference.
A year ago this past week, I was visiting my doctor for a regular checkup and when the necessary blood tests came back the doctor made what seemed to be a grave announcement. My white blood cell count was excessively high and that I have leukemia. Despite his assurances that it is something that is now largely treatable and that the recovery rates are high, my mind immediately began creating a mountain that I was sure I would have to climb. I called my children. I messaged my brother. I was worried.
A couple of weeks later, though, I visited with an oncologist and was told that what I have is chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a form of the disease that, while weakening the immune system, is not in itself fatal. The doctor said, “This is something you die with, not die from.”
That mountain I had made was nothing more than a molehill. Sure, it’s an issue, one that requires quarterly blood draws and a quick exam to make sure it hasn’t escalated, but it’s not a huge ordeal that is going to require monumental effort and strength.
We also have a bad habit, I have a bad habit, of approaching challenges and seeing everything as a mountain to be climbed rather than looking at alternatives. If something glitches on my computer, for example, my immediate response is that it is something major and I’m going to be out hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars to resolve the problem. Almost always, though, the solution is unplugging the computer and plugging it back in. Alternatives abound in most situations if we bother to take the time to look for them.
Remember the friend I mentioned earlier whose honeymoon to Mount Everest was canceled? She and her husband took the time they had carved out for that trip and instead drove around the United States visiting places of interest they’d never been. While that trip was also partially limited to the late fall surge of the coronavirus, they still had a wonderful experience. They’ll likely visit Everest at some other time, but even if that opportunity never comes, they still have fantastic memories. We simply have to look for the alternatives.
Alternatives To Climbing That Mountain
Challenges in life are necessary. Without them, there would be no innovation, no exploration, no need for the levels of creativity in science and medicine. But if we stop looking at everything as insurmountable, we make our lives much easier to see challenges for what they really are. Some matters are more like marathons: a long path to a final goal. There may be a few hills along the way, but the solution is to keep running, keep doing the work, and by all means, stay hydrated.
Other challenges are more like trying to cross a river. When approached from one point, the water may seem too fast or too deep, or too wide. We have to find a place where the water is shallow, the footing is stable so that we can wade across. We don’t avoid the challenge as rivers are typically not something one can go around. We still have to get our feet wet. Yet, by crossing it in a different way, we minimize the risks and get to the other side with a lot less effort.
One of the primary attractions that has made The Big Lebowski the counter-culture second-tier classic that it is, would be that The Dude’s solution to the challenges he faces—the bowling league schedule, the rug, the kidnapping, the toe, the nihilists, and even Donny’s death—is to let things run their natural course. He doesn’t particularly avoid the challenges, but he doesn’t get too emotionally involved in solving them, either. He takes a bubble bath. He drinks a white russian. He smokes a joint. By the end of the movie, the problems have resolved themselves and life goes on pretty much as it was.
One of the things I learned this week is that lemons are not naturally occurring fruit. They are the result of not one but two blends of other species. Nature doesn’t create lemons and life doesn’t throw them at you. Lemons are totally objects of our own creation and so are the many mountains we think we have to climb.
I want you to engage in a brief mental exercise for me. If you are someone who thinks that life is nothing but one damn mountain after another, I’d like for you to consider the possibility that you might be a peakbagger. A peakbagger is “A mountain climber whose principal goal is the attainment of a summit, or a specific set of summits.” These are people who enjoy climbing mountains and when they’ve conquered one, they go looking for another. There are a lot of people who are emotional peakbaggers. If there’s not a challenge in front of them, something for them to conquer, to climb in dramatic fashion, they don’t know what to do with their lives.
While there’s nothing wrong with being a literal peakbagger, being an emotional peakbagger is a problem. You’re making bigger problems for yourself than you need. Life doesn’t have to be that hard. You don’t have to go from mountain to mountain.
In 1971, Neil Sedaka sang:
Hey Lord, won’t trouble never end.
Tell me, are you still my friend?
I got such a heavy load.
When will I reach that glory road?
One more mountain to climb;
One more river to cross.
I come such a long long way, and, still,
I got a long way to go.
Weary all of the time,
I’ve been tumbled and tossed;
There’s always one more mountain to climb,
And one more river to cross.
That we may have the impression that life is sometimes nothing more than a litany of one challenge after another is understandable. I came across a young mother this week who lost her stillborn son, her husband, and her brother all within a two-month time period. I can’t begin to imagine the struggles she’s having to endure. But my invitation to you is to consider the possibility that not every challenge we face is a mountain and not every mountain needs to be crossed. We can find other paths, we can let nature take its course and carry us through, or we can consider the possibility that, in some cases, there’s no mountain at all.
I’d like to leave you with these words:
As you live, may you see clearly
Challenges for what they truly are;
May you walk across hills
With pleasure in your soul;
May you ford your rivers
With wisdom in your steps;
May the paths you walk
Lead you to peace;
And may the decisions you make
Never fail to bring you love.
Where we pass the hat
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